Meet Jill Aiko Yee, Fashion Designer For Creative, Active Women

"Why should we wear what hundreds or thousands of other people own?"
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Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

There’s something undeniably sweet and magical about the way mindfulness has become a part of the zeitgeist. Regardless of whether or not it’s a trend that will come to pass, the benefits of a mindful practice are real for those it resonates with, including clothing designer Jill Aiko Yee.

“My best health secret is daily meditation,” she says. “It’s unbelievable the affect it has mentally and emotionally.”

This positivity seeps into her creative process, which pays close attention to the small details that help a woman stay present as she makes her way through the day.

“I don’t design strictly for myself, but I do like to keep in mind that many of us have an active lifestyle and work long hours,” explains Jill. “So I keep in mind that pockets are always useful, and that clothing shouldn’t hinder you or make life harder. If you can forget about what you’re wearing and focus, that’s most important, and if the clothing also expresses your personality that’s even better!”

The end products of this thoughtful way of designing are fun, easy and comfortable, without sacrificing on style. It’s not an easy line to walk, and we were thrilled to sit down with Jill and get some insight into what makes her iteration of art imitating life so successful.

Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

If we can start at the beginning, when did you first become interested in fashion and designing clothing?

I first became interested in fashion design when working at a beautiful women’s boutique in San Francisco. Straight out of high school I had gone to UC Santa Barbara. But during the year, I was unsure of what to pursue in studies, and hadn’t found my place with friends. I ended up taking time off, and it was during my third year away from school that I worked at a boutique called Workshop in San Francisco. The owner has an impeccable eye for color, trends, and merchandising. I learned so much from her in the time I was there, and it motivated me to return to school, but this time for fashion design.

How did you come to learn the craft?

After deciding to go back to college, I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to attend Otis College of Art and Design in the Fashion Department. The program was very difficult and a rude awakening from what I was expecting! School was great for the basics in design, but I certainly learned the most from my two employers after graduating, Rozae Nichols and John Murrough.

Image Credit: Jill Sutherland

Image Credit: Jill Sutherland

You’re a former dancer. Was that something you pursued professionally? How do you feel dancing informs your creative designs?

I did pursue dancing professionally (it seems like a lifetime ago now). During the time I dropped out of school from UCSB, I moved back to Wisconsin where I grew up, and joined a chamber dance company that had about six to eight members. I had the chance to perform in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center after moving to DC for a short amount of time. Dancing certainly informs my designs — I think we are more creative when our clothing is comfortable and easy to move in.

When did you start your own clothing label and why?

After graduating Otis and working for five years, I was laid off from the fashion company I was at. I’m not huge risk taker, and it took the urging of my husband Justice to seize the moment and go with it to start my own label — even though it was something I had always wanted to do. That was six years ago now. I wanted to run my company so that I could meet with and talk to customers. It bothered me that as a designer at other companies we never could get direct feedback from people wearing our designs, it felt disconnected.

Image Credit: Jessica Comingore

Image Credit: Jessica Comingore

What do you hope someone feels like when they’re wearing one of your designs?

I hope people feel “in the moment,” beautiful and confident when they wear the clothes.

If you could have a conversation with anyone, dead or alive, who would that be and what would you want to talk to him or her about?

If I could talk to anyone, I’d have a conversation with the designer Madeleine Vionnet. She was a genius when it came to bias draping (working with fabric diagonally rather than straight up and down), and it’s one of my obsessions. Working with bias invigorates me because it’s a challenge, and when it goes well it creates elegant flattering pieces.

Image Credit: Joy Newell

Image Credit: Joy Newell

Many of your pieces are hand dyed, by both yourself and through collaborations with other artists. What about unique, one-of-a-kind fabrics appeal to you?

Why should we wear what hundreds or thousands of other people own? It’s nice to feel that what’s in our closet is special and meaningful, and I like offering that to customers.

What do you enjoy most about a collaborative process?

Every collaboration is challenging, and results in growth. I love getting to know other artists work and discovery processes, and I love that it helps create pieces I’d never dream up on my own.

Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

Image Credit: Sharon Kanes

What advice would you give to other aspiring designers? Any important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Design is a combination of technical skills and instinctive decisions. It’s important to listen to yourself and others, as well as to test your own designs by wearing them. Refining designs can happen over and over as you and your customers live in them.

How do you think living in LA influences your creative process?

Being surrounded by other creatives and artists certainly influences my process. It’s nice being able to bounce ideas off others, and share influences. For instance, MOCA recently had the Kerry James Marshall retrospective, and I went at the urging of friends. It was a fantastic show. Los Angeles’ art scene has grown enormously in the last several years. The colors in LA are a combination of desert-scape and sea-scape, and they are always inspiring.

Image Credit: Jill Sutherland

Image Credit: Jill Sutherland

What drew you to Southern California and what do you love about living in LA?

I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and felt like an outsider as a minority in the Midwest. Visiting relatives in the Bay Area and Southern California helped me know it was the place I’d want to be when I got older. It had such an alluring mix of people and culture. I love LA’s “anything goes” mentality — if you dream it, you can live it!

What’s a day off in the life of Jill like?

A day in the life for me is flying down my neighborhood hill on my bike towards downtown LA where my design office is, by Ace Hotel in the Fashion District. Doing a mix of things from shipping orders, meeting up with friends that drop by to say hi — like Whitney Bickers from Myrtle (a store in Los Angeles) or Natalie Hemmati from Darling Magazine, cutting stacked fabric with large shears, sewing, listening to a never-ending list of podcasts, updating my website, and taking shopping appointments at the studio from individuals or store owners.

Image Credit: Sarah Renard

Image Credit: Sarah Renard



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