Fashion isn’t just aesthetics, nor is it trends, nor the daily clothes that we wear. Fashion is a tool to discover who we truly are, and Carrie Yap’s millinery project Yap Sister Studio proves it. The Chinese-Canadian milliner approaches the art of couture hat-making from an intentional direction, retelling traditional Asian stories through her accessories for a contemporary audience.
The designer joins me virtually from her studio in Calgary, Canada, at a time when cultural dress is muddied by fast fashion, and celebrating Asian culture grows in importance. We begin by addressing where she first gained her inspiration to start the one-of-a-kind brand.
Tori Nergaard: What was your turning point to begin working in millinery and design?
Carrie Yap: So, I’m actually an urban planner! I went to school for urban design, which is kind of the design aspect of planning. Like most careers, you go in and think it’s going to be one thing and then it’s not. I was really missing the hands-on work, because one part of urban design is building models, so I wanted to do something that would help me use my hands – and I’ve always been really good at it. I remembered that years ago, there used to be a hat course that I was offered through Chinook College, and it disappeared, so rather than just going into clay, or textiles, I thought: “Millinery: that’s really fun, I really like hats, so let’s try that.” I found that I resonated a lot with it.
How do you translate heritage design practices for modern pieces and a contemporary audience?
The British and Australian derby fashion world is kind of the prominence of millinery. You see the royals and celebrities wearing them to Kentucky derbies and events. I found them beautiful and really appreciated how they were made. I learned through that avenue, but I found that whenever I made something, I’ve always wanted to go deeper. I am obviously not of British or Caucasian descent; and what resonated with me more was learning about hats that were culturally important to my background, learning about fabrics, shapes and other uses.
How do you translate stories and storytelling through your work?
Through the shapes and the use of fabrics. I try, where possible, to highlight Asian designs and motifs that are important. And for fabrics, the use of silk is really important to me. Asian culture is very superstitious. It’s not just a peony for the sake of being a peony, it’s a peony because it represents something. There’s all this auspicious symbolism associated with motifs, so I try to build those in. There’s also little traditional techniques and craftsmanship that I’ve picked up and learned how to make myself, like the Chinese knot.
Hand embroidery, and just doing it all by hand, matter too. I had the opportunity to use a machine, but there’s something nice and calming in thinking about how someone back then spent hours embroidering a flower, and that you’re going through that same movement and those same steps.
What’s your design and creation process like?
The process is a lot of research. I have a lot of books on Chinese dress, and Asian dress more generally. I try not to limit myself to just Chinese, because a lot of Asian-Canadians don’t know our heritage past our grandparents. It was all kind of erased through conflict, and so I want to open the door to everyone else who also wants to learn more and interpret their culture, like me.
I’ve been watching a lot of movies that I used to watch as a kid and have been realizing that it wasn’t just a story about a snake and a dragon, but that there’s a lot of symbolism in it. Then, I take the story and think about the kinds of fabrics or shapes that will allow me to tell that story. If it’s not told through a shape, can I make it through embroidery?
Can you share how you interpret traditional millinery for a contemporary audience?
It’s about reinterpreting traditional shapes. The Asian millinery world is not like the contemporary millinery world where there are set blocks and tools you can find. You have to make them for yourself, so it’s really difficult to recreate what was popular traditionally. That’s why you have to modernize it a little.
What’s the proudest moment in your millinery career so far?
I think it’s when someone can recognize a piece. When I made the Noble Crown, my mom saw it and told me: “That looks like a Qing Dynasty crown!” and I was like, “I know, I actually tried really hard to do that!” She was able to recognize it and see the connection immediately. For me, it’s stories like that, when people have a reaction to my pieces.
What have been your clients’ reactions to incorporating your heritage and history into your brand?
I would say that, primarily, my clientele are people who also want to reconnect with their heritage. I’ve had this one really great client who lived in Harbin, and she wanted to bring Chinese opera and Harbin into a piece, so I got to do research on that. My clientele is people who want to either connect to their own culture or want a piece with a bit more depth to it, because it is not just a piece. There’s a story, and not just my own personal story but a cultural story as well.
What was your experience like training in millinery in New York?
I happened to train under a milliner named Anya Caliendo, and she’s established in Babylon, NY. For me, it was amazing. She had a very similar style and discipline to the way that I train, which is the importance of precision, excellence, accuracy and using the best materials. She has these stories about how a lot of her students would have a crying corner, because she would push them so far. But the magic of couture millinery is that you have to push it that far – you’re making everything by hand. Your hands have to be so strong and you have to be so disciplined. In that way, it’s very similar to any type of traditional craftsmanship. It was three weeks, and it was exhausting, but I loved it. In that time, I made double the hats that I’d normally make, because you just sit there and work for 7 hours straight. There were also amazing suppliers; the fabrics in New York are some of the best. It was amazing to be in an environment where I had resources available, but also to be in an environment where I had appreciators of similar arts.
What has your experience been like working out of a city that’s not recognized as a fashion city?
It’s challenging, I’m not going to lie. There was a moment where I realized that I can either relocate to Toronto or stay in Calgary. The benefit of Calgary is that there’s an amazing art scene here that’s very tight-knit and allows you to thrive and collaborate in ways that you couldn’t in any other city.
I’ve really had to find positives, because it’s harder here to find the materials I need, the tools I need, the models, the resources, even PR, and the people I need to go to the next step. But the collaborators are amazing here. Also, because there’s not a lot going on in Calgary compared to other cities, it really forces you to go out and find connections. Because of that, I’ve been forced to find connections in New York, Singapore and Toronto, and I’ve been forced to travel to places where I don’t have a comfort zone. Here, I always have a need to push myself and to get to know what’s on trend on my own. So, that’s kind of the benefit, you never get a comfort zone, you always have to keep fighting.
Would you ever consider expanding further into fashion design?
I’m not opposed to expanding, I just think that there’s so much to explore right now in millinery. My next project after this is one on Chinese opera, which is a dying craft. I have to somehow find people that will teach us the craft, even though there’s no one left to teach us, and reinterpret beautiful headpieces using the methods from the past, following in their footsteps. There is a lot of work I want to do there, and tons more that I want to do on subset Chinese cultures, like the Hakka Chinese. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t expand, there’s just so much I haven’t’ explored yet.
Do you think you would eventually want to pass along the experience and knowledge you’ve gained to other young people who’d like to reconnect with their culture as well?
Absolutely! I think that the Chinese opera one would be a great avenue because it’s much more well-known.
During an era where appropriated culture is so prevalent in fast fashion and trends, do you feel like your work allows you to control your own narrative?
Yes, I would say so, and I think that is the key message. I always say that this is my journey to reconnect. As a child of an immigrant, we did lose a lot because we were trying to integrate into a new culture. You lose a lot of traditions, so for me this is my story and my way of reconnecting to my heritage, by relearning some things that were lost. Through my work, I’m also allowing others, who would relate to my experience, be part of that journey.
All images courtesy of Yap Sister Studio. Photography by Melanie Gauer, hair by Kimberly Seibel, makeup by Liz Lai, models include Iris Odell, Phylicia Tran, flowers by Meadow & Vine Studio.