Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Edie Chung, the founding designer of FRIESENGUYS, making a name in the local scene as an androgynous and eccentric fashion brand.
Whimsical, bold, and vibrant, the brand is known for its androgynous approach to fashion. It’s not just surface-level effort, but also merging elements of gendered clothing into one. “I see it as an ability to craft a new identity,” says designer Edie Chung, who is also the founder of the brand. For FRIESENGUYS, androgyny is more than just a facade; it’s the core of the brand.
Since the brand’s first debut in 2019, Chung has found ways to manoeuvre in the bustling local fashion scene, holding firm onto the mindset of seeing “fashion as a fantasy, but based on reality”—a fine line most designers, even high profile ones, struggle to balance. While many creative minds are quick to shake off the “commercial” tag, Chung, on the other hand, sees it from a different light and takes it as a compliment. And we suppose this is exactly how the designer aces in telling stories with much sincerity—through the garments.
Before we proceed, I’m curious as to what “FRIESENGUYS” actually means.
It’s a combination of 3 words: FRIES AND GUYS. It comes with a rather silly story. I shot the lookbook for my first collection and had to send it to print the next day, so I had to come up with a name quickly.
It was two in the morning while I was on Photoshop, having fries from McDonald’s. The word “guys” comes from my first collection that revolved around androgynous menswear. We’ve been pronouncing it “FRIES AND GUYS” for about six months until a friend suggested pronouncing it “FREE-SUN-GUYS” as it sounded more appealing. (laughs)
You majored in English Literature and Theatre Studies; what led to the change of career paths?
I was a former fashion student at the Raffles Design Institute, Singapore before I dropped out. It’s not a proud moment for me so I tend to not bring it up. I couldn’t take the tensity at the time and I had no friends. Looking back, it’s nothing compared to the pressure of actually being in the fashion industry and operating professionally.
I switched my major since I wanted to enter the media production or publishing door, thinking I could at least have the opportunity to cover fashion-related content in the future. Eventually, I started a blog that focused on comic culture and landed myself some opportunities. But I started missing all my school deadlines and also the feeling of creating tangible things.
I turned back to fashion design and got my friend to model the five looks I created in my backyard. I later mailed the lookbooks via post to multi-label stores all around the world. I got a reply from the assistant of Sarah Andelman, who founded Colette, a boutique based in Paris that has since closed. It’s encouraging even though they did not intend to buy the collection from me. I also got appointments with buyers at Japanese department stores like Matsuya Ginza in Tokyo, and Hankyu in Osaka. However, nothing materialised since I was so green and was naive enough to set a high price. I was quite an upstart, but I was given constructive feedback at these meetings and it hugely emboldened my confidence in fashion.
What was your first encounter with fashion?
My first encounter with fashion was when I was six or seven years old. I always wondered where my mother was at night, and it turned out she was attending fashion design school. I had no idea why that appealed to me and even though all I wore were hand-me-downs, I was particular about dressing up. I’m always buttoned-up, prim and proper.
Five words to describe FRIESENGUYS?
Can I have six? To be “Bold” and to have the “Freedom” to “Create” an “Elegant” yet “Subversive”-“Fantasy.”
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Androgynous is a keyword for the label and your designs centre around that. What led to this decision?
I think it became a core identity since I have an affinity for merging the contrast. I like things that are strong but soft, firm but tender, and distant but also familiar.
My first collection for FRIESENGUYS was an exploration of creating menswear using womenswear elements through fabrication and ornamentation. The idea was never to put a man in a dress—I wanted to create menswear staples and shapes with softer fabrics, hand embroidery, and a touch that is not so rigorous and sharp that are often tied to menswear tailoring. Likewise, when I made womenswear, I liked stronger structures in the silhouettes and patterns even though the piece might be more frou-frou. Adding edges to typically feminine garments felt empowering and seductive—like Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” jacket.
I have fresher perspectives and ideas when I cross opposite sides of the spectrum. I don’t like things that are too straightforward or black and white. We’re fortunate to be in a time where we have more opportunities as compared to the past when we could try to be whoever we wanted rather than staying society’s norms. Exploring androgyny in fashion design is a form of freedom; I see it as the ability to craft a new identity.
Your designs are mostly whimsical; where do you usually draw inspiration from?
My mother encouraged and nurtured my creativity. She liked drawing, singing, and dancing as hobbies. She’d signed me up for classes—history, drama, literature, and anything that had an artistic bent.
Along the road, I discovered stories—in all forms—inspired me the most. It could be a song, movie or book that I can infuse and convert my findings through research into all my collections. The challenge for me as a fashion designer is to execute all my influences into a desirable reality.
“Fantasy in reality”—as a designer, how do you walk the line between being creative and having commercial appeal?
I think the best way is for designers to go to the frontline and find out more about their work at the storefront.
When I first started FRIESENGUYS, I launched my designs within two months through a department store. When you are in retail, you are confronted with the reality of hitting sales targets and you can see firsthand that you need cash flow. I didn’t start as a buzzy designer and I can’t rely on exposure and fame to generate sales, I have to be “commercial”, relying solely on product design, quality and serving my customers directly, seeing their responses and what they needed for better range planning.
FRIESENGUYS has become an autobiography of things and fantasies that I am personally obsessed with. However, I see my work as ready-to-wear, functionality and wearability, in this case, are the “reality” in the collections. Being “commercial” can be seen as a dirty word, but to me, there’s no bigger compliment than someone spending their hard-earned money on something we made. I find it very flattering. There are not many industries out there where you can dream about something, make it yourself and hopefully, have an impact both commercially and creatively.
Which piece among all your creations is your favourite?
There are so many since everything is a labour of love, but my current favourite is my Rocket Dress. It represents a lot of work my team put in to produce a straightforward, 3D pattern construction with only fabric.
My technical knowledge was stunted since my education in fashion design was put to a halt, so I tended to stick to basic shapes and silhouettes. I’m fortunate to have an incredible mentor who allowed us to pursue much more ambitious garment construction.
How do you see the local fashion scene shifting, and where do you see your place within that change?
The local fashion scene is becoming so vibrant and exciting with more contemporary approaches, without abandoning our Malaysian culture and heritage. I believe the world is starting to see the talents we have in this country over the last few years.
My role is to continue to dream, explore and create designs that I reckon are fresh and forward-thinking. I want to create a label that’s backed up by great work and excellent construction, made locally.
As a local fashion designer in Malaysia, what do you like about the industry and what do you think could be improved?
It’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I felt I was at the right place, at the right time and I believe we are maturing into a golden era of Malaysian design. There have been more opportunities for exposure and we should maximise them.
If you compare us to our neighbouring countries, we are not as strong in terms of garment production, sourcing and skills. We have access to materials, but not the best access to fabrics and trim. We have garment production, but not the greatest garment production. It can be frustrating since everything can be a bit spotty. From what I know, we also have a lot of skilled people in the garment industry who have either retired or are not around anymore.
The issues aforementioned intensify my decision to bring about in-house garment production. It might be cheaper to outsource, but I like the feeling of being able to see and supervise everything that is going on at FRIESENGUYS. I like being able to trace everything as every part of this process is part of the creativity, not just the design visions and the final looks.