Yeohlee Teng’s “Zero Waste” Philosophy: Thoughts on her roots, the future of fashion and Japan

Yeohlee Teng is one of the most prominent Asian American female fashion designers. Originally from Malaysia, she has made the mark in the global stage of fashion design. 

Her artistic approach to design has gained recognition around the world. Her work has been exhibited in prestigious museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Victoria & Albert, London. Made based on mathematical constructions and “Zero-waste” sustainability policy, her garments have the fluidic beauty seen in movement. She is also selected as the “Board of Director’s Tribute” at the CFDA Fashion Awards hold in November 10th.

Recently, I had the honor to be featured wearing YEOHLEE’s garments in a film produced by the photographer Thomas Concordia. Through this unique opportunity, I was able to witness the beauty of YEOHLEE’s design, as exemplified by distinct geometric patterns woven in carefully chosen varying fabrics. In this interview, Yeohlee talks about her creative concepts and design process, as well as her perspectives on the future of fashion design.

“Mie Iwatsuki wearing YEOHLEE”
Movie Direction Thomas Concordia

Inspiration gained from keeping my mind open to things surrounding me

――Despite the fact that many designers today value profits and create products with much waste, you have always prioritized quality, minimalism and “zero-waste” in your design. Many people believe that your philosophy is ahead of time and some view your work as art. Could you tell us where you draw inspiration from; and how you create within the “zero-waste” principle?

Yeohlee Teng (Yeohlee): The Inspiration comes from keeping my mind open to things surrounding me. It can be the quality of light, a shape or form, music, art and architecture, a person, the wind, clouds, and life.

‘Zero waste’ is mentality of those from small island. When you come from a tiny island you understand that resources are finite. You learn to value what you have and to appreciate the real value of things surrounding you in the situation where resources are finite (seldom endless) and you never have enough time.

――You are a master of designing clothes that can be worn in every season.

I have also read that your design is gender neutral. You have adopted “Sarong”, a traditional Malaysian style that accommodates any genders, in part of your design before. I wonder if your cultural background may have something to do with your unique emphasis on versatility and functionality? Can you tell us about its impact on your work, if there is any?

Yeohlee: Yes! I had a wonderful childhood growing up on an island that’s 46 miles in circumference. For fun you either rode your bike around the island or hiked up Penang Hill. I painted several murals at school, designed costumes for “The Importance of Being Ernest”, “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Existing costumes were housed in the clocktower at school – it was an inspiring and awesome education.

――Your work is often exhibited in museums, often juxtaposed with artists such as Richard Serra who shares a similar choice in materials and production. Your work also reminds me of sculptures and architecture. An example comes to mind is one of the great architects in history, Mies Van Der Rohe who is known for “less is more”, the striking simplicity in monotone, the free-flowing open space, and the beauty in the material itself. Do you have any artists that you like or/and have inspired you?

Yeohlee: Yes. Recently, I was impressed by the exhibitions of Lee Lozano, Deborah Remington, and Niki de Saint Phalle which were all held in New York. They were truly awesome and inspiring!

――Are there any Japanese designers and artists you like? Have you been inspired by Japanese culture as a designer? 

Yeohlee: AKIRA KUROSAWA is a true master! From “Rashomon“(1950),”Seven Samurai“(1954),”Throne of Blood“(1957), to “Yojimbo“(1961), he left great masterpieces. I love Japanese textiles, art, architecture and cinematography. Definitely, these disciplines are spiritually connected. Also, I respect YOKO ONO as a true artist in every way.

Inspired by The Nakagin Capsule Tower which is also known as “Salarymen’s Cubes” built in 1972 by architect Kisho Kurokawa, we created box sleeves with square armholes for Spring 2016 Collection.

――I was honored to be featured with your garments in a film produced by the photographer Thomas Concordia. It was filmed at Modernhause SoHo, a new hotel in SoHo where intricate staircases were constructed to create an almost labyrinth-like effect. The garments chosen by you had distinct fabric, silhouette and geometric patterns, which all show beautifully regardless of the background colors. Can you tell us  about your design process? I recalled that you always start from choosing the fabric. Would you mind sharing more details of the entire design process?

Yeohlee: First of all, it was truly inspiring how elegant and regal you looked in the clothes. It was a total harmony.

I start with an inspiration gained through feeling something, choosing fabric and imagining color hue.  The feeling, the touch, the weight, the content of the fabric, the weave or knit, the pattern and often the selvedges: All of these elements are closely connected.

Also, the sound plays an important role as well. My favorites are Carl Orff, the White Stripes, the soundtrack from Kill Bill Vol 1, Nico and the Velvet Underground and listener-supported-radio station WFMU and the late Charlie Watts, drummer and backbone of the Rolling Stones. Then, there are mathematical calculations and magical moments in the process.

The theme of the Spring/Summer 2022 collection: “EXTINCTION”

――I learned that recently ‘made-to-measure’ custom design has become a large part of your business. I believe that many people would like to own a piece of wearable art tailored to their individual needs. I recalled the custom design process starts from having the clients choose a fabric. Can you share more with us regarding the process of custom design?

It begins and ends with the quality of the collaboration with the client. I love the process of learning about the client’s needs and giving them a polished finish.  It’s a very personal learning experience and it can be a very rewarding for both the client and the creator – you can liken it to the Vulcan mind meld indeed!

――We have seen many cases of violence and discrimination against the Asian community in recent news. As an Asian American designer, what is your view on such issues and do you have any message you would like to share with the community?

Yeohlee: What I would like to convey is, “Together we stand, divided we fall,” the phrase often quoted as Abraham Lincoln’s statement.

――You often advocate sustainability and environmental issues through your work. In recent years, the Pandemic and ongoing environmental issues have posed great challenges worldwide. What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry? And what responsibilities in your opinion designers and consumers need to undertake today?

Yeohlee: My answer to it would be this question – “How many pairs of sneakers do you own?”

――You must dedicate most of your time to your work. Do you have any other hobbies outside of work? How do you spend your holidays?

Yeohlee: I am spending time with the people I love whenever and wherever I am.

――The 2022 Spring Fashion week is approaching. What will be the theme of the 2022 Spring / Summer collection for YEOHLEE? Where and how will it be shown? Can you give us a quick preview of the type of garments we may see in this season?

Yeohlee: The theme for SS2022 is EXTINCTION. Hopefully by now it is out and available for viewing……

――What’s next for YEOHLEE? What shall we look forward to in your future work?

Yeohlee: The answer lies in a question which is “How much time do I have?”

Yeohlee Teng 
Yeohlee Teng is one of the most prominent Asian American female designers originally from Malaysia. She received the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for fashion design in 2004. Her work has been exhibited in prestigious museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Victoria & Albert, London. YEOHLEE’s collections are designed, developed and produced in New York’s Garment District. Today her atelier is located at 12 West 29th Street in the NoMad/ Flatiron District. 


Mie Iwatsuki

Mie Iwatsuki is an artist muse, model, and curator based in New York. She built her career at Christie’s, an established auction house, and an art gallery in SOHO. She also does a wide range of art-related work, including curation and translation. From 2005 to 2010, she was a model for the iconic New York artist Alex Katz, starting her career as an artist’s muse, she was also photographed by the legendary photographer Robert Frank, and quickly became a rising figure in the art world. In her 2012 exhibition, “Mie: A Portrait by 35 Artists,” she collaborated with 35 contemporary artists. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibition was donated to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Instagram:@mieiwatsuki