Shao Yen

...finding a place among established labels

by Karen Hodkinson
Known for his innovative use of unconventional materials in a traditional form, Taiwan-born Shao Yen is fearless in his combination of fabrics – such as nylon string mixed with cashmere and lycra. His sculptural knits have won him the notice of magazine editors all over the world. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, he has interned with Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. In 2009, his BA graduate collection won the Fashion Weekend/Le Vif Award in Brussels. After completing his MA Fashion Knitwear in 2010, he started his own label Shao Yen. In 2011 he was invited to curate a window display for Selfridges in London as part of their Bright Young Things project. Shao Yen's autumn/winter 2011 collection, entitled Goddess, was inspired by elegant, mysterious, and powerful Eastern and Western goddesses. All white and pure, but losing none of its graphic finish. Then serving as the perfect counterpoint, his darker follow-on collection for spring/summer 2012 entitled "Sseddog" (Goddess in reverse) referencing a variety of styles from tribal, punk, bondage to streetwalkers.

Could you describe your signature style?
My style is innovating traditional craft and knitting techniques with unconventional materials. My focus on materials comes from my background in knitwear and jewellery design, and my focus on structure comes from my interests in the human body/form.

Your last two collections were based on goddesses. Is this an enduring theme which interests you?
As a womenswear designer, the female form is a huge inspiration for me. The themes of goddesses were just developed from the references I gathered.

The colours white and black feature very strongly too. Do these colours hold a special attraction for you?
To be honest, I'm not really confident when using colours. Using white and black can make the structure and texture of the garments stand out. So when I do use colour, I tend to have an outfit in just one colour.

Could you tell me about your relationship with working with knitwear?
When I first got interested in fashion, I didn't think I would study knitwear. So when I got the offer for Knitwear, I was a bit surprised. However, because of my background in jewellery design, I've always been interested in crafts and materials. It also gave me another perspective when working on knitwear.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
The library is the best place to get all the information. I also like to start my creative process from the materials. I get inspirations from going to exhibitions and markets too.

Tell me a little about how you met Nicola Formichetti and how your designs came to be featured in his pop-up shop in New York in Sep 2011?
I never met him actually. His pop-up shop was part organised by a Chinese publication, Modern Weekly. The editor Shaway Yeh invited me to take part in the event. It was great to be part of it.

Could you tell me a little about how you met Bjork? How did you come to design her outfits?
Her assistant contacted me through email. She is based in New York and I'm in London, so we never met either. But I am really honoured and excited to work with someone I admire. I have always been a fan of her work.

How does your creative process start? Could you describe your creative process?
I would start from researching ideas, images and materials, and then experiment and make some samples and swatches before designing the actual garments. I usually enjoy the beginning and the final outcome. During the process, I have too much stress.

When you design, whom do you have in mind?
I used to just do show pieces, so I only imagined how the pieces would look on the models I like or how my favourite photographers or stylists would shoot them. But now I'm designing more ready-to-wear pieces, I have to consider the thoughts of ordinary people and often ask my female friends for opinions.

What was your childhood like? When and how did you become interested in fashion?
I grew up in Yilan, Taiwan. My mother is a floral designer and my sisters and aunt are dancers. I've always been interested in art and performance. I got introduced to the works of Rei Kawakubo during high school. Her work changed my perception of fashion and showed me a lot of possibilities.

Working in fashion isn't a natural career choice for most people in Asia. Did you face any challenges when you decided to pursue fashion for a career?
I am really fortunate to have my parents' support. Asian children usually have to face much academic pressure. My academic performance was not very good, but I like to draw, so I decided to attend an art high school.

How important are mentors for young designers?
Mentors are very important. As a young designer, I often feel unsure when I make decisions. So having a mentor would definitely help me become more certain and confident.

What do you find most challenging as a young designer?
Making decisions, funding, and finding a place among established labels.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
Be open-minded and persistent.

2011 was very exciting for you. What were some of the highlights?
Selfridges' Bright Young Things, Bjork, Ones To Watch, Red Page's Hot 100 – all these encouraged me to create more work.

What's your greatest achievement so far?
I don't think I have achieved anything yet, but I have a few things I'm proud of: finishing Saint Martins' MA, Selfridges and Bjork.