Samuel Guì Yang: Shifting the (Western) Narrative
Samuel Guì Yang graduated from the MA Womenswear course at Central Saint Martins in 2015, and started his own brand shortly after. From the beginning, his goal was to develop his business on his own terms. Rather than hop on the Fashion Week hamster wheel and join what he considers an “extremely saturated” industry, the Shenzhen-born designer decided on a slower approach. For the first two seasons, he even refused to sell his collections to buyers so that he could perfect the logistics and infrastructure of his brand before entering the market. Now, Samuel and his partner Erik Litzen — who joined the brand in 2017, fresh from Acne Studios and JW Anderson — are continuing that ethos. Rather than runway shows, the pair prefer intimate showroom presentations or immersive destinations (recent locations include Iceland and Los Angeles).
Samuel’s modern take on traditional Chinese folk dress, which he combines with figure-hugging Western tailoring, has granted him many fans in the growing Shanghai fashion scene. He presented his SS20 collection during Shanghai Fashion Week, with the support of emerging talent platform Labelhood, and his clothes are stocked in multiple influential shops across the city. AW20 continued to merge Eastern and Western influences in ‘Spellbound’, a collection inspired by Tsai Chin. A daughter of the famous Peking Opera star Zhou Xinfang, Tsai Chin left Shanghai in 1950, becoming the first Chinese student at London’s prestigious RADA acting school and the first Bond girl of Asian origin. Earlier this month, the brand was shortlisted for the 2020 LVMH prize, alongside Area, Ahluwalia and Peter Do.
Erik, you worked for other brands before Samuel Guì Yang. What motivated you to join the brand? How does working for an independent brand differ from larger companies?
I wanted to understand the bigger picture of fashion as a business and I had a feeling that my creativity could be used beyond design. I’ve been very lucky to have two quite different employers – Acne Studios and JW Anderson. During my time in the menswear team at Acne, I developed an understanding of product and designing with a clear brief and customer in mind, which I very much enjoyed. It is creatively and technically challenging to make a product that both inspires and works as a wardrobe piece.
On the other hand, JW Anderson was a very free and open environment for the design team. It is inspiring to work somewhere that encourages you to strive for newness and considers even the most unusual ideas with respect and openness. Samuel and I talked about working together for a long time. It was a gradual process, so the final decision to join full-time didn’t seem so big.
“It is creatively and technically challenging to make a product that both inspires and works as a wardrobe piece.”
What are the most challenging aspects of working together as a couple? How do you overcome those challenges?
Being a small company in a growing phase means that you will always feel one step behind and like you could do more. So it’s challenging to create a separation between work and free time. We easily fall into patterns where we have no time off at all. On the other hand, that means we can support each other and we get to experience a lot together. It’s a great feeling, seeing something we have cared for together grow and take on new forms. It brings a lot of stress and a lot of joy.
How connected do you feel to the London fashion scene, given how much you do in other cities? Why do you continue to base yourself in London?
London is our home and it is where we have our creative base. Even though we haven’t shown a collection during London Fashion Week, we are still firmly rooted in the city. We have long-term collaborators who are based here, like creative director Jasmine Raznahan, photographer Xavier Mas and stylist Lyson Marchessault. We also work closely with garment manufacturers Tower Garments and Jimmy’s Tailor, both of which are just 30 minutes from our studio. And our first ever stockist was Machine-A. London is welcoming to anyone who wants to claim it. It really is a multicultural society.
“Being a small company in a growing phase means that you will always feel one step behind and like you could do more. So it’s challenging to create a separation between work and free time.”
That said, Shanghai has become our second home – it is where we show our collections and have most of our retailers. We feel that the combination of these two cities, London and Shanghai, really match our vision and enhance our work.
How does the fashion scene in Shanghai differ from Europe? What should non-Chinese designers be aware of if they want to succeed there?
Shanghai Fashion Week is a new establishment. It comes with all the energy and growing power that youth maintains. It is different but also similar in many ways. If your point of view and products are well put-together, you will get a good response. The Chinese market is not just an easy add-on to Europe; you have to put the effort in.
“London is welcoming to anyone who wants to claim it. It really is a multicultural society.”
I think a lot of brands make a big effort to attract and please Western press and buyers and then expect that the Chinese equivalent will just follow. It’s always important to think about who you are addressing and what you would like to get back. Make sure the receiver feels they are part of a direct dialogue, rather than them listening in on a conversation being held somewhere else.
How do Chinese customers differ from European customers in terms of what they want to buy and how they interact with brands?
Generally, people would say that Chinese consumers are very savvy and tend to buy and interact with fashion online a lot, but it really depends. China is a big market with customer variations, just like Europe. We have found great support from our independent shop collaborators like Labelhood, Hug, Le Monde Shanghai, and Anchoret. They all have a deep understanding of their markets and know their customers very well. We always prioritise and cherish these collaborations and try to give them as much as we can, so the customers can be part of our story as a brand. We have the same experience with our partnerships in London.
“The Chinese market is not just an easy add-on to Europe; you have to put the effort in.”
You didn’t always reference your Chinese heritage in your designs, but it features quite heavily now. How has your relationship with your heritage changed since you started in fashion and why do you think it’s important to reference it now?
At college, my first collection was more abstract. It took me some time to find the right way to merge my own culture with Western fashion, which is the starting point in institutions like CSM. When I was a student, there were very few examples of Chinese designers. There were French, Italian, English and American designers. There was the Antwerp six and the Japanese influence of the 1980s. They were all prominent and seen as well-established schools of thought. But the world is still widening its perspective of culture and I am happy to give my own interpretation. It’s inevitable to reflect on your heritage as a designer.
“It is important to question the idea of the Western wardrobe as the default, where everything else is a cultural experience.”
Cultural appropriation is a big conversation in fashion. How do you feel when non-Chinese customers buy and wear your clothes (especially the ones with features like Mandarin collars or the Qi Pao silhouette)?
We don’t create our collections with only Chinese customers in mind. The Chinese dressing history is rich and full of ideas, to be enjoyed by anyone who takes an interest. It is important to question the idea of the Western wardrobe as the default, where everything else is a cultural experience. The Qi Pao silhouette, for instance, is a beautiful example of Chinese and Western dressmaking coming together. It has the Chinese signatures of the Mandarin collar, diagonal opening and high side-slits and Chinese fabrication, but the inspiration for the figure-hugging construction comes from Western tailoring.
You mentioned your close collaborations with the photographer Xavier Mas and the art director Jasmine Raznahan. How important are creative partnerships like these to your brand? Do you see your clothes differently through their lens?
It is very important. To find people that you can have direct and open dialogue with is crucial. Over time, they have both become dear friends and valuable part of our story as a brand. Last season, they travelled with us to Shanghai to work on a project that will be released in London in March.