They say the eyes are the window to the soul. If that’s true, the pristine picture boxes exposing glimpses into Luly Yang’s downtown Seattle store are the eyes. Not only do they allow passersby insight into the artistic mind of our iconic fashion designer, they also reflect back the caressing scene of the environment she calls her muse.
Yang — whose ancestral tree includes architects, engineers, artists, and musicians — draws inspiration from what surrounds her. Her fashion career began famously with The Monarch Dress, a butterfly reimagined as an evening gown. Yang had been working as a graphic designer in 1999, when she participated in a charity fashion show that paired designers with paper companies. The experience “reawakened” a passion for fashion design, and a year later, she launched her independent label.
It’s been almost 20 years now, and Yang continues to have a creative love affair with the Pacific Northwest, describing her design style as a “modern interpretation of nature.” On a technical level, she blends traditional couture with some high-tech fabrics to create designs that are beautiful and functional.
“I see it as a style that we’re evolving into, especially growing up on the West Coast and (in the) Northwest,” she said. “I think designers usually take inspiration from what’s around them, and I continue to take inspiration from nature. That’s always been the case, but I want to interpret it differently now with technology and high-performance fabrics that aren’t usually used in couture. I want to make a hybrid of the old couture and the new couture.”
Yang’s brand is all-encompassing, with ready-to-wear essentials, accessories, a signature collection, and a luxury travel line currently in the works that maximizes style and comfort. But one aspect of her label that feels particularly magical are her couture designs. Couture is the fashion industry’s moniker for handmade, meaning a garment is completely custom- and hand-crafted.
Yang is an artist. She takes lifeless rolls of fabric and turns them into living organisms that have a symbiotic relationship with the human form. It starts with a pencil sketch on semi-transparent paper during an in-depth conversation with her client. She takes into consideration their style and comfort level with certain fabrics. Is the garment for an intimate dinner for two, or a statement gown befitting an on-stage performer? Next the pair look at fabrics and colors. If a fabric or pattern doesn’t exist, Yang’s team has it made. The palette of possibilities is endless.
She sources materials from the top fabric mills around the world, including France and Italy. This is where the old-meets-new comes in. Yang said Italian millers are “fabulous at textile technology in luxury goods,” and can blend natural materials — like silk, wool, and cotton — with man-made materials — like nylon — to make a new fabric.
From start to finish, a piece could take three months or upward of a year to go from conception to creation and can take anywhere from three to seven seamstresses to hand-stitch the fabric, craft the beading or embroidery, or incorporate feathers or lace. The price of such artistry is reflected. Custom bridal gowns range from $7,000 to $35,000, and other couture garments average $8,000 to $15,000.
Currently, Yang is working on a collection of garments for an opera singer to wear for her live performances. One of the gowns incorporates a fabric that looks like liquid gold, texturized with red roses sewn on top.
“We designed the garments around the whole performance, and what she looks like as she enters the stage and what side the entrance is on,” Yang said. “We take all of the stage into consideration as well as the size of the hall. … For the stage, the volume (of a dress) can be larger, the train can be longer, and the gold and reflective materials can be brighter, because it’s seen from afar.”
The true elegance of Yang’s work is expressed when she’s working hands-on with a client, draping fabric on her body to build an outfit. She’s pensive. Her hands smooth and shape fabric, and she fastens silver pins as placeholders. All of a sudden, an outline becomes a picture. This is her favorite part, and it’s easy to see when watching her work.
“I’d assume it’s similar to a painter as he’s going through the motions and creating layers of paint as he slowly sees it coming alive,” she said. “But it’s layering fabric, and you’re not doing it on a flat canvas but a living body. It feels like it grew on the body. It lives on the body. It’s not working against the body. Draping on a three-dimensional human form is one of the most creative aspects of my work.”
She’s making more than just clothes. It’s a process that can be hard to appreciate until seen with your own eyes. But once you do, you’ll realize she’s a poet, and a painter, a sculptor, an architect, and an engineer. Her orchestra is vast, and its notes are so beautiful.
She loves the variety of her work, from the uniforms she crafted for Alaska Airlines employees to her ready-to-wear to her couture clients.
“If I sum it all up, the one consistent thing I find the most rewarding is that I know I’m making a difference in the way people feel about themselves,” she said. “I feel that through design, I can elevate their confidence and their experience.”