Yeohlee Teng, Soon to be Honored by the CFDA, Talks Fashion and Figures

This year marks 40 years in business for Yeohlee Teng who will receive the Board of Directors’ Tribute at the CFDA Awards next week. To look back at the designer’s work is to realize how ahead of the curve she has always been. From day one Teng has been focused on zero waste, one-size-fits-all, and genderless design, issues that have only recently become the industry’s cris de coeur.

Born in Malaysia in 1951, Teng came to New York to study at Parsons School of Design, trading one island for another, as it were. She found success out of the box, with an ingenious, ascetic-looking zero-waste cape that made retailers and copyists take notice, not to mention curators, who are often drawn to the architectural aspects of her work.

“I think of clothing as the first shelter that you build around yourself,” the designer says. A recipient of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, Teng is a darling of the art world. Not only do Yeohlee pieces “last a lifetime,” as she puts it, they give you something to think about. Patricia McLaughlin, writing for the Universal Press Syndicate in 2004, said, “You kind of expect clothes that carry a lot of intellectual baggage to be artsy and unwearable. But Yeohlee Teng’s are beautiful, graceful, useful, [and] easy to wear. Maybe fashion isn’t just for airheads after all.”

There is certainly a lot of thought that goes into this designer’s innovative pattern making. Teng takes interstitial spaces, like that between a body and a dress, into account while always leaving room for the extraordinary. “I always understood that there was magic in clothing,” she says.

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