By: Kandice Che
Hong Kong-based design duo Suzzie Chung and Phyllis Chan have known each other since they were 15. Both of them worked toward becoming designers, with Chung studying fashion at Hong Kong PolyU and Chan spending years as director of knitwear at rag & bone, but when a longing for home and burnout from their jobs brought them back together, it was time for them to realize their dreams of starting their own company.
Enter the new cool kid on the block, YanYan, or "everyone" in Cantonese, which reflects the duo's ethos of reimagining clothing and making it available for all. Inspired by the rich heritage of Hong Kong, their Chinese grandmothers and upcycling leftover materials, the two have placed sustainability and playful nostalgia at the brand's core. Here, we talk to the design duo bringing a whole new perspective to Maa Maa, or grandmother style, and how it thrives in 2021.
Tell us about the name YanYan—what does it mean, and how did the name come about?
Suzzie Chung: "YanYan" is the Cantonese pronunciation of "人人," which means "everyone." It reflects our company ethos of making thoughtful design-driven slow fashion: taking time to consider the processes of design and manufacturing and how they affect people, from the designers to the factories, to the connection with our customers. We wanted to choose a name in Cantonese to represent our heritage that was also easy enough for everyone to pronounce.
How did the two of you meet and decide to begin a company together?
SC: We met in high school when we were 15 through mutual friends and have been best friends ever since. We bonded over the same love for fashion, shopping, movies, art and design and dreamed of having our own company someday. We have quite compatible personalities when it comes to work and design.
Phyllis Chan: A few years ago, both of us felt burnt out from our jobs and the industry and had been working on some ideas we wanted to try out if we ever had the opportunity to have our own business. We coincidentally quit our jobs around the same time and just felt like all the chips were falling into place for us to try.
Why did knitwear become a preferred medium of choice?
PC: I had been a knitwear designer for my whole career. It wasn't an obvious choice for us until we had lunch with my old factory owner. She had joked that I had left her a big stock of leftover materials that she didn't know what to do with and then came out with a big binder of yarns that she had in stock. My first reaction was, "Oh no, what are you going to do with all of this?" Because no one wants to be confronted by the waste they've created. But Suzzie's reaction was, "Wow, this stuff is amazing! What can we make with this?" I had never really seriously prioritized how to use these materials at my last job and always felt like it was more burden than inspiration, which is probably how most designers feel about their leftover or "liability" materials. Working with Suzzie helps bring a new perspective to the materials we have.
SC: My background is in fashion graphic design, so my skills are flexible to integrate into different kinds of product design. I have always personally loved knitwear, as my grandma and mom are knitting hobbyists, so I was very excited about this new chapter in my career.
How does being based in Hong Kong influence your approach to design? What are some benefits? Any challenges?
SC: We usually start each collection with an idea or an experience, usually related to Hong Kong or our heritage. Our inspirations are pretty consistent, even though they can evolve during the season. Hong Kong has such a rich and interesting history. We like visiting old neighborhoods, local stores, Hong Kong museums and reading old comic books for inspiration. I think a lot of our inspiration comes from the idea of nostalgia—why something feels emotional or familiar and how we can present that without the clothing looking vintage. We often get feedback from our customers that a particular piece reminds them of something their mom or relative once wore. It's very heartwarming to share that experience and motivates us a lot!
PC: One of our biggest challenges is creating knitwear that we can wear in Hong Kong. It is pretty warm here most of the year, and there's a tiny window to wear chunky "classic" sweaters, so it's fun (and challenging) finding the right techniques and weights to create our product. Plus, we are always trying to figure out how to reappropriate our yarns.
But really, the best thing is sharing an office with our factory's Hong Kong team (the same woman that inspired us to start our company!). You can learn so much working so closely with manufacturing, like understanding what can and can't be done, how to improve a process, how to turn something around efficiently or pushing the techniques to create something new.
Who is the YanYan wearer?
SC: The YanYan wearer is thoughtful, quirky, curious and open-minded. They appreciate the details in our clothing as well as our story and are interested in where their clothing comes from. Some of our customers come to us because they are interested in the "leftover" materials aspect and really love to engage with us regarding the techniques or how to care for their clothes.
What do you hope someone feels when they wear one of your designs?
PC: We design our clothing to be very comfortable and for each piece to look and feel very special. We want each of our items to feel like it's worth the investment because money, labor, heart and materials are all precious and valuable. We hope our pieces can be revisited again and again and bring joy every time.
YanYan is known for putting a contemporary spin on Maa Maa, or grandmother style. Could you tell us what your own grandmothers were like? What did you learn from them—their personal style and how they lived their lives—and how does that show up in your designs?
PC: Our grandmothers survived the war and escaped to Hong Kong in the '50s, and women from their generation really appreciate and value the everyday. My father's mother left me her old cheongsams and saamfu (home clothes) and shared stories about her life and our family. I think I learned the value of workmanship from her, looking beyond if something was "pretty" and appreciating how much work and labor it took to make something.
SC: My grandfather passed away when my mom was young (she is the fourth of six children), and they were very poor. My grandmother was very frugal and took multiple odd jobs to support her children, extended family and even neighbors in need. She set an excellent example for us not to be wasteful and to face adversity with determination. Knitting was a great hobby of hers, so in a way, I think it comes full circle that I cofounded a knitwear company. Like many older ladies in Hong Kong, she liked to wear twinsets in fun prints like floral, paisley and polka dots; and she would mix in hand-me-down pieces, so her style was very eclectic. She definitely influenced my love of print and color!
How do you continue to challenge yourselves as designers?
PC: I think every designer desires an audience—a customer that will appreciate their hard work and their vision—and when it happens, it is a real privilege and responsibility that we should not take for granted. We have to keep pushing the quality and design and point of view while being considerate of the person paying for the item. I want to keep celebrating the materials and techniques we use.
SC: We prioritize integrating leftover materials in every collection, but it's easy dealing with yarn colors from very different seasonal palettes. It's crucial that we design our palette where old and new yarns can sit well together. Sometimes, it's hard to imagine leftover materials as something different from the original product, so we have to work hard to reinvent the style and find refreshing ways to combine yarn textures and colors. The process is quite rewarding for us, especially when we use up yarns that have been sitting in our factory for years.
What parts of this journey have surprised you? Where do you hope it'll take you?
PC: I think I was surprised by how open and appreciative people are toward our more "ethnic" designs. It makes me happy to share this part of my heritage without feeling like there is cultural appropriation. I was also surprised by how interested people were in our story of leftover materials; it's wonderful that there is such a growing market of designers and craftsmen who are reappropriating materials to create new things.
I hope our story will inspire brands to revisit and challenge how they approach materials and labor and how they work with their designers and craftsmen. I hope this will also encourage customers to appreciate the work that goes into each piece of clothing and see that no matter the cost, there is always a human being on the other side of that garment.