LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
A Sky-High Fashion Start-Up -
Date of photography: 14th December 2017
Yen-Ting Cho is a Taiwanese designer and entrepreneur whose name is fast becoming an internationally-recognised fashion brand. He chose London as a base because of its status as one of the world’s fashion capitals; it is good to have ‘London’ on a logo. In the world of trade, especially in fashion, that name gives the product cachet, it offers a clear trading advantage, for London is still associated with good design and high quality. Yen-Ting Cho intends to grow his market share here in Britain, though he currently has more buyers outside the UK. The US market is already significant and European sales are growing impressively too. As most of the top fashion trade shows are also still in Paris, for his business, hard borders and trade barriers are certainly an impediment; there’s no doubt that business grows best where such barriers have been dismantled. It is therefore especially unfortunate that Yen-Ting Cho should have launched his fashion start-up in London, exactly at a time when barriers might be going up once more around our little island, with every foreigner seen, not as an investor but as a suspicious undesirable, a potential contributor to all of society’s ills.
To most people, ‘fashion capital of the world’, means not only a pre-eminent centre where leading trends emerge and innovative designs are created, but also a place that is prominent in coordinating the production and retail of high-fashion clothing and accessories, in accommodating leading design schools, in publishing the glossy fashion magazines that are key to promoting new trends and providing a platform for the current leaders of fashion, and in hosting the ateliers and salons of the leading couturiers of the day. In short, the ‘fashion capitals’ are home not only to those in the vanguard of design but also to the vast marketing and promotional machine that is devoted to the operation of the huge fashion industry. Over many centuries, the names of these capitals have changed but, for a long while, Paris has remained the capital of haute couture. London is currently amongst the six principal centres of fashion excellence, alongside Paris, New York, Barcelona, Milan and Rome, with Berlin, Tokyo, Sāo Paulo and Los Angeles coming up hard on their heels.
London’s Fashion Week has now become one of the highlights in the calendars of most of the movers and shakers in the fashion industry. Since the sixties and Mary Quant’s head-turning designs - the mini skirts and the hot pants - London fashion trends have continued to capture the headlines. While Saville Row’s outfitters for gentlemen have remained a symbol for all that is best in traditional London tailoring, the anti-establishment, ‘punk’ designs of Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, unashamedly took over the market for popular fashion. Alexander McQueen, who learned his craft as a couturier in Saville Row, became one of London’s most innovative and influential fashion designers, inspiring many others who followed his lead. London has developed as a fashion centre where there is both respect for tradition and where the ‘rules’ can (and are) frequently broken. It is the place where, until very recently, young British designers were almost expected to be iconoclastic, yet where any new fashion design brand that can proclaim its London associations will be seen as desirable and of high quality. It is worth noting that the market value of this country’s fashion industry, seen as frivolous and marginal by some, is in the region of £66,000,000,000 (sixty-six billion) per annum.
One of the newer brand names is YenTing Cho and I had the great privilege of meeting, photographing and interviewing the man behind what is still a recent start-up. I was invited to meet him at his impressive operational centre, on the 42nd floor of a glass and steel palace in the sky, located on the Isle of Dogs and part of London’s ‘New City’. It is mid-December but we have been blessed with the most beautiful weather - a clear blue sky and remarkable visibility. On the horizon, the Shard is confidently piercing the clouds and the massive new skyscrapers of the old City appear separated from the new financial centre on the Isle of Dogs by a lazily flowing River Thames. The river forms an ’S’ shape here, what could almost be a dollar sign - how very appropriate, I thought!
I am welcomed by Yen-Ting Cho himself, a softly-spoken young man of 35 years who is both the designer and the brain behind this exciting, new addition to the world of London fashion. Not having an extensive knowledge of the fashion business myself, I invite Yen-Ting to enlighten me a little about his life in the industry to date: “I was born near Taiwan’s western coast, a place called Lukang, in Changhua. Though my father’s family were farmers, my father himself was an engineer and my mother was a teacher. I have one younger brother. In every respect, I’d say we were a quite unexceptional family. I went to school in the city of Hsinchu, a school that took me from elementary right through to senior high school, when I was 18. In Taiwan, most schools are very much orientated towards passing exams and achieving the best results; my school, however, was an exception, for we were not too heavily pushed in a traditional academic direction. My parents were aspirational for us, of course, but they were not too assertive: we were largely allowed to do what we wanted to do, so when I started to lean towards the creative arts, they accepted it.”
I asked Yen-Ting, already a prominent name in the field of innovative design, how he had discovered his creativity and his talent: “Since elementary school, I did some representative art and some painting, but I also enjoyed music and learned to play the violin and the piano - at one stage, I even sang in a pop-band. When I was 15, I had the opportunity to go on an organised visit to Europe and, looking back on it, I think this trip might have been a turning point for me. We visited London for a few days but I spent most of my time in Nottingham, of which I still have fond memories. Observing especially the town layouts and the architecture, I was fascinated to observe the differences between British and Taiwanese cities and conurbations. I developed a serious interest in architecture and I decided that, as soon as I could take it, my next step would be to study Architecture at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.”
