UNIQUE CHIC: LEEYONG SOO'S EXTRAORDINARY STYLE
The other day Leeyong Soo posted on Facebook that a random dog walking bloke had called out to her in the street, “Scuse me, in case no one else tells you today, I'm loving your outfit.” That is just the sort of thing that happens to this excellent sewing person, social entrepreneur and ex-Japanese Voguette.
Now, she wasn’t walking her cat at the time (shame, because LEEYONG SOO DOES IN FACT WALK HER CAT)… She was wearing, she insists, her everyday gear. Nothing unusual. Unless you call a revamped vintage Batik dress, giant bamboo tassel earrings and a kimono unusual. Me? Nah. I just call it being a Wardrobe Crisis Wonder Woman.
Leeyong describes her style as "eternally print- and pattern-centric, with particular focus on Batik textiles and 'ethnic' adornment." Oh, and she made those earrings herself. In fact she makes most of her clobber herself from upcycled stuff she finds in charity shops. She blogs about her sewing projects at Style Wilderness. Accessories-wise, she's mad about tassels, is not averse to a vintage turban or three, and has her own line of fair trade jewellery made in Laos.
She first dabbled in fashion at primary school, "when I started drawing models wearing my designs, none of which ever materialised (probably a good thing)." Since no one in her family was particularly interested in clothes, she suspects it was Dannii Minogue’s outfits on Young Talent Time that caused the initial spark. But it was moving to Tokyo and landing a job at Japanese Vogue that got her truly smitten.
Tagging along with the editors to tenjikai (showings) she was "drawn to shiny, colourful things, especially with an oriental theme."
Not that she was perfectly dressed from the get-go . "I really had no idea about fashion, having never worked in the industry before," she says. Her Andy Sachs/cerulean blue moment? "I had some hideously ugly red Mary Janes that I wore with knee-length skirts or pants, some of which I'd made myself."
The Vogue experience helped hone her eye - "I loved a brand called Cocue which did beaded mules in all kinds of colours and heel heights – I had a pink mesh pair that I would wear with tight Hysteric Glamour jeans with 10cm hem turn-ups and a stretchy T-shirt and cardigan… classic late ‘90s" - but let's face it, Leeyong has got innate style.
"I’m quite shy so fashion is a way to express myself non-verbally."
Now based in Melbourne, she loves dressing up for "its ability to transport me to far-off lands and times – in my head, at least. Even if I’m just hanging out at the local shopping centre in the 'burbs I can dress as if I were an exotic princess from a tropical island, a streetwise '70s babe or an apprentice to Iris Apfel."
Travel inspires her, as do handicrafts and traditional textiles. She launched her Wilderness Bazaar jewellery line after travelling to Laos with her friend Kommaly Chanthavong, founder of fair trade label Mulberries. "I wanted to create my own label of accessories employing fair trade artisans, and to draw on their existing skill base rather than dreaming things up that they couldn’t produce." She heard about a village called Ban Napia where craftspeople were making small things (keyrings, bangles) out of recycled aluminium, some of it from spent bullet casings left over from the war. They now make her metal earrings.
Leeyong is very keen on the unique chic that's a characteristic of the handmade. Op shops and flea markets are another obsession. When she worked out she could find old kimonos in markets, she took to what she calls "refashioning" them - shortening hems, changing shapes, sometimes making them into completely new things like the trim on a blue satin bomber jacket. She wanted to "wear the beautiful prints and patterns as everyday garments" rather than keep them for special occasions. She started embellishing old T-shirts and customising her denim. And so Leeyong's distinctive signature style - let's call it exotic DIY- was born.
She learned to sew by hand as a kid, but these days runs up her outfits on a domestic machine. She can follow a basic pattern, she says, but mostly it's "just trial and error".
"Sewing outfits from scratch or customising/upcycling existing pieces allows me to create garments that are unique and express my vision in a way that readymade garments can never do. And it’s a lot cheaper than buying designer stuff."
Can anyone do it? "Yes! Although I suppose it depends what level you aspire to. My own work is definitely not at a professional level. It’s not a good idea to look at the insides of most of my clothes as they’re not particularly well finished. French seams? Ain’t nobody got time for that..."
Follow Leeyong on Instagram @stylewilderness