Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Designer Interview with Choo Yilin, on Bottica

Founder and principal designer, Choo Yilin, was interviewed by the lovely Kate, editor of Bottica.com. We revisit her story a decade ago and learn about the beginning of the Choo Yilin Artisan Jewellery brand.
A Choo Yilin artisan working with a wax mould

When her husband’s job prompted a move to Thailand, former political analyst Choo Yilin found a chance to pursue her passions. She’d been designing jewelry for years, but while working with aid organizations in Thailand, she had the idea to work with small communities of artisans in Southeast Asia to bring her designs to life. She was thrilled to have the chance to pursue a more creative career while creating positive social change. “We create beauty, tell meaningful stories and create social impact,” Yilin says. “We do this by working with heritage and non-profit groups, building on their stories of conservation to create designs that are essentially visual idioms.” Through her jewelry, Yilin builds bridges that connect these small communities with jewelry-lovers all over the world. Like us, she’s mystified by the fact that so few fashion brands pursue this model. “Fashion is extremely powerful, and it has always been responsible for a lot of human behavior as well as consumption patterns,” Yilin told the New York Times last year. “And I always wonder why more fashion designers do not use the power that they have in fashion design to initiate some positive social impact.” With trailblazers like Yilin, perhaps more designers will follow this admirable path.
Founder and principal designer, Choo Yilin
Hello Yilin! Can you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Hi! I had started designing jewelry for fun way back in 2004 to stay connected with my creative side as I worked as a political analyst, which was a very left-brain job.
My husband got posted to Bangkok and I left my career as a political analyst to join him. There, I started working with developmental aid work, including founding a grassroots non-profit group that helped pair volunteers with the different non-profit groups in Bangkok that needed support.
I only started Choo Yilin when I was involved in developmental aid work with women’s groups in Bangkok, including starting a non-profit targeted for women. I wanted to tell the stories of the marginalized communities we worked with – work first started with the Karen Hilltribe Artisans with an incredible history of silversmithing culture. Combining my existing skills as a jewelry designer and my non-profit work in Thailand, I launched Choo Yilin.
In the last few years, CY has evolved into a designer jewelry label that attempts to bring three things together: we create beauty, tell meaningful stories and create social impact. We do this by working with heritage and non-profit groups, building on their stories of conservation to create designs that are essentially visual idioms. Then leveraging the soft power of luxury and media, we strive to get these messages across to delight and educate.
A sketch from a Choo Yilin bespoke heirloom project

Can you please tell us about your design process?
It always starts with a story we want to tell. Then we start sketching jewelry pieces, ensuring that each piece is like a visual idiom. The colorful gemstones that we’re known for are used to help illustrate the stories.

A Choo Yilin artisan setting a diamond of a bespoke heirloom project

Tell us about how you connect with these artisans and how you work with them.
Through a combination of my developmental aid work in Bangkok as well as going down the artisans’ workplace everyday to watch the artisans create.
We are insistent on working only with artisans from Southeast Asia, embracing and paying homage to our heritage, not only through the artisan techniques that are indigenous to the area, but also through the story-telling of certain aspects of our culture – i.e. the Peranakan heritage that is unique to this region.
We’ve worked with the Karen Hilltribe artisans based in northern Thailand, a traditionally marginalized group that originated from Myanmar. We have also worked with a Cambodian social enterprise that trains and develops artisans in different forms of artisanship including woodcarving and metal casting. Lastly, we deliberately seek out Thai artisans that work with us independently, separate from the more traditional “factory” that traditional fine jewelry manufacturing is associated with. This allows the Thai artisans to get a much larger cut then if we were to work with the factories.
An open-ended tree ring

What challenges have you faced?
Brand building is a never-ending process, especially luxury brand building. Throw in the social impact angle, and well… you can still say we’re working hard at it.
The way we’re going about it is to really stay true to your brand DNA and communicate it the best way you know how. Work with important stakeholders – clients to be brand ambassadors, the media, other brands that are associated with your DNA – reputable non-profits in our case.
Who is the Choo Yilin customer?
The cosmopolitan woman that wants much more than “just a” beautiful product – they want a piece that tells a meaningful story, a piece that they can emotionally connect to.
Sculptural Jade Cherry Blossom Rings and Earrings

Do you have any favorite pieces?
My days tends to be pretty casual – I’m always up and about in humid Southeast Asia with artisans and the rest of the team – so I wear our everyday pieces like our XO, Cherry Blossom pieces, stacked and layered.
XO, Cherry Blossom bud and bloom rings stacked

Can you share some advice for other independent designers?
Work really hard to delve deep and understand your brand DNA. Stay true to that. There will be many times where you will wish to create something “different” just to stretch your creative muscle – don’t avoid that, but ensure that the brand aesthetic is consistent with what you are trying to communicate.
You can also read the interview at Bottica.com 

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