Behind the Atelier is a fashion-focused series that examines the unique backstories and design processes behind the fashion industry's most captivating talents. Pulling back the curtain on each designer's creative space and practice, Behind the Atelier provides an inside look into the industry's most exciting names.
For the 16th installment of the series, Hypebae spoke with Chinese designer and founder of the New York-based brand ZIMO, Zimo Yan. In a candid conversation with the emerging designer, Zimo dove deep into her distinct design aesthetic that highlights the authenticity of Asian history and heritage, how she builds a bridge between the past and the present with her symbolic silhouettes, the ways in which her creations serve as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue between Eastern and Western worlds and how she tells a thoughtful tale of the power of culture and community with her upcycled styles.
Despite only launching her eponymous label just two years ago, Zimo Yan is no novice in the fashion industry. The rising design talent honed her skills and discovered her unconventional artistic approach as a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, later leveraging the lessons learned from her undergraduate education to work in-house at major fashion brands. Dutifully and diligently, Zimo mastered her design skill-set by working at major fashion brands like Proenza Schouler, Prabal Gurung and Phillip Lim where she learned the ins-and-outs of concepting collections, defining each brand’s distinct DNA and creating a cohesive fashion show. This transformative period influenced the inception of Zimo's brand, providing her with insights on the inner workings of the industry in Shanghai and New York City.
As fast-paced cities, the metropolitan areas prepared the cutting-edge creator for the hustle and bustle of the fashion industry — although New York City paled in comparison to China’s commercial center. The Chinese cosmopolitan city was not only light years ahead of its American counterpart when it came to the design and development process of garments, but also its rapid advancement as a nation itself, which would become the prominent source of inspiration behind the thought-provoking pieces of ZIMO. The modernization of mainland China, including the increase in high-rise buildings and the development of new districts, sparked an innate interest in the trailblazing talent to preserve the past and honor Asian history.
By carefully crafting eclectic styles made from repurposed fabrics in striking prints and patterns, Zimo is capturing the core of Asian culture and memories and stories of her childhood. The 2017 CFDA + Design Graduate IDA Design Award-winner approaches her artistry in a documentary style unique to her brand philosophy with poignant storytelling of how the past and present can become one. Her narrative manner in showcasing her conversation-sparking creations – from her floral-printed knit vest paired with vegan leather pants, and cropped two-tone shirt and skirt set, to displaying her designs in newspapers in homage to printed publications — sets her apart from her peers and solidifies her future in fashion.
To get to know the designer, Hypebae sat down with Zimo Yan to discuss how she injects her inspirations and identity into her namesake label, the ways in which she navigated the challenges that came with the Covid-19 pandemic and how she highlights the history of her culture.
What do you think makes your brand and your approach to designing clothes stand out?
In my view, most brands are just chasing after the latest trends. Only a handful pay attention to preserving unique cultures, particularly those from Asia. Over the past decades, the changes in China have been so rapid that they’ve been hard for my generation to fully absorb. The clash between the Western and Eastern influences has sparked many interesting things, but most of them were overshadowed by more popular trends
Only a few had the chance to appreciate the beauty in these fleeting moments, much like delicate flower patterns in our signature design. Being a fan of vintage clothing stores, I’ve always relished finding those hidden gems because they’re brimming with tales. My goal is to share these stories through ZIMO’s designs and brand identity, reminding people of these forgotten sparks.
How did you get your start working in the fashion industry?
I interned for Proenza (Schouler) when I graduated. I feel like for [Proenza Schouler and Prabal Gurung], it was more about learning their design process and experiencing the different design processes between the companies. I feel like I learned the most things at Phillip Lim because I had a full-time job there. I worked there for two years, so I learned the whole design process from the concept to the final product and how to create a really great show.
I also [learned about] the circling of supply chains and how important time management is. I also worked in China for almost two years, so I know how Chinese companies run and how to develop factory supply chains. After the whole experience, I started my own brand. It wasn’t 100% a smooth transition, overall it’s been quite smooth but I definitely had and have a lot of hard things I need to overcome.
At what point did you know you wanted to design pieces in this narrative documentary style?
There wasn’t a certain point because I’ve always liked disappearing cultures. When I was studying fashion, I was really interested in that part. I think after I went back to China to work for two years, I experienced how fast culture disappears in recent years. I felt quite sad about it so I decided to include it in our brand so that we could document those elements in a modern way [while] reminding Asian youth about the disappearing culture.
How would you say your label is reflective of your identity and personality?
I’m not really outgoing, so for me, ZIMO isn’t really an “outgoing” label. It’s similar to my personality [in that way.] I’m not a social kind of person, for example, after a big party, I have to go home and rest [by myself] for two days. Being alone [let’s] me get my energy back. The brand doesn’t have that crazy, outgoing kind of personality. It’s more so crazy on the inside, like at home I’ll be crazy [because I’m comfortable.]
I think the bottoms from the last season describe that. Overall, they’re normal and fitting for going into the office but they have hidden details on the inside that you want to show off, so it’s similar to my personality.
For each new collection, what is the process like when developing a theme or an overarching storyline?
When we create a new collection, coming up with a theme or an overall story is a complex process. I do a lot of research, gathering stories from different places like books, the internet, museums, my travels and stories shared by friends and family. This helps me find the most interesting and inspiring parts of culture that have caught my attention lately.
And then, I go even deeper by looking for items or old stock from that time period that really fit the visual idea of the upcoming season. This careful search makes sure that the pieces I choose blend perfectly with the collection’s look and message. It adds to the authenticity and makes the story even more meaningful and relatable. First we have to confirm the concept and then we have to start finding the fabric related to the concept, or we’ll just create our own fabric. Then from the fabric we start to do draping based on the element of the fabric. We do some fabric manipulation to explore [what] possibilities this fabric [has] and we think about the key elements of the season [we’re working on.] We bring the story together and then we start sketching based on these drapings and then we collaborate with pattern makers and make real samples.
In what ways do you think your designs provide commentary on prevalent issues and topics that exist in fashion?
We’re not really a fast-fashion [company.] We upcycle a lot of things, [for instance] old, Asian heritage [items.] Our brand is more about slow fashion and trying to be as sustainable as possible. It’s sustainable. We’re going against fast-fashion, fashion pollution and waste.
We keep exploring ways to use deadstock pieces and fabrics and we try to bring [aspects] – not just physical but culturalized things – of the older, disappearing culture back to the present.
Why is using deadstock fabrics as well as repurposed and upcycled materials an integral part of your design process?
For the deadstock fabric, I think it’s just because it’s [part of] vanishing culture. People aren’t buying [things like that] anymore. That’s the main reason we use deadstock fabric. We buy deadstock fabric because the [ZIMO] concept is about documentary fashion, it’s about celebrating Asian heritage, so it’s [natural] for us to use deadstock fabrics.
How do you hope to alter the fashion industry with ZIMO?
Saying we'll "transform the industry" is tough right now. Yet, I wish for ZIMO to be a nudge that brings back forgotten cultures and traditions. I want each new season to act like a documentary, keeping vanishing Asian subcultures alive. Years down the line, when folks revisit our brand, it will be like watching a full documentary film. It'll brim with inspiring tales and creative moments, potentially helping people appreciate diverse cultures without any biases. Five years from now, we aspire to establish a global network of stockists, achieve widespread recognition and cultivate a stable community that genuinely appreciates and resonates with ZIMO’s documentary-inspired clothing. As we reflect on [future] collections, we envision a compelling and continuous documentary that offers a profound exploration of Asian culture, providing an enduring platform for showcasing its beauty and significance.