story by Lisa Radano
photos by Adrianna Favero
Yeohlee Teng was born in Malaysia and has been an independent designer for over thirty years. She doesn’t supplement sales by designing underwear or making perfume. She uses quality materials and her brand doesn’t outsource work, it’s all made in New York. How she has survived for so long, remained sought after, won awards (Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design 2004), and kept relevant is a testament to her talent, intelligence, beliefs, and most of all her guts.
When you meet her she shakes your hand, hers is like a tiny bird – you glance down at it out of surprise, and when you look back up at her she has you in her fierce gaze. She may smile congenially, but it’s clear this is a woman who does not suffer fools, but she’s not unkind, just keen. Yeohlee believes passionately in what she does.
Her ingenious designs are inspired by the fabric and make the most of it, down to the last scrap. Serving form and function, and with patience, she arrives at the garment, which she feels endows the wearer with both magic and shelter. “Clothing, like food, is shelter. So you don’t want to depend on any overseas manufacturing. Keep it American. Keep it local.”
While fervently practical, dedicated to conservation, sustainability, her alchemical process turns out clothes that have both lightness and movement. The spare 16-look collection, shown in her shop, offered all the necessary pieces for a spring wardrobe. Pants, shorts, skirts, dresses, jackets and coats were all represented. There was a flowing watercolor print silk dress, a crisp white cotton sheath with asymmetric hem, a sharp black and white print suit with boxy cropped jacket and tight Capri pants and a translucent ¾ length raincoat, all of which were both simple and elegant.
The last passage had special occasion dresses trimmed in laser cut squares and flags, which fluttered like gossamer wings as the models breezed by. Yeohlee’s work is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection and Richard Martin calls her “one of the most ingenious makers of clothing today.” When I asked her how she managed to survive the rigors of being an uncompromised artist and artisan for so long in New York, her answer was as elegantly thrifty as her clothes. With a twinkle she said, “It ain’t easy.”