Military service is compulsory for all in Taiwan, so Yen-Ting, now a young man of 23, found himself in military uniform for a year and a half. Life in the armed forces was demanding and stressful, with little latitude to find time for oneself, but Yen-Ting took the opportunity of every spare moment away from his duties, to hone his skills in manipulating digital images on his personal computer - this was the only outlet for his creativity. Having served his country for the requisite time, Yen-Ting went next to the USA, to pursue his Architecture studies at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he gained his Master’s degree at Harvard. But that was not all: in parallel with his principal studies, Yen-Ting started to explore computer programming and animation, later moving into interaction design. “As I completed my Architecture course, I applied for a place at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London; however, while I was waiting to take this up, I decided to stay in the US for a further year, working in my university professor’s studio, where I gained invaluable experience in applied design. I also furthered my study of interaction design and was fortunate in being able to show my animation work and win awards at several festivals.”
At the age of 28, Yen-Ting finally arrived in London to undertake a PhD at the RCA, where his field was ‘Innovation Design Engineering’ and where he succeeded in presenting his thesis in three and a half years. Also during this period, he developed, together with two others, a unique software program called MovISee; this uses body movement to construct a mass of personal digital information, thus generating multi-layered patterns that are quite unexpected, dynamic and individual. Yen-Ting used his remaining year in London very constructively, establishing professional contacts and networking; he even managed to have his own work exhibited by Camden Art Centre.
During 2015, Yen-Ting returned to Taiwan, back to the university where he had set out on his professional path, but this time he was not a student but Professor of Design at the Institute for Creative Industry Design, part of the National Cheng Kung University. He joined an already established team of academics who specialised in applied design, in training new creative talent, and in linking it with industry, with an emphasis on the final product and on entrepreneurship.
I asked Yen-Ting how it felt to return to Taiwan after so many years of life in the West. “Milan, it was quite a culture shock at first but I was made welcome by the University; it was an environment that allowed me to develop my own practice alongside my teaching responsibilities. During this time, I managed to explore the full potential of my software without having to contend with undue commercial or financial pressures. And this was also the time when the outline concept of setting up my own business was born - you could see the business as almost a natural progression of the work I was doing. During my last year in London, I had worked with a friend who was a textile designer and we decided to collaborate. It was then that I established contacts with several manufacturers in the UK and in Europe (in Italy and in Spain ) as well as some manufacturing facilities in Taiwan. While I was working as a professor at the University, I displayed some of my work at a commercial trade show. This was my first attempt at dipping my toe into the waters of commerce but I was still without a finalised brand name. Having decided to take the plunge and to start a business, a clearly defined brand name, and the all-important brand identity, became the priorities for me.”
In the Summer of 2016, Yen-Ting Cho returned to London with a well-defined business plan in his head, with a brand identity clearly defined, and the confidence that this was the right time to launch it. His was one of numerous start-ups that year but he had certain distinct advantages: he already had the all-important designs at an advanced stage; he had already established some key connections with the chain of production; and he had acquired at least tentative links to various buyers and distribution networks. It was all starting to take shape and YenTing Cho Studio was born.
I asked Yen-Ting why he’d decided on London as his base and not Paris, New York or one of the other fashion capitals; instantly, he replied: “The main reason was that I already had a network here, I knew people. Instinctively, I also felt that this was a good place for me. Many designers who pass through the Royal College of Art take it almost for granted that they will open their own studios, establish their own brands, and start their own businesses, and that really is special. Starting up a new business in London is relatively painless too, which is a distinct advantage.”
One year on and the company is already manufacturing, its brand image is becoming recognised, and goods are exhibited at the world’s top trade shows. The company also has a retail and resellers network in the USA, in Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland) and in Asia (China, Japan and Taiwan). Very soon, it will have a presence in Russia and New Zealand too.
“Currently, scarves are our main product, both in silk and wool, but we are poised to move into other fashion accessories as well as interior design - these are being mostly showcased at trade exhibitions. Scarves could be seen as an overcrowded market but our range of designs is starting to catch the eyes and capture the imaginations of both buyers and design-conscious clients. While our products are not presently being sold as limited editions, neither are they being ‘mass-marketed’. The quantity of our scarves is inevitably limited so they are seen and sold as an exclusive, luxury product of the highest quality. I would like to think that everything we make now, and plan to make in the future, will blur the boundaries between art, design and fashion.”
“Though our patterns are actually created through the programming power of our bespoke software, this incorporates into our designs components that capture the essence of a human being’s movement and behaviour; this makes every design unique - organic details, patterns of human body movement, are reconstructed digitally through our MovISee software, so no pattern is ever repeated. Each scarf is, of course, branded with the YenTing Cho trademark, which is already being regarded as a symbol of quality. Of course, the business is still quite new and growing, but I intend to expand the range of products gradually, responding to market trends and, I hope, setting them too.”
