Yeohlee in Conversation with Valerie Steele

Yeohlee’s Practical Magic

Yeohlee talking with members of the Couture Council

In this day and age — not to mention this special time of the year– it seems that everything is bigger, more in your face, and more excessive. Gaudy lights are all around; there’s the 74 foot, 12 ton Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center; the over-the-top auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s estate at Christies (, complete with baubles the size of tennis balls; and Lady Gaga’s attention grabbing, “look at me” windows at Barneys New York, just to name a few. But it’s reassuring to know that those things that don’t hit you over the head, are smaller scaled, more subtle, and less flamboyant, can be just as rewarding and appealing – if not more so.

Yeohlee black cape

Case in point, Thursday’s private presentation and conversation with Dr. Valerie Steele and Yeohlee Teng, an intimate gathering held at Yeohlee’s chic, small jewel of a shop at 25 West 38th Street, just off 5th Avenue, which was sponsored by the Couture Council of the Museum of FIT. Everything about Yeohlee’s year old 1400 square foot retail space (where she moved her offices, design room, and workroom to be conveniently situated upstairs) speaks volumes about her aesthetic, which is about as far from over the top or excessive as can be, but hardly lacking in drama or magic nonetheless.

The hour long event, which was immediately followed by a luncheon hosted by Couture Council board member Michele Gerber Klein, was first and foremost a shopping event, and invited guests (like WWD’s Bobbie Queen and 1st dibs’ Clair Watson) could walk through the store, try on selections from the fall 2011 collection (a study almost entirely in black, white, and gray), and place orders (30 % of all proceeds yesterday went to benefit the Museum at FIT). I was especially drawn to several jackets and coats, one fabulous black cape, two black hand knitted caps, and what has to be the chicest, most perfect black leather messenger bag on the planet.

Valerie Steele in her favorite Yeohlee coat

At one point, there was an intimate one-on-one conversation between Yeohlee and Dr. Steele, who was of course, decked out in her favorite Yeohlee black coat with signature crescent bottom (she was animated as she spoke about why she loves this, as well as her other cherished Yeohlee pieces that she’s collected through the years). FYI, I have the same awesome coat in a slightly different fabric (mine is waterproof nylon), and I couldn’t resist having the chance to tell everyone how I not only wear it as outerwear, but have turned it into a fabulous skirt. Talk about ‘practical magic’.

Forever chic black & white

Yeohlee is an award-winning, well-respected designer, who is perhaps best known for her innovative, beautifully fabricated, smart, well-thought-out, geometric, architectural designs that place a premium on function and practicality, and always keep the urban nomad in mind. During the course of her conversation with Dr. Steele, she reflected on her work, her inspirations, and her passions, referring to her clothing as “intimate architecture which can effect how you work and how you traffic through your space”. She also spoke about the “romance between the designer and the fabric” and admitted that her “core philosophy: is “wear it to death” (it helps “justify the cost”). She also reflected on the cape that initially put her on the map in the early 80s. When Dawn Mello, then Fashion Director of Bergdorf Goodman, saw it she immediately featured it in the store’s fall catalogue. How fast did they produce more? “We cut the order to the Flight of the Bumblebee,” Yeohlee deadpanned.

Patricia Mears with Yeohlee jacket & bag

Other loves? “I have this affection for one size fits all, unisex clothing that is weightless and packable”. The Museum at FIT’s deputy director Patricia Mears, also clad in a Yeohlee jacket, (an enviably chic hybrid of a bomber and baseball jacket) opined, “there’s no place you can’t wear this jacket”. She spoke of the first time she met the innovative designer, spoke of her love of that now famous Urban Nomad exhibition, and said that they “both share a love for the construction of clothing”. As she put it, “There aren’t a lot of designers who know how to make a garment from beginning to end”.

So, what’s on the horizon? Yeohlee said, “I like simple. The next phase is lasering. I’m lasering in order to make fabric really flat. What seems simple is really not simple”. I then asked, (since the fall collections are just a few months away), what Yeohlee is working on for fall 2012. She said she is “exploring color, texture, form, and density” (she is “loving fabrics that have a lot of density”). And as always, “I’m having a conversation with the circle…I can make endless clothes with that concept,” she offered. Most importantly, long an active and outspoken proponent for Save the Garment Center, she is passionate about “Made in the USA, Made in New York, Made in Midtown” (which is how she put it). And, she not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. Yeohlee is the first designer store to open in the District and it is a testament to Yeohlee’s commitment to the neighborhood. (Though she did admit that her fabrics will continue to come from all over the world and not just Europe).

Speaking of fabrics, it’s literally all about fabrics for this designer and Dr. Steele reminded us that Yeohlee was the first to put Teflon on a white blouse in order to make it practical. Yeohlee’s response, “The real unsung heroes are the ones who make the fabrics”.

She then continued, “It’s not just about price, It’s about magic”. “The fashion industry should be as important as the film industry in New York”. Clothes ARE important! It’s all about clothes. We all need to wear clothes. We all need to be covered and to be protected by our clothes.” At that point, I couldn’t help but recount to those in attendance, the famous ad for Barneys New York that aired on television quite awhile back. It’s shot in black and white, presumably showing a very young Barney Pressman on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. He is sitting on a stoop and a few of his young friends asked, “What are you going to do, Barney, when you grow up?” Without hesitation, the entrepreneurial youngster answered, “I don’t know, but we’re all gonna need clothes.”

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.