MYSTICISM MEETS THE WORKING WOMAN
(April 01, 2022)
Marchioness magazine talks POLITICS, PERSPECTIVE and THE INNER SELF with Melbourne born Designer, Ru-Yenn Kwok.
Words and Interview by Laura Wilcox
Spirituality, a concept I admire but far too often fail to believe I’m in-tune with (especially when it comes to using it as a means for artistic expression). But today I realised, whilst we may not all live by auras and souls and said wonders of our own minds, spirituality has an inevitability when placed in a realistic framework... We all release energy stemming from how we perceive the world around around us. We muster up emotion that effects our daily life. Understanding that process and our reactions, however, is a different matter. Some would say, to notice how we feel about things and explore the topics that set our inner selves alight is one of the closest we’ll get to divine in a lifetime. Melbourne born Ru-Yenn Kwok by no means claims to have mastered this but her approach to life and design is one I felt privileged to hear. A humble yet firm designer, approaching the industry with intellect and politically driven ideas.
From exploring the original working woman to a bold witches inspired collection; Kwok has a way of linking historical scenes with today’s context, sparking intrigue across the board. She makes me notice our potential whilst simultaneously noting how much hasn’t changed from civilizations past. Only we are responsible for creating the societies we live in and ironically, whilst this is collective, it takes individual work to improve. With a quick and shuddering “people fear things they don’t understand”, Ru-Yenn sparked a realization in me of the amount of time I’ve wasted halting progress. Halting potential, just because it’s unfamiliar? If you can relate, Marchi grrrls, I hope you find drive or comfort in Ru-Yenn’s simple reminder of how “there’s no need to justify yourself”.
Ru-Yenn Kwok’s design led journey back through an outdated burn-the-witch world really got me questioning what humanity even is. And maybe that’s the point – we might be far too often wrongly fearful but we’re also curious and analytical. If we can hone-in on that, we can surely redirect it into artistic expression. Kwok, in my whole-hearted opinion, has surpassed this act. Her designs? The outcome of a fascinating voyage through our cultural world and inner selves. Enough of persecuting powerful women.
Laura: So why London?
Ru-Yenn: To be honest, I think I felt kind of stuck. I had been out of my BA for a couple of years and working in various jobs, doing small projects here and there. I started a capsule collection with a friend, but we decided not to go into production… I don’t really think I knew what I wanted. During my BA I didn't apply myself that much, I was playing a lot of competitive sport. But then most of my friends decided to do an MA and I thought - that sounds like a good idea.
Laura: Do you think you're a competitive person?
Ru-Yenn: I would say if you can't admit to being a little bit competitive than you’re lying to yourself. I mean, it doesn't mean you’re a bad person. I think competition is quite healthy. I will say, however, the person I'm most competitive with is definitely myself. I'm very highly self-critical, as a lot of creatives are.
Laura: What do you make of the art scene back in Melbourne compared to here?
Ru-Yenn: There's a lot of small galleries in Melbourne but I certainly think something that I really liked about the Melbourne art scene is that there’s a very imminent space between the art and fashion scene. It makes sense for them to exist in a similar realm. I think there's a lot of post punk sort liberal and almost dada inspired styles. Interfering with things that already exist is something that's quite popular in the contemporary art scene in Melbourne, which I think is important.
Laura: So would you say that your background in Melbourne has molded this conceptual approach to design?
Ru-Yenn: Yeah, I think so. My BA was a lot more theory based and critical. A lot of us were very much encouraged to that side of things and not everyone did good... It can be a bit startling if you are so set on being critical all the time but it's just in my nature.
Laura: Do you feel quite engaged with politics in Melbourne?
Ru-Yenn: I think especially with all the protests recently, Black Lives Matter and COVID etc, I do feel that people in Melbourne are happier to at least talk about politics. Again, maybe because we’re more detached from things. There isn't a huge community from the African diaspora for example, so I think sometimes in Melbourne it's easier to vocalize things - like how it should be inclusive. So I would say people are politically engaged and maybe even progressive, but I don't know whether we actually put it into practice as much.
Laura: So why witches, what drew you to them in your design process and what's their relation to feminism to you?