Since Yen-Ting decided to open his company in Britain, a country so often promoted by our political masters as being always ‘open for business’, the UK referendum on EU membership has thrown a rather unexpected shadow over the business world, blighting it with the withering touch of uncertainty. I therefore took the liberty of asking Yen-Ting what he felt about Brexit. After a moment’s consideration, he responded rather cautiously: “Milan, I watch the news regularly, I follow developments, and yes, I am concerned. As you can imagine, anyone whose business involves collaboration and trading across borders must be concerned. If a hard border is erected around the UK, it might affect the UK’s competitiveness and will make conducting business with continental Europe much more difficult. Let me explain: my work is manufactured both in the UK and in Europe; my designs are unique and challenge the manufacturing process, so I work collaboratively with my manufacturers in the UK - and elsewhere - to refine production processes and thereby produce high-quality finished goods. I believe, and I am told by manufacturers, that this collaboration, this exchange of ideas, gives us both a competitive edge, which benefits the UK economy. We are also concerned, of course, that post-Brexit, my products will be subject to customs and taxation regulations that do not exist at present. Sometimes, our non-European buyers want to ship our products from London via Europe, for both tax and logistics reasons, and from Europe, they export to other parts of the world; a customs barrier between the UK and the rest of Europe would make such arrangements a good deal more difficult.”
Yen-Ting continued: “While my business is London-based, it caters for an international clientele. It is good to have ‘London’ on our logo; in the world of trade, especially in fashion, that name gives the product cachet, it offers a clear trading advantage - London is still associated with good design and high quality. However, while we intend to grow our market share here in Britain, we currently have more buyers outside the UK (in Europe, the US and Asia). Our US market is already significant and European sales are growing nicely. Most of the top fashion trade shows are in Paris. So, for us, hard borders and trade barriers are certainly an impediment and there’s no doubt that business grows best where these barriers have been dismantled.”
As we know, the outcome of the Brexit referendum was influenced by a complex of factors: people not only wished to regain what they perceived as the UK’s lost sovereignty, but they were also motivated both by a deep mistrust, even detestation, of everything Brussels stood for, and an almost paranoid fear of seemingly uncontrolled immigration, largely from Eastern Europe. The popular, almost entirely Europhobic, UK press was happy to fuel these fires and, having rubbished the EU for over 40 years, did not find it at all difficult to generate a poisonous nationalism that seems to have permeated all levels of society. Almost overnight, xenophobia became almost respectable and both verbal and physical attacks on foreigners of all descriptions became commonplace. Since then, the Government has itself continued to send out conflicting, almost schizophrenic messages: the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has travelled the world, promoting Britain as a first-rate country to invest in, somewhere to grow business, but he seems somewhat to have lost sight of the fact that, at the same time, anti-immigration speeches by some of his fellow MPs have, in the minds of voters, been transformed into a vitriolic loathing of all foreigners. The Labour MP, Jo Cox, was brutally murdered by a maniacal far-right nationalist apparently for her evident pro-EU stand, and a number of foreign workers have also been killed in what are essentially xenophobic attacks. These events have reverberated throughout the world and will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for British business and for the economy as a whole. What would be the incentive to attract foreign entrepreneurs into opening businesses or relocating headquarters to London, knowing that they themselves, and their families, would be seen as unwelcome aliens? What is endlessly paraded as the ‘Will of the People’ will have immeasurable negative consequences, while the will of the 48% who voted to remain within the EU seems to be unworthy of any regard whatsoever. Of course, at the time of writing, what kind of Brexit awaits the UK still remains opaque, and many of those whose role in business is planning and strategic development have put off investment or expansion decisions until greater clarity emerges.
Of course, Yen-Ting is not alone in hoping that some kind of pragmatism or empiricism will soon resurface out of what has become a foetid quagmire of dogma and falsehood. Those London businesses that have always been at the very heart of London’s prosperity hope to be able to continue their trade with the EU, and with the rest of the world, without being handicapped by additional logistical and regulatory obstacles. London is generally recognised as one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres but its fashion, design and creative industries are also world-class and not that far behind as generators of wealth - such businesses are sometimes seen as no more than a superficial gloss on the capital’s huge portfolio of business whereas, in reality, they provide employment to millions of people, not only generating wealth for the nation but also promoting Britain and this great city of ours across the globe.
Having thoroughly disrupted Yen-Ting’s working day, I wished him well and left him in peace, to concentrate on the pressing task of making a great success of his growing business. On the 42nd floor, he lives and works in a palace in the sky, but I found him to be very well grounded, with a good grasp of life in the High Street; he well understands his own roots, and the journey he has taken, and he has a commendable passion for designing and producing articles of such beauty that ordinary people are certain to admire them, purchase them, and feel them to be very special. His undoubted success will add that little bit more to London’s prosperity and to its international reputation as a ‘fashion capital of the world’. London should welcome entrepreneurs like him.
Text Edited: 31st January 2018
You are invited to view Yen-Ting Cho's past and current work via the following links:
Page modified: 22nd April 2019