After 10 years of working in the fashion industry — and a subsequent case of severe burnout — one would think that starting an entirely new brand would be the last thing on Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung's minds. But launching Yan Yan, a direct-to-consumer knitwear label based in Hong Kong, was exactly what the duo needed in order to better foster their creativity and careers.
"We just felt wholesale, the industry and how companies were designers was becoming a little robotic," says Chan, who was formerly the director of knitwear at Rag & Bone from 2008 to 2018. "We were snowballing, basically, from one thing to another and never slowing down — just constantly pumping stuff out."
After Chan quit her job and moved from New York back to her hometown of Hong Kong, she linked up with Chung, a designer and her best friend since high school, to kickstart Yan Yan. Now, the two are able to slow things down a little bit, says Chan, while still being reactive enough to offer consumers something that's "really special and design-driven."
Yan Yan, which means "everyone" in Cantonese, is knitwear for cool girls — or anyone who wants to dress like one; think slime-green biker shorts and cozy hoodies dotted with neon-colored rosettes. For its debut collection (ranging in price from $225 to $475), the duo tapped into their industry network and partnered with a factory in China that used to work for Rag & Bone. They struck a deal that allowed Chan and Chung to use the factory's large stock of leftover yarns to design and produce small batches of product at a time.
"We realized that this was a great opportunity for us because as a brand-new company, even if you cut 100 pieces, you may not sell 100 pieces," says Chan. "So we worked this out with the factory where we used leftover material to design something new, and the factory would reduce its minimums for us for the sake of using up this material."
Chan and Chung was able to garner the factory's stock that was about to expire — most fabrics have a "best used by" window for production, as older yarns are harder to knit with — and collaborating on what they could create with it, or how to mix it with fresh material to make something entirely new. For example, classic ivory lambswool from Scotland was transformed into playful midi-length dresses and a hoodie-and-sweatpants combo adorned with embroidered flowers. The Italian-spin tweed yarns in brown that the duo acquired are from "years and years ago," says Chan, so the two refreshed by adding tipping with new, brightly-colored technical polyester from Japan, creating comfy, loosely-fitting shorts, cardigans, T-shirts and dresses. More basic silhouettes, like Yan Yan's cardigans, polos and biker shorts — made from new material that's polyester, chlorine-safe and completely machine washable, notes Chan — still boast a quirky effect through on-trend colors and pointelle details that pay homage to the brand's name and logo.
"A lot of the colors in this collection were really inspired by our Hong Kong culture," says Chan. "It's not obvious to someone who doesn't live here, but we talk a lot about fishing village girls, old advertising and the kind of colors in Hong Kong that are almost vintage-looking. We wanted to create knitwear that was really fun and inspired by the colors here without it being too gaudy."
Yan Yan's multicolored, striped pieces capture this approach: Knitted cardigans and rompers are inspired by the cheongsam and feature hand-tied, hand-embroidered Chinese knots. "It's always how the West interprets Chinese culture and our ethnic wear," says Chan of the recent rise of wearing Chinese clothing as a fashion trend (and possibly cultural appropriation). Though, she notes, wearing such traditional garb can be seen as uncool in Hong Kong. "We wanted to revisit it and educate ourselves about our own culture and create stuff that we could wear and other people could wear and change that perception of it being old-fashioned."
In addition to tapping into their roots while designing for Yan Yan, Chan and Chung also want to help change the stigma behind the "Made in China" label among consumers. "A lot of quality, designer product is made in China, and everyone seems to be a little bit embarrassed about it and I don't see why we should be," says Chan. "China manufactures a lot of designer product and it's sold for a lot of money, and the workmanship is great. We have such a great opportunity here to be able to work with our factory and understand where they're coming from."
While Yan Yan's debut is only available on its website, the brand will be distributed to select retailers later this summer, including No. 6 in New York City and Ron Herman in Tokyo. The designers also hope to open a pop-up in NYC since, according to Chan, "sweaters are emotional, so there is a degree that you need to feel and see the product." The duo is already working on its pre-fall collection with plans to do seasonal drops every two to three months — all while still being mindful of creating long-lasting, design-driven knitwear. "It's all to do with what kind of materials we can find and what we think is most seasonally appropriate and what we think is cool and new," says Chan.
See Yan Yan's debut collection in full in the gallery below.
This post has been updated from its original version.