Home-grown fashion label STOLEN was created back in 2007, after founder Elyn Wong left a nearly two-decade long career in advertising to build her own brand. Today, the brand is known for a minimalist aesthetic with a signature exposed back, both features seen in the latest collection entitled ZHIWA. What’s different, however, is that this is a collection steeped in Bhutanese influence and references – particularly, Wong’s own experience in the Himalayan kingdom when she visited 2 years ago, following her father’s passing.
“He had been the most important person in my life until then. I was very lost, and I was even on the verge of giving up Stolen,” the designer shared during her collection’s showcase, which took place in Straits Clan, “when a friend asked me to take a trip to Bhutan, I thought it would be exactly what I needed.”
Indeed, it was, but not for the reasons that she had anticipated. While Wong had expected to be struck by colourful costumes or loud and exciting festivals, what actually resonated most was the silence and peace she discovered on her trip, amidst what she described as bare, natural landscape. It gave her the clarity and repose that she was seeking, and fodder for her next creation. The designer borrowed the new collection’s muted colour palette from the Bhutanese landscapes she spent time in, while the slew of crimson coloured pieces was derived from the religious devotion she saw from Bhutanese natives. Wong then tapped Bhutanese craftsmen to create blind-embroidery (embroidery in exact same colour as the fabric) as a way of incorporating traditional Bhutanese craft into her collection.
The cultural influence permeated the presentation as well. The show space was filled with a special olfactory signature concocted by