Ru-Yenn: I actually wanted to focus on the idea of dismantling corporate dressing. And then I realized that representing a working woman that way could be quite damaging. I found that a lot of these women who had previously been working began to be persecuted for it. Maybe sometimes they were performing magic and maybe sometimes they weren't… I'm sure a lot of the time they probably were. But that’s how this idea of a working woman kind of came up.
Laura: Why do you think people were so afraid of the concept of witches in the past?
Ru-Yenn: I think people fear things they don't understand. Things that are mystical. It's strange because people were so religious but I guess that was the idea of faith and anything that threatened to destroy that or their system, that wasn't able to be controlled, it was like… ‘go to hell’. If you're good, you go to heaven. So without God, a fear of God or a kind of civilization by faith in some sort of mysticism, it’s like a lost control of the people.
Laura: Do you think people's attitudes have changed towards the unknown?
Ru-Yenn: I definitely think it's still a problem. I do think that people have improved their attitudes, it's almost trendy… witches and paganism and all this sort of thing. I suppose we're just so far detached from our own humanity, with the media and technology. I think the idea that there is something in nature that you can't access through a phone and that you have to search your inner self for is like really, really appealing.
Laura: Do you follow modern witchcraft practice, is this something you’re interested in at all?
Ru-Yenn: I am... I couldn't say that it's something that I practiced myself but I definitely read quite a lot about it and I've maybe tried a few things. I would say I'm more spiritual than I am a witch. I feel like I've always been drawn to witchcraft from more of a wanting to learn about humanity and different practices as opposed to using magic myself.
Laura: What does being spiritual mean to you?
Ru-Yenn: Well, I hope I am... I certainly believe in more than science alone. I used to practice yoga every day and I think there’s a lot of things like that that have obvious roots to spirituality. Religion, faith, etc. And they mean something to me. I’ve felt the power of these things before. And whether or not religion or yoga practice or witchcraft or spirituality gives you a place to retreat to or not, it gives you like a sense of comfort to know that not everything is your fault and not everything is something you can effect – that there’s a tide that can just take you.
Laura: What do you make of progressive or spiritual practices becoming “trendy”?
Ru-Yenn: I think it’s good that people more than ever before do have less judgment. But I always used to feel almost embarrassed that I was cliché, that I did yoga or raved about Buddhism or whatever it was at the time, because it is informed by trend, for sure. However, these things take off for a reason.
Laura: Why use fashion as a means for expression?
Ru-Yenn: That's a big question. I think, honestly, when I was a kid I was like 6ft 1 with really broad shoulders and a bit of a tomboy, so afraid of being feminine because I didn't think I could be. So when I was like, 8/9/10 years old, I would dress-up in dresses. It's just something that's always been there. Certainly at points I've been like, is this what I want to do? But I think the industry is the best direct side effect of contemporary culture. The cleanest imprint of it. It's the most gratifying and immediate way to access what is going on in the world and have a critique on it as well.
Laura: Are there any practitioners that inspire your approach to design?
Ru-Yenn: I mean there are people like Margiela when he was starting out and all these sort of people that I think are really amazing but it's not what I do. You know what I mean? I'm still trying to figure out where I'm going to be. I think a lot of the time, unfortunately, these geniuses like Balenciaga get their work commoditized and then its original pure existence ceases. Which is a bit of a shame but I guess that's the way it is.
Laura: Why do you think you’re drawn to using colour in your designs?
Ru-Yenn: With my family’s roots to Malaysia, colour was just always something that existed when I was growing up. I honestly just think it's fun. I take what I do quite quite seriously and I think some people would say I'm a serious person but I also feel like I take every chance I can get. And I think fashion can be taken too seriously and it doesn't have to. There's room for fun - it should be playful and experimental.
Laura: So what’s next?
Ru-Yenn: Make money, learn from a bigger company and then I’d love to have my own practice that I could have a bit more control over in terms of ethics. But I need to continue to learn at this point and make mistakes on the way. I see an increased interest in small brands, small galleries, small restaurants… no more franchises and I think I’m always positive. I know you don't have to justify yourself. The industry's just a business, like everything else.