When we spoke to Chinese designer Samuel Gui Yang in April, he had just completed the prestigious MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins. He spoke of cross disciplinary projects and taking his practice on the road, and half a year later, we’re happy to learn he wasn’t just kidding: presenting his SS16 collection with a site-specific installation in a local LA gallery this evening, featuring boots encased in ice and a performance by choreographer Milka Djordevich, Samuel defies all conventions of the start-up design landscape by taking his show on the road. We caught the designer prior to his performance to get the down-low.
Samuel Gui Yang is clearly nervous as he picks up the phone from a gallery in downtown LA a few days before the opening of his show. Not to speak with us of course, but rather due to the immense amount of work that needs to be done before his big launch on the coming Saturday. “It’s the first one, so of course I’m nervous,” he laughs restlessly, “but it’s not like I have a choice now – it’s going to go ahead anyway.”
Originally from Shenzhen on the Southern coast of China, Yang completed both a BA and MA in Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins. Over the course of his education, he developed a distinct approach to his design process, approaching fashion like an expanded creative practice that encompasses a variety of media, and resembling above else that of an art practice. Central to his work is a fascination for the human body, which manifests in his ambitious experiments with rubber and other materials that produce a certain tension on the body. “I try to see fashion differently; I’ve always wanted to take a different point of view, more artistic and more like an art form,” he reflects. “I always found it more inspiring to start making collections in that way.”
After graduating, Samuel went straight on to work on developing his practice – not in the conventional way of setting up a studio and founding a brand, but more to keep learning, experiencing and communicating with the creative scene around him. “I’d like to choose a city, go there for a week and a half, find a location and then set up a project collaborating with local people,” he summarises the strategy behind his project. “It’s a way of using multiple medias not just from fashion. For me, it’s all about expressing visual languages, also it’s a way to build up a community and meet people whom I find interesting and that I want to collaborate with.”
“I try to see fashion differently; I’ve always wanted to take a different point of view”
“I was interning at Alexander Wang in New York and was really enjoying America,” he says as he explains his path to Los Angeles. “I decided I wanted to set something up in America. I thought, ‘why not work with dance and performance’, and for that LA just seemed ideal.” He was immediately attracted to LA for its “many cultural layers,” its diverse creative scene and the overall feel of the city. It was when he was shown around the city by local friends that he was introduced to Milka Djordjevich, a performance artist and choreographer who, similarly to Samuel, works across disciplines and media to interrogate the human body. “We realised we were so connected and that we share exactly the same visual language even though we’re from different fields,” he says enthusiastically. Over the course of the summer, Samuel would be designing his collection in London while she was rehearsing in LA, and they would conduct Skype meetings once a week to track their progress.
He describes his newest collection as a continuation of the ongoing investigation into the tension of rubber, which began to occupy him in his final year of MA. He didn’t expect to maintain such an excitement to work with this particular material, but it seemed perfect as he started thinking about his LA project. “For me, this material is so connected to the LA vibe,” he argues: “LA city is such a body-conscious city, and everyone has such a perfect body. It almost feels like they want to form themselves after certain looks, and this rubber kind of gave me the same feeling.” He discovered a type of particular jelly yarn and transformed it into modern knitwear, looking for a more easy-going and wearable silhouette compared to his rather abstract MA collection. When manipulated, the rubber curves beautifully around the body, but still always slightly in disharmony.
With such a cross-disciplinary launch of his eponymous label, Samuel Yang has set the tone for a practice that takes a rather different strategy than your traditional designer brand, resembling more that of an art practice than anything else. His approach to his designs is like that of an open, project-based studio practice, where the dialogues between collaborating creatives inform the design as it develops. Yang has long given up the typical London start-up strategy of setting up a studio, showing at Fashion East, securing reliable stockists and slowly building up a sustainable business. It was never the goal to have a big business, Yang reveals, and besides, he “doesn’t know much about that buying system anyway.” However, Samuel doesn’t consider his choices as a rejection of the standard graduate strategy, rather he takes his decisions for more personal reasons. “Imagine, I just came from school,” he explains: “Central Saint Martins was such an amazing environment with so many different media: graphics, products, accessory, performance, etc. I have friends who are all in different fields. After leaving university, I wanted to keep up that atmosphere. I still want to communicate with people who are in different fields, not just in fashion.” Cross-disciplinary collaboration becomes a strategy for Samuel to communicate and learn, while launching his label in an innovative and radical way. “It would be quite sad if I had to come home and have to just focus on making a collection, production, selling clothes, because that’s not me,” he adds: “I have so many different interests and like so many different things.”
Nonetheless, Samuel still considers himself a designer, “just collecting different things, welcoming them and making them happen.” The idea of having a label is still a priority for him, but it has to be on his own terms. Rather than securing a regular set of buyers, Yang plans to sell his garments directly from a personally-run webshop, opening soon. “In that way, people can purchase it straight from me: I will make it in my studio and send it out to people who are interested in my clothing. I want to do a small amount of pieces and start slowly,” he says. With this strategy, communication between the designer and the customer is shortened, fitting perfectly into Samuel’s attempt to make fashion much more personal, visceral and intimate again. “I want people to straight away communicate with me, and give me feedback. That’s the ideal,” he says. “I want people to when they see my brand, see me. I want the customer buying my clothes to get a feeling of me as a person, not just buying from a shop. There, they wouldn’t even know my name, not even know the story behind it.”
The fast-approaching performance is all that Samuel Gui Yang is currently concerned with, but there are already talks of the next stop in his touring fashion ensemble. “I have a vague idea now, but I’m waiting for that to lock down. It’s nothing really 100% sure to be honest, but I do think I want to explore another city.”