By Pameyla Cambe

Yayi Chen Zhou: The Fashion Designer Redefining East Meets West

Inspired by her Chinese and Spanish cultural heritages, the founder of Ya Yi is combining fashion and art to tell the story of immigrants.
Yayi Chen Zhou, the founder of the fashion brand Ya Yi
Yayi Chen Zhou, the founder of the fashion brand Ya Yi

The idea of leaving one’s home can be daunting, but for Yayi Chen Zhou, it has become second nature. “Home has always been a fluid concept for me,” says the fashion designer. “I have lived in three very distinct countries and cultures, each for an equal amount of time in my life.”

Chen Zhou was born and raised in Madrid. Her family immigrated to the Spanish capital from southern China—all the way on the other side of the globe. “I grew up spending most of my childhood in my family’s working space, the Chinese restaurant,” says Chen Zhou. She split the rest of her youth living between Madrid and Shanghai. Then, in 2014, she came to New York City to become a fashion designer, following in the footsteps of her mother who had also pursued her own dream of working in the fashion industry.

Like her upbringing, Chen Zhou’s fashion education was marked by multiple perspectives: she studied at the Parsons School of Design and went on exchange to Central Saint Martins in London. Upon graduation, she worked at Thom Browne and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s label, The Row. Her design experience at those American fashion houses taught her how “to find the balance between art and design while creating a collection in a commercial context,” she says.

That balance can be seen in Chen Zhou’s fashion brand Ya Yi, which she launched in New York in 2022. Her first collection, for Fall/Winter 2023, featured graceful fringed dresses and skirts, floral jacquard blazers and sheer blouses. You could see the commercial appeal of those romantic pieces, especially the fringed bags that they were styled with. But the collection also highlighted Chen Zhou’s conceptual approach to design: she described it as a homage to the “invisible” Asian immigrant women who have worked at New York’s garment factories. The collection’s title, It Is Not Spring, Until All Flowers Blossom, was borrowed from Shui Mak Ka, who led thousands of immigrant women to demand better wages and working conditions during the 1982 Garment Workers’ Strike.

Ya Yi’s presentations often combine art forms: the fashion brand’s SS24 presentation, Offshore Roses, featured an art installation, body painting and dance.
Ya Yi’s presentations often combine art forms: the fashion brand’s Spring/Summer 2024 presentation, Offshore Roses, featured an art installation, body painting and dance

The story of immigrants—both past and present—is one that Chen Zhou continues to explore at her fashion label. As an immigrant woman herself, she reflects her multicultural identity onto her designs: she uses European lace to represent what she calls her “second cultural skin”, draws her floral motifs from Chinese ink paintings, and incorporates design details from the traditional qipao.

“Sometimes in our research, we discover that these cultures are even more connected than we had thought,” says the designer. “When we were looking into the costume worn by Spanish flamenco dancers, we found that the Manton de Manila has origins in Guangdong, China. The fringed scarf was first brought to Spain via trade in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. To this day, many of the figures and florals embroidered onto the scarves actually come from important symbols in Chinese culture, reinterpreted through a Spanish lens.”

Drawing from fashion history, her multicultural identity and a host of influences besides—think artists Louis Bourgeois and Doris Salcedo, or fashion designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Ann Demeulemeester—Chen Zhou has established a distinctive aesthetic at her fashion label, which is now based in Shanghai. It’s no wonder why she has caught the eye of fashion industry insiders and has been shortlisted as a semi-finalist for the 2024 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

Here, Chen Zhou tells us more about her creative process, her cultural influences, and the concept of Ya Yi’s Spring/ Summer 2024 collection.

How did growing up in Madrid and Shanghai influence your worldview?

Yayi Chen Zhou (YCZ): Being Chinese and Spanish means that I have multiple “cultural skins,” which I live with and move in between. In Spain, veiling has half a millennium of history and symbolism; this idea of what is covered and what is revealed to society and even to oneself is very powerful to me. Being veiled, both metaphorically and literally, has been a key theme of my collections. Our bodysuits and masks are made with European lace, referencing the Spanish mantilla [a traditional Spanish veil] and representing my second cultural skin. Multiple cultural symbols come together with modern art forms in my work, in order to express the complexity and impermanence that define an immigrant’s identity. In terms of design elements, the Surreal movement in Spanish art has really inspired my work conceptually and visually, while the poetic aspect and the use of negative space in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy are reflected in my textile designs.

