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Become a Cultural Navigator

Yiyu Chen takes fashion back to its roots by relying on natural dyes, mastering ancient crafts, and embracing experimental designs

Yiyu Chen by Armando Branco
Taiwanese designer Yiyu Chen's avant-garde work has won rave reviews in Europe. Photo by Bolin Lo.

Taiwanese fashion designer Yiyu Chen describes herself as a creative and experimental person. And it’s immediately apparent in her hairstyle, which features a unique blend of golden and silver tresses emerging from her jet-black locks.

Chen is even more avant-garde with her clothing designs, which lean heavily on natural dyes and sustainable, woven fabrics sourced from the land. This includes from around the central Taiwanese city of Taichung where she lives.

“People now think of clothing as something disposable,” Chen tells Pancouver at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island. “But if they’re knowing more about the process about how stuff is made–how fabric is made, how colour is made—maybe we can slowly change the attitudes for people so they appreciate more the clothing we are wearing. Or they’ll try to know more about the background stories.”

She made these comments at an exhibition called Colours of Formosa, which includes one of her dresses created with natural dyes. The show also features designs and paintings by several other Taiwanese artists and continues with free admission at Ocean Artworks until February 20.

Through her work, Chen aims to investigate the relationship between human beings and nature. At the same time, her design practice enables her to question her own perspectives about the world—and whether it’s even possible to truly experience nature.

One of her most ambitious works is Cyber Garden, which is a set of wearable objects. The pieces include LED lights controlled by an Arduino board. Through Wi-Fi, software enables this open-source electronics platform to capture a database from the Hehuanshan Observatory in Central Taiwan.

“The appearance of these objects is inspired by the landscape,” Chen explains in an exhibition document.

Yiyu Chen
Yiyu Chen stands beside her dress at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Chen asks if humans can truly explore nature

Simultaneously, these pieces are modified by current weather patterns on Hehuanshan Mountain. In reflecting the natural environment, she describes Cyber Garden as “a man-made minuscule Nature”.

Prior to finishing, she brought the pieces up to the mountain area for two days, where there is no electricity. She writes that she could only film different light variances.

“Being a human being, you may be doomed to be unable to explore ‘Nature’,” she declares in Traditional Chinese in the document, which Pancouver translated into English. “Or maybe ‘Nature’ never exists itself. I don’t have the answer for this and no need to have one either.”

Humanimal by Yiyu Chen.

Now in her mid-30s, Chen obtained her first fashion design degree at Shih Chien University in Taiwan. Later, she went on to earn a degree at ESMOD in Paris in the Postgraduate Programme Createur Culture. There, she learned haute couture tailoring.

After that, Chen obtained a master’s degree in fashion design at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem in the Nethlerlands.

“With my studies in the Netherlands, I think the most important attitude I got was to design with a theoretical mindset,” Chen tells Pancouver. “With this theoretical training, I learned to see fashion design for what it is rather than how it appears.”

Unlike in the schools in Taiwan and Paris, she says that the Dutch fashion education focused a great deal on self-identity, philosophy, and the motivations of design. Her graduate collection was exhibited in Modebelofte during Dutch Design Week in 2014.

Watch Le Fashion Post’s interview with Yiyu Chen in Hyères.

Lessons from Europe

The following year, Chen received the Public Prize at the 30th annual International Festival of Fashion and Photography in Hyères. That’s where she met Chanel fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld, who was artistic director. Another Chanel luminary, Virginie Viard, was president of the fashion jury.

There, Chen presented her collection, Humanimal, which was a reflection on anthropocentrism. It imagined a rewilding of the Earth, with animals taking over living spaces of the extinct human race.

“In this world everything artificial begins to decay, and an eccentric and wild power starts to grow,” Chen writes on her website. “I see [a] horse in my collection as a metaphor for a strong elegant creature, which has both fluidity and robustness in physical appearance.”

Humanimal. Photo by Armando Branco.

She adds that this black horse with all of its muscle and a majestic bone structure—and which she represents in her designs—stands out from a doomsday scene, becoming “the eternal moment of my rhapsody”.

In 2017, Chen captured the grand prize at the AWOW 2017-Arhus Walks on Water fashion competition, which was held in Aarhus. This Danish city was designated, along with Paphos in Cypress, as the European Culture Capital that year.

Chen mastered tailoring and creating patterns in the Netherlands and France. But she emphasizes that working in the European fashion industry requires so much more than that—success is also integrally linked to efficient management, good human resources, and being focused on completing tasks.

“Each office has its own culture, and how well it runs doesn’t really relate to creativity that much,” she reveals.

Watch AWOW’s video about YiYu Chen.

Chen embraces natural fashion

Chen feels that the fashion industry has become a little too commercial, with too much emphasis on production and the benefits that flow from this.

After she returned to Taiwan, she decided to immerse herself in understanding traditional natural dyes. That’s because she felt that she needed to comprehend the “essentials” of fashion, including the “art of making”.

“It’s about the plants,” Chen says. “It’s about the colours.”

In addition, she devoted herself to weaving so that she could make her own fabrics. This process took about six years.

“There are natural dyes in Europe, in Asia, in India, in North America, so that’s not really unique,” Chen acknowledges.

Yiyu Chen weaving work
This is an example of Yiyu Chen’s recent weaving work.

However, she points out that there are different processes and craft cultures in different countries. In Taiwan, for example, natural dyes are integrally related plants. To her, fashion is inextricably linked to the environment.

“There are some techniques coming from Indigenous people, and also some of them coming from China,” Chen says. “Now in Taiwan, we are also trying hard to collect the techniques we had before, and also to preserve all the craft methods.”

This is being done through the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, which has encouraged Chen to speak about this to students in Taichung and Changhua.

Humanimal. Photo by Armando Branco.

Intermingling of cultures

Taiwan has a long history of being colonized. The Dutch and Spanish came in the 17th century. According to Chen, the Dutch first tried to plant indigo in Taiwan and intended to bring the indigo dye back to Europe.

Other colonizers to Taiwan came from the Ming and Qing dynasties, and then Japan for 50 years following the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.

Chen believes that this intermingling of cultures through the ages, including with Indigenous populations in the island nation, have made Taiwanese people more accepting of new ideas. For example, it was the first country in East Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

“We embrace food from different parts of the world,” Chen says. “We are quite open to differences.”

Then with a smile, she adds that the same is true for art.

Yiyu Chen
Humanimal by Yiyu Chen.

LunarFest Vancouver is presenting Colours of Formosa in partnership with the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. The exhibition continues at Ocean Artworks on Granville Island until February 20. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Pancouver strives to build a more equal and empathetic society by advancing appreciation of visual and performing arts—and cultural communities—through education. Our goal is to elevate awareness about underrepresented artists and the organizations that support them. 

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.