Une Yea’s approach to fashion is nothing like we’ve ever encountered before. Through her practice, she questions and criticises the excessiveness of fashion, its rooting in blatant consumerism and its inherent manipulative nature. Yet the Chinese RCA graduate sticks to the medium of design as a way to discuss the way we consider fashion today – and transcend it all with her radical vision.
Une’s preoccupation with fashion by no means comes from dressing dolls or reading her mom’s fashion magazines as a child. Instead, she was obsessing over science fiction, fantasising about fantastical existences and characters. “I prefer to imagine things that haven’t been made or a universe that doesn’t exist,” she explains over e-mail. Originally from Beijing, China, her father did ink painting and calligraphy, and despite their different aesthetic and inspiration, drawing became formative in Une’s childhood. “I found myself obsessed in drawing people much more than anything else. That’s why I enrolled in fashion and chose to work with human body.”
Une was admitted to the fashion course of Tsinghua University, where she was taught fundamental garment construction and how to use garments as a medium to express concepts. Rather than pursuing fashion trends, she took the chance to immerse herself fully into concepts and inspiration. “I was less concerned with fashion and style,” she recalls – “instead, I became very confident in pattern making.”
After graduating, Une took the decision to relocate to London to further her practice, and she enrolled at the Central Saint Martins Graduate Diploma program, directed by the notorious David Kappo. “David was the kind of tutor that would always challenge you, and want to make sure you felt confident with what you were doing,” Une explains, as she recalls the challenges of that year. “In CSM I had very hard time trying to twist my mind. I remember there was one tutorial when I was trying to convince David that I was going to make some sculptural structures on a garment, and that it would have a lot of meaning behind it. David simply asked me, “where is your fashion?” That’s when I started realising that there’s something more to fashion than just a concept. I worked really hard and things got better.”
“It’s always hard to say that ‘I’m doing fashion’ or that ‘I’m studying fashion. What I’ve learned and what I do can hardly be considered fashion: they are objects. I’m using garments as medium to carry forward a message.”
Overall, Une feels a general disengagement and political opposition towards fashion as an industry and its function within a larger political and economical system. “It’s aesthetics meets economy,” she argues, “‘fashion,’ as I see it, is endless desire producing a huge amount of waste.” She mentions a series of beautifully absurd images by photographer Alain Delorme depicting vehicles overloaded with stuff that needs transporting. “I suddenly realise that it’s so similar to our life. Commercial operations invent our desire and encourage us to purchase things. “I shop therefore I am”. I feel emptiness within that.”
As a radical cry of protest against the excessive abundance of fashion, Une Yea’s graduate collection was an exercise in opposing fashion as commodity, while insisting on using garments as a medium. She quotes Barbara Kruger’s mantra “Your Body is a Battle Field” and describes her presentation, which closed the 2015 RCA Graduate Show, as “a ceremony.” After a total black out, a series of seemingly self-hovering flaring hats, designed in collaboration with RCA colleague Li Qian, rose from the bottom of the stairs, alluring like a light bulb to insects, but still frightening, mysterious. These highly technical mechanical hats were paired with an all-white collection in paper, and the sounds of ruffling paper, small spinning engines and a soft trumpet tune in the background transcended the experience to something otherworldly altogether. “There can be violence in silence, but also activism,” she states. “And there is space for contemplation – everything slows down as if to ask: are you uncomfortable? Are you OK?”
“Commercial operations invent our desire and encourage us to purchase things. “I shop therefore I am”. I feel emptiness within that.”
Une’s completely radical and oppositional approach (not really suitable to many future job positions) didn’t happen overnight, of course, and didn’t come without any drama: she admits that there was a period of time where she felt the pressure of making something ‘nice’ that would get her a job and in that way manage to stay in London. But she decided to oppose the comfortable, and she remembers a moment of clarity after a conversation with Kappo. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to comfort the public anymore,’ – I went to the opposite way. In my collection, you’ll see stolen paper cloths, offensively short trousers and fragile accessory without real volume. Totally anti-functional: that’s my emotional reaction.” Zowie Broach, the new head of RCA Fashion was lenient with her wayward idea, and decided that she should close the show, and even invited her musician friend to deliver the soundtrack to the presentation. “She said she wanted to borrow my statement at the end, simply asking audiences, ‘fashion products are beautiful, but do we really need them?’”
“Zowie Broach said she wanted to borrow my statement, simply asking audiences, ‘fashion products are beautiful, but do we really need them?’”
Working with paper was far from easy, as the material is “soft and sharp” at the same time, and will always crease no matter the care given to it. “The crease is actually the best part of it,” she says – “every crease is so vivid, almost like footprint of your movement.” Furthermore, the material resembles patternmaking toile, which represents the infinite possibilities of fashion design. Paper is always already-wrinkled, you can never mess it up, only reshape, fold and pull: “Fashion wants to be precious—to add to its value. Not be already broken and impossible,” she says. Using the unconventional material was suggested by an engineer-student, and she has a profound appreciation for RCA’s technical capability and cross-over collaboration. “It’s mind-blowing,” she says.
Rather unexpectedly, Une did a 7-months internship at Giorgio Armani in between her graduate diploma and her MA – and she was surprised by the creativity and passion of the studio when she met her colleagues. “Mr. Armani is a living legacy: he believes that he has a great team and he trusts them. When we had fittings, he used his lovely Italian accent to ask me what I thought of his pieces. I was very flattered the first time, but later I understood that that’s how he’s working. He appreciates opinion from young people.”
Une Yea’s collection is the evidence of the breath-taking political and aesthetic ambition of London’s young graduate scene. Looking at the future, she insists on keeping an open mind with regards to projects, from collaborating with brands to doing performances. “It’s a crossover age. A general fact in fashion may inspire others,” she says. For the coming London Fashion week, she is organising an exhibition with her RCA-peer Zhujing Jiang entitled ABSENCE, that discusses fashion objects without the human body. “Do clothes and accessories belong to the wearers, a space, or themselves?” she asks rhetorically. “This exhibition is for anti-finished feel, the agency of objects and for utilising the illusion of the absence.” In a way, this vague description sums up the elusive oeuvre of Une Ya quite perfectly.