Upcycling the Past to the Present, Inside Yesterday's Skin

(courtesy The Yesterday's Skin)

They say you must look to the past to know your future and Hong Kong fashion designer Eileen Chan has taken that idea to heart. She set up the fashion brand The Yesterday Skin in 2010, with the idea of “bringing the past back to present” via upcycling neglected vintage pieces from around the world. Since then her vintage makeover project has been given the thumb-ups from British fashionistas, not to mention such worthies as fashion blog Susie Bubble and the magazines Surface and City Howwhy. The Yesterday Skin label has also stirred up a mini-trend of upcycling vintage fashion in Hong Kong.

The inspiration for her label came from her own personal collection of vintage clothes. Chan’s passion for vintage began in her teenage years, when she started to travel around the world and discovered the joy of shopping in flea markets. But like most Asian girls, she found European vintage clothes tended to hang too loose on her, so she built up a large collection of pieces that she never wore. After graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Institute of Textiles and Clothing in 2007, Chan worked for two years with commercial fashion companies as a designer but soon tired of the repetitive nature of mass-production fashion. That’s when she decided to see what she could do with her untouched collection of vintage treasures.

“A host of high fashion designers look for inspiration to vintage apparel,” notes Chan, but what makes The Yesterday Skin distinctive is the way it translates vintage from the past in a contemporary way instead of simply looking retro. Chan’s genius is in the way she can revamp even old-fashioned, not-so-perfect pieces into something modern and chic, whether by the addition of a sharp shoulder, the shortening of a hem, the inclusion of a collar, or the cropping of a top. She once turned a huge men’s suit into a gorgeous ladies cape via a series of snips, tucks and stitches. She also oftentimes hand paints blocks of color onto drab, shapeless dresses, instantly transforming them into unique little numbers.

Successful as it is, The Yesterday Skin is still a one woman show. Designer Chan does everything on her own, from sourcing materials to design, from production to marketing. She tells me each piece requires two weeks to take from design to completion, which is rather a long cycle in a world that thrives on fast-fashion. But The Yesterday Skin is finding its niche amongst the growing number of Hong Kong people who are becoming bored with high street labels like H&M or Zara and are looking for something one-of-a-kind.

Chan also hopes that her creations will not just been seen as part of a passing season’s fad but will continue to be worn over a longer time. As a result she names her collections Wardrobe 01, 02, and 03 instead of the traditional Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, in hope of blurring the concept of seasons. “Though these clothes come from different decades, they all integrate harmoniously in our collection. It feels so personal like showing our own wardrobe at home.”

Curious to hear more, ARTINFO Hong Kong recently caught up with Eileen Chan.

Where did the name “The Yesterdayskin” come from?

I knew I would use this name when I first had the idea of forming a brand. It's actually quite a straight forward name, clothes are people's second skin, and what I create is from the past with stories behind them, that's why it's called “The Yesterday Skin”.

How do you manage to make vintage clothing and accessories look so contemporary?

I pick the styles very carefully, only the ones with potential will be chosen. Normally I will amend the cutting and take away the old fashioned details, so the silhouette can turn into a more clean and modern one.

Where do you source vintage in a city like Hong Kong?

I collect vintage pieces from all over the world, not only in Hong Kong. But I do think that it's possible to find hidden treasures in modern cities even like Hong Kong. You only need to be patient and keep your eyes open.

What was the most interesting vintage piece you ever found?

I once found a hand sewn silk dress. It was totally hand-made, even the buttonholes were made by the lady herself. As a result, the shape didn't look that perfect but it's really one-of-a-kind, you can hardly ever find clothes like that now.

Have you ever found any difficulty in transforming old clothes to new ones?

Maybe it's most difficult to pick the right pieces, to find the right ones that could fit into one collection, and have the potential to look trendy and modern.

Which of you vintage makeovers has given you your greatest satisfaction?

I once turned an extra-large men's suit into a ladies' cape. It was a unique piece I made for a fashion show, and was also my first attempt to work with men's wear.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere. From a person to a photo, or a book, a story, a piece of nice design... Inspiration can come from anywhere. All I need to do is just keep my mind open and explore.

Is there a fashion designer who has influenced you the most?

I like Hussien Chalayan the most.

Which decade do you wish you could live in?

It's really hard to decide. Every decade has its unique beautiful fashion, but it's actually quite a good time now, I am still feeling excited about the new designs and technologies which help us to make good design.

What’s your plan for future? Will you expand your design territory to home décor or lifestyle products?

I want to keep exploring the possibilities of The Yesterday Skin, and keep meeting or working with inspiring people. I haven’t thought about lifestyle products, but this could be a good idea, and I may do something else other than clothing, like accessories or bags.

What is the Hong Kong person's attitude towards vintage fashion?

People are becoming more open to nice vintage. They are willing to look unique instead of wearing fast fashions, more of them are going to thrift stores and admiring clothes from the past.

To see more of Eileen Chan's Yesterday's Skin click on our slideshow.