Interview: Jill Aiko Yee, Women’s Wear Designer

One of the goals I have for Twenty Two is to connect you, our readers, with awesome people you wouldn’t otherwise know about. In our latest interview of the series, I got to learn more about Jill Aiko Yee, a women’s wear designer based out of the Miracle Mile District in Los Angeles. (She’s also a panelist for our Ask The Panel series.)

Jill discusses her non-traditional path that led her to designing, her effortless clothing, her inspiration, and much more.

Twenty Two: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Jill: I am a Midwestern transplant who’s been living in LA for about 10 years now. I came to LA to go to Otis College of Art and Design for fashion school. I took a bit of a non-traditional route to get where I am. I had to attempt school several times in several cities before I got it right. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dancing ballet and playing violin. After high school I pursued contemporary ballet as a career for a couple of years. It was after going to Europe to audition for dance companies there that I realized it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t love being on stage the way others did. I continued dancing a bit after that. My explorations and travels (internally and internationally) helped mold my approach to design. I try to take inspiration from many cultures, and from movement and sculpture.

Twenty Two:  Wow, that’s great. You’ve been on quite a journey. When did you start getting interested in design and becoming a women’s wear designer?

Jill: Just after I stopped pursuing dance professionally, I moved to San Francisco. There I worked in a store called Workshop, which is owned by a woman named Susan Kim, the sister of designer Christina Kim of Dosa. I learned quite a bit about retail and clothing there, and accessed my childhood desires to design. It was something I had never really given myself a chance with. But after deciding I wanted to get into it, I moved to LA to go to Otis. That was around 2002, I think. I connected with design and clothing because those things in life are very deeply rooted in emotional experience.

Twenty Two: Did you start your line long after graduating?

Jill: I graduated in 2006, and worked in the industry in LA for five years before starting my line in the fall of 2011. I had an internship with Gregory Parkinson — I love his clothing so much! While I was in school and then after graduation, I worked with Rozae Nichols for two years, and at a line called illia for three years. Illia has a store on Abbott Kinney in Venice. It took a while before I felt confident enough and competent enough to go for it!

Twenty Two: What did you take away the most from these experiences?

Jill: Persistence, value of creative endeavors, that experimentation is most rewarding. Also a lot of technical learning that I didn’t get in school. I learned how to make patterns which I do all of my own now. I learned a lot about draping at Rozae Nichols, and I love draping because it is a form of sculpture with fabric.

Twenty Two: Can you tell us a bit about your clothing?

Jill: My clothing is always colorful, and vibrant. I try to infuse a creative edge, and personality into it. Right now on my website I have the Itterations line which is workwear oriented, in that it is designed for a working woman that requires comfort and utilitarian details, but is not traditional workwear. But I am in the process of developing a second line that is just my name — Jill Aiko Yee — which will be more evening, going-out wear… silks in deep colors, and dip dyed. I try to keep it whimsical.

Twenty Two: After browsing your website, I see that you stress the importance of making clothes that are wearable and functional. Is this only true for the Itterations line or does it also apply to your namesake line?

Jill: The silk line will be wearable and functional definitely. I want it to be comfortable. However, it won’t be worn to work. It’s for a night out and that means it won’t be heavily structured with bodices and boning. Very loose and blowsy. More dramatic. Although I think clothing should be beautiful, I try not to approach it from the point of view that it is art. That can often be what makes it more of an object than something to wear.

Twenty Two: What’s the process that you go through when you’re creating a new collection?

Jill: Most often I have an idea of what silhouettes I want to do, so I draw thumbnail sketches. Then from there, I drape the clothes. It’s not a totally set process. Sometimes I buy the fabric first, then design and sometimes I make the muslin sample first, and then find the fabric. I like to work by myself with some music, and either an image that’s inspirational or some fabric that makes me feel a certain way.

Twenty Two: What inspires your work? Does it come from any particular place?

Jill: I love going to museums to see current exhibits whether they’re ancient art, or contemporary. I like to be outside camping, or taking walks, and I love to travel. Anything that takes me outside of my daily work/ life routine can get my mind going and it’s normally that little jolt of being removed from the grind that starts the creative process. I like to approach it from an organic space in that I don’t make myself sit down and hammer out the details.

Twenty Two: You mentioned that you’re inspired by different cultures. Can you speak more about this?

Jill: I have a fascination with traditional dress from around the world and the notion that people had only a couple of outfits they owned, but that those outfits may have taken many hours and days to make. Any culture from Native American, to South African, Chinese, Burmese…. they all have a tradition of dress that helps to identify who they are, and what they stand for. Clothing in modern day isn’t quite that elaborate for most of us, but it does offer a peek into our personalities. So I like to look to that kind of history for inspiration. Even though my clothing isn’t highly embellished like that of my inspiration, it still captures a mood and spirit and identity.

Twenty Two: Who are some of your favorite designers?

Jill: As I’ve mentioned before I love Maria Cornejo. I really love the philosophy and craftsmanship of Isabel Toledo. Gregory Parkinson has a flair like none other, and I’m so happy I got the chance to work with him. Balenciaga and Halston (the original designers) I admire for their amazing draping abilities. In terms of large fashion houses I think Lanvin is probably my favorite. I really love the aesthetic of Alber Elbaz.

Twenty Two: Does living and working in Los Angeles influence your designs?

Jill: Absolutely! The whole West Coast lifestyle influences me. Maybe not even consciously but it has become my way of being. It’s so much more casual and (can be) down to earth. It doesn’t as often involve black, and I almost never wear black. Los Angeles is full of creatives, and I appreciate that about our city. Itterations is about workwear for the creative. I like that Los Angeles isn’t as urban as New York. I think the ability to get to the mountains, hiking, or the ocean easily has a huge appeal to me, and the way I design clothes.

Twenty Two: Who’s your ideal customer?

Jill: My ideal customer is a working woman that is in a creative field. She believes that dressing is an expression of personality. I think it has a lot to do with the spirit and energy of the person. I hope to appeal to people that have a hunger for life, and achievement.

Twenty Two: Do you have plans to expand into men’s wear or any other areas?

Jill: I want to continue with small accessories. I would like to get into doing some leathers with the Jill Aiko Yee line. I don’t think I would do a men’s line. Although I do make some clothes for my husband, they are mostly things he and I dream up for fun.

Twenty Two: Last question: do you have any advice for aspiring designers?

Jill: I would say to do it for the style or creative passion you have. Know that like any other job it entails detail and technical work. It isn’t entirely glamorous like so many people portray it. Stick with it! It’s easy to get discouraged, but persistence is great to have. I think that having my own company is the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far!

A special thanks to Jill for giving us the opportunity to learn more about her clothing. You can keep up with her by taking a peek at her website, shop, FacebookTumblr, and Twitter.

Click on the images below to see more from Jill Aiko Yee.

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