In what ways do you think that having a multicultural identity is a strength?

YCZ: The countless cultural contrasts that I have encountered in my life often make me reflect on my personal identity as an immigrant woman, which I believe has fostered my ability to interpret the art world through multiple lenses, and helped me to connect with people and to learn and hear directly from different communities about their lives and experiences. When I was in New York, I was able to develop relationships with both the Chinese and Latin-American immigrants working in the Garment District. I eventually made my debut collection and documentary film about the lives of Chinese immigrants in the US garment industry because of my multicultural background.

The “burnt rose corset” look from Ya Yi Spring/Summer 2024 collection
The “burnt rose corset” look from Ya Yi‘s Spring/Summer 2024 collection

Research is a big part of your creative process. For Spring/ Summer 2024, you were inspired by portraits of early Chinese immigrant families in America. What struck you about them?

YCZ: Traditionally, family portraits and wedding photos are a very important ceremonial object for Chinese families to hold, especially for immigrant families that live far apart. I first found a collection of collaged family photos at the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan. They were created in a deliberately Westernised style. The eccentricity of these photos immediately attracted my attention.

What did you want to convey through your SS24 presentation, Offshore Roses?

YCZ: The Offshore Roses performance took place in Fotografiska Shanghai. The project combined art installation, modern dance and body painting. It explored the sense of dislocation experienced by Chinese immigrants in the US [in the late 19th and the 20th century], which forced men to separate from their wives and children due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and segregation policies.

You used flowers quite a bit in your SS24 collection. What do they symbolise?

YCZ: For SS24, I was particularly inspired by floral bouquets seen in vintage wedding photos. We derived the floral motif from the exaggerated proportions of those bouquets, and used it in our velvet devoré, silk and knit jacquard fabrics this season. I reflected on the wasteful nature of wedding celebrations today, where a mass of flowers fall apart after the grand ceremony ends. We wanted to introduce a more sustainable concept of having flower bouquets that can last forever that is worth passing down from generation to generation, like an heirloom or a wedding dress itself.

Yayi Chen Zhou
Intrigued by the “idea of what is covered and what is revealed to society”, Chen Zhou often features masks and veils in her collections for Ya Yi

Which is your favourite look from the SS24 collection?

YCZ: My favourite look is the one that includes the burnt rose corset made from our special double-sided sequin fabric that we developed this season. I was inspired by surrealist sensibilities, where the idea of a woman’s torso grows from a flower, creating the image of a petal extending into a woman. I intentionally left the torso half of the look as a “canvas” for my collaborator, the body paint artist Mountain Gao, who completed the look with improvised action painting during our presentation.

Art plays a key role in your fashion presentations. What draws you to art, especially mediums like performance and film?

YCZ: Aside from being a fashion designer, one of my aspirations is to become a director. I see performance and filmmaking as an extension to my fashion creations. As a brand focused on the physical and emotional lives of immigrants, performance gives us a heightened sense of their world that clothing on its own might not be able to convey. Holding a performance is also about creating a physical space within a specific period of time and asking an audience to be there, to experience it and take it in. It is asking the audience to be present for a ceremony for a coming together that will never be repeated in the same way.

Yayi Chen Zhou
The florals in Ya Yi’s Spring/Summer 2024 collection are inspired by the bridal bouquets seen in vintage wedding photos

You launched your fashion brand in New York and you are currently based in Shanghai, but you intend to move to Europe. Which city would you move your fashion brand to?

YCZ: We would love to be in Paris next so that we can access European raw materials and techniques, as well as gain feedback from the European market through showrooms, presentations and potential collaborations. If we were to win the LVMH Prize, my focus would be to relocate to Europe, and partner with the best mills to develop unique textiles and to continue to expand our knitwear capabilities. On a personal level, Europe is where all of my childhood memories are rooted in; it would be the place for me to explore my heritage and to return to the part of my identity that I have spent the longest time away from.

This story originally appeared on GRAZIA Singapore.