SAMUEL GUÌ YANG is a womenswear fashion brand founded by Samuel Yang in 2015. The studio has its roots in both London and Shanghai. Their work is influenced by mixing and merging Chinese and Western codes.
At the high end of fashion, Samuel, is not someone you’d readily associate with our community Centre. Nevertheless, Samuel contacted us back in September last year to do a collaboration with our community members.
His project, AUTUMN WINTER 19 CAMPAIGN ‘PORTRAITS’, was a special project shot on location with members of the Hackney Chinese Community Centre.
HCCS caught up with him to find out more
about his motivations behind the shoot.
HCCS: You originated from China but are now based in Hackney. Please can you please tell me a bit about your background?
Samuel: I am originally from China, Southern China in Guangdong province, and I grew up there. During this time, I have grown up with mix culture influences that came from Hong Kong, Japanese, and Taiwanese culture. I moved to the UK in 2006 and later did my degree and MA at Central St Martins in fashion design. In 2015, after graduating, I founded the SAMUEL GUÌ YANG studio. In the beginning, starting my own label was very challenging but with great support from people around me, the label is now becoming widely established.
HCCS: How has the combination of East and Western cultures influenced your designs?
Samuel: We are a Chinese brand based in London, and this already reflects our vision of the union of two different cultures. I am very interested in how we can translate it to our design practice with this in mind. Our fashion shoot at Hackney Chinese Community Services was part of this, and we have followers not just in the UK, but also in China.
HCCS: What inspired your fashion shoot at Hackney Chinese Community Services?
Samuel: A good friend of ours who works as volunteers for Hackney Chinese Community Services, mentioned the centre, and our studio was located between Mare Street and Broadway Market. We were surprised to hear that there was a Chinese community centre very close by in the neighborhood. After the first meeting with the managers of the centre, we were invited to the Lunar new year celebrations before the shoot. It was mind blowing to me and it felt it captured very well Southeast Asian culture, whilst maintaining it in the wider British community.
When we first started to discuss work with HCCS with our creative team: Art director Jasmine Raznahan and photographer Xavier Mas, stylist Lyson Marchessault, came up with the idea of a series of portraits and using the members of the centre as models. We had a strong feeling about it , that even as part of the diaspora, that could retain our Chinese heritage. Yvonne (the manager) was very supportive, without her the process could not be so smooth. It was a very meaningful project, and yet it was quite the opposite to a traditional fashion shoot. It felt very authentic.
HCCS: Why did you use the centre as a backdrop, and why did you decide to use normal centre members for your models?
Samuel: To celebrate the importance of a Chinese community and a diverse London, also uniting strength of local communities, stretching across borders, is reflected both in our team and in our work. That’s the reason why we use the centre as backdrop and worked directly with the HCCS members.
HCCS: How did the shoot go using members of the community centre?
Samuel: The process went very smoothly. In the end, it only took half a day for the shoot. We asked everyone to bring in something that had special meaning to them, an outfit that they cherish, or wanted to wear in an event and brought into the shooting day.
Working closely with our stylist Lyson Marchessault, we asked them, “What did you bring? What would you like to wear?” Some were quite shy, so we advised them. Some picked what they liked to wear.
Chelsea’s mother, Feng, is wearing all of her own clothing. She looked so confident and bright that we decided to shoot what she had dressed for the day. We just let her stand in front of the camera and pose, and we loved that. The photoshoot aimed at celebrating the people, rather than the clothes. We mixed clothes, swapping between items that we have bought, and they had bought. We styled with their own outfit by changing a shirt or adding a jacket. We didn’t want them to be overdressed.
We had fun with the children, they had their own interpretation of one of our padded jackets. One young boy thought it was like a Jedi outfit! And thanks to Jabez (the manager) who helped us to guide one of the little brothers to stand in front of the camera. During the shooting, most of the members were English and Cantonese speakers, so I could communicate with them directly. It felt very supportive and everyone was very curious about the shoot and also willing to be part of the project, this was one of the highlights.
HCCS: For me, the portraits evoke a feeling of nostalgia, and reflection on Chinese diasporas. Is that something you intended with a black and white shoot and the stories that accompany the portraits?
The Autumn winter 19 collection is inspired by the Japanese photographer Hiroh Kikai’s black and white series Asakusa Portraits. After the discussion with the creative team, we all agreed that the black and white portraits are the best way of portraying people from the community center, to show their different walks of life from school children, waiters, activists, families, students and elderly.
HCCS: I know the people at the centre quite well and I think you really captured the essence of their characters with their lives interweaving, who meet up and connect at the community centre, but who go off and do their own thing again, it was such an interesting way to show off your clothes, as part of a wider narrative about diaspora.
Samuel: Yes, at the end of this project, the seasonal design piece (AW19) were not necessarily the main focus in this collaboration, but on the other hand they have become so connected with the essence of these people’s characters, and the outcome of which we felt very proud. The clothes became part of a collaboration with community members’ own wardrobes.
HCCS: How has this project been received in the UK and Asia?
Samuel: This campaign has been well received in both the UK and Asia. When the series went to China: Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing in stores and boutiques, the project was very well received by different audiences. Personally, this sparked a lot of joy for me, it definitely extended further what we have done before but also a lot of new conversation about community culture. Several photographers and creative people have contacted us, wanting to know more about the process and story behind this project.
Back to London again, with HCCS, we were contacted by many people who have an interest in their Chinese heritage, this wasn’t expected so it’s great that these community values are spread across borders. And so, this project has been exciting for us.
After the portrait series, we further discussed how to strengthen this connection between East and West culture (London & Shanghai). Last summer, we brought the same team to Shanghai for a new collaborative project. The Shanghai project will be released in March, and depict older people, square dancing, showcasing both old and new together at the same time.
It is an equivalent idea to the HCCS and looks to push forward Chinese heritage and identity both Chinese and Western cultures and using fashion as a medium to celebrate this narrative.
The uniting strength of Communities, stretching across borders, is reflected both in the Samuel Guì Yang team and in our collections. It is crucial to our existence as a company. We believe it is also a crucial part of the London we love and have adopted as our home.
All portraits © Samuel Gui Yang