“I had a nightmare last night about the number of styles I need to do for Spring ’13,” designer Ann Yee tells me. “Someone in the dream was telling me that I had to create more than 100 styles for the season. And I was screaming back, ‘How is that possible? There’s no way I can do that!’”
There is something really refreshing about Ann’s candor. While it is understood that developing a collection as a singular, emerging designer is no cake-walk, it is also rare to hear an ambitious upstart discuss the challenges.
“Developing a collection is expensive,” Ann continues. “I am always thinking: how many different styles should I construct for the season? I know I need to provide a variety for the buyers to choose from. But I can’t create so many, that if some don’t get picked up, I didn’t waste a whole lot of development money. It’s a delicate balance.”
If anyone is able to overcome the obstacles of building out a brand, it’s Ann. With a strong set of technical skills coupled with an even stronger point of view, Ann’s label is a testament to the efficacy of thinking big while working small.
“I moved to New York after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, and I ended up at a private label knitwear company. I got stuck working in sweaters there, and I just loved it. It’s very specific and there aren’t a lot of knitwear designers out there. I really learned a lot.”
After a while at her day job and with the necessary industry experience in hand, Ann felt the increasing pull towards creating an eponymous line. “Because I had been so focused on knits and sweaters, I really wanted to develop some more structured pieces, using more materials. I started sketching in the evenings, taking the time to see where things would go.”
Soon enough, sketches begot samples and the designer went ahead in creating a small capsule collection which she refers to as her “getting my feet wet” collection. “It didn’t really go anywhere, but it was key in helping me accrue my contacts in the garment district and learning the process of sketch to sample to fitting. I got to see my clothing become a reality for the first time.”
Even though her inaugural collection never made its way into stores, it effectively encouraged Ann to continue designing for herself. By Spring 2010, her pieces were in stores and she had gotten so busy planning for following seasons that she was convinced to quit her day job. “It got to be a bit too much,” she divulges. “I was working all day and sketching all night. I loved the company I was working for, but I realized it was time to focus solely on my own business.”
Now showing her sixth collection, Ann has hit her stride and found a distinct voice. Concentrating on the creation of “core wardrobe pieces,” the designer’s work represents a belief that clothing can be timeless while maintaining its whimsy.
“I think my aesthetic is less serious than most downtown New York designers,’” Ann says. Citing her Hong Kong heritage as a plausible influence on her style, she continues, “I may not do it consciously, but there is a nod to contemporary Asian design in my collections. The street style is so unique in Hong Kong–it is so much more colorful and people are much more relaxed about their personal style. They come up with all sorts of combinations…they’re just much more experimental in their dressing.”
The quirky amalgams characterizing Hong Kong’s street style have most obviously affected Ann in her use of materials. The combinations of distinct fabrics in a single garment is a method the designer continues to explore in each collection. “I like to overlay different materials on top of each or maybe the top part of a garment is composed of something different than the bottom. I really want to create that contrast and novelty.”
For Fall 2012, Ann’s perspective translates flawlessly into a collection distinguished by luxe, unexpected textiles and intense pops of citron, amethyst, and blues. “I got my inspiration for the collection from these really beautiful images of stalagmites and stalactites. I was drawn to their angles and movement and coloration. That was really my jumping off point. I collaborated with my friend, artist Kim Piotrowski, who created a custom cave water print for me and the rest took shape from there.”
Beyond plenty of her go-to silks (“It has a beautiful drape, and practically speaking, there are lots of colors–I can always mix and match. Plus, people love silk; it’s considered a luxury fabric, so at my price points, it always a must-use.”), the fall collection favors inventive cloths and textures. “I discovered this soft, gauzy mesh from Japan that I combine with a fine wool bouclé, and then I made my knitwear out of this amazing modal/mohair blend, which I had never seen before.”
When asked where she generally sources her fabrics, Ann returns to some prior points on the difficulty in operating on a smaller scale in today’s industry. “I source from Japan, Italy, or domestically. And a lot of my silks actually come from China. But it’s hard for me to obtain a lot of fabrics because I am constantly dealing with minimum issues–I can’t make such huge orders for a lot of the materials I’d like to work with. So I try to be creative whenever possible. Sometimes I’ll use a washed silk rather than a silk charmeuse, which is a subtle textural difference that still creates a unique feel to the clothing. Or with the yarns for my sweaters, it’s actually easier to find lower minimums, so I buy extra yarns to add novelty when the other fabrics seem too flat.”
As for the manufacturing, all of Ann’s clothing is produced in New York’s garment district. “I love that my things are made here; I want to support the garment center and be part of returning it to its glory. But, honestly, and perhaps unfortunately, there is no doubt that it would be cheaper to produce overseas if I was producing on a larger scale.”
For now, the scale of the Ann Yee line is purposefully small. Developing only two seasons annually, the designer is growing smart rather than growing fast, choosing to make the most impact in Fall and Spring, rather than spreading herself too thin over the industry standard of four deliveries per year. “Logistically, it’s just me doing this, so I can’t do four seasons, well. And I’d rather foray into more accessories, and then maybe menswear before I do multiple deliveries. Not to mention how the four season model affects people’s impression of their clothing. My garments are not disposable, they are investment pieces. You can wear a lot of it year round, for years to come.”
Now, with Fall 2012 already completed, Ann is focusing on Spring ‘13, which has already found its inspiration (for better or worse).
“A few weeks back I got a phone call at 4am from the building where I store my work. Apparently a fire started in the hall and hit my closet first! It got to a lot of my past collections and my vintage pieces. I took it back home and washed for days and days. Luckily, a lot of it’s okay, and I can use them as reference points.”
Not one to be discouraged, Ann’s spring line will use this mishap as its storyline. “It’s going to be a story of resurrection and renewal. I want to take certain pieces that I was really in love with and that did well and do spins on them. Maybe I’ll render them in different fabrics or shapes–like, if it was a top I really love, maybe I’ll make it a dress. It’s a great narrative and really economical!”
When asked how she feels about the future of her work as a single entity company, Ann’s candid nature resurfaces. “I am doing what I love everyday and I am really lucky. But there are challenges everyday, and I make mistakes. It is frustrating when there are so many things to think about, especially because I am working alone. But I keep going, I want people to understand my perspective. I want them to see it and think it is beautiful and cool and comfortable. I want people to love wearing my clothes.”
For more information and where to buy, visit Ann Yee’s website here.