Yeohlee Teng: An American Designer—“Clothes have Magic”

Yeohlee Teng, the Founder of YEOHLEE Inc., describes in this interview with Dan Hodges what makes the clothes she designs magical. Yeohlee is originally from Malaysia and is of Malaysian-Chinese heritage. She studied at Parsons School of Design, The New School and is based in New York City. Yeohlee established her own house, YEOHLEE Inc., in 1981. Yeohlee is the recipient of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion. Yeohlee’s work and designs are part of the permanent collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the late Richard Martin, then Chief Curator, called her “one of the most ingenious makers of clothing today.” She dresses the “urban nomad,” a term she coined in her Fall 1997 collection, defining a lifestyle that requires clothing that works on a variety of practical and psychological levels. She is a master of design management and believes in the efficiency of year-round, “seasonless” clothes.


Standing tall: Fashion designer Yeohlee Teng. Photo by Sophie Elgort


Question: When did your journey into the world of design begin?

“My brothers and their friends were all architects. We had this big sketch book in our house that everybody drew in, so I grew up drawing. I was the school artist and designed all the costumes for our school plays and painted the murals there. I remember working on a mural with my best friend that was the length of the basketball court—my first lesson in scale.”


If you go back to the times of Cleopatra or the ancient Greeks and Romans, clothing was always making a statement. In your book you say that “clothes have magic”—what do you mean by that?

“The complete quote was ‘Clothes have magic. Their geometry forms shapes that can lend a wearer power’ (Hayden Gallery, MIT, 1982, from the exhibition catalogue Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design.)
Going back in time, robes and voluminous headdresses were always profoundly understood by tribal chiefs as well as the Catholic Church to be powerful. I am aware of how much authority can be communicated through what one chooses to wear. The same quote that I gave at MIT in 1982 is in my book, YEOHLEE: WORK 2003. The exhibition, Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design held at MIT’s Hayden Gallery was a pivotal show that put women’s fashion/clothing into the context of the design world. Up until then it was women’s fashion in magazines and in store windows, but this was a serious exhibition and it was about clothing as armor. We were not trying to elevate our discipline by reference. Intimate Architecture was about a tortoise in its shell. It’s not about the built environment that architects create. We create intimate architecture because it’s the first shelter that you build around yourself.


Silhouettes of Yeohlee’s work, seen in the exhibition “Fashion: Yeohlee Teng” at PS 1 in 1984.
Image credit: Yeohlee, photo by Yeohlee Teng


What examples do you have that validate your “clothes have magic” statement?

“A memorable example about clothes having magic happened with a woman who bought a coat of mine at Saks. At the end of a talk I was giving at Yale, during the Q&A, a woman in the audience stood up and said that at the beginning of her career when she wasn’t making a lot of money there was a coat designed by YEOHLEE that she really wanted. She had an internal debate: ‘Should I buy the YEOHLEE coat or pay the rent?’ She went back and forth about it for a week, and then she bought the coat. Then a week later, she was walking down the street and this guy came up to her and said ‘My God, you look beautiful.’ She was certain that her beauty was buoyed by the coat she was wearing and she proudly said ‘and we are still married today.’”


Where do you get your inspiration? 

“Inspiration can be serendipitous. For instance, I was biking along the East River and stopped by the Brooklyn Bridge. I was surprised and amazed by the multitude of jellyfish swarming in the water. Presto—Spring 2009—jellyfish floating through Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Vilette grid, creating a buoyant dialogue between the supple and the solid. Inspiration comes from everywhere and everything—the breeze, a song, a whisper or a being.”


A look from the Yeohlee ready-to-wear spring 2018 collection.
Image credit: Yeohlee, photo by Kyle Ericksen


How do you stay in touch with the trends that are going on in the marketplace? 

“I watch and try to listen with an open mind and read as much as I can.”


What advice do you have for young designers?

“Watch the clock. You don’t have a second to spare. Be driven. Deliver. Be a master of your own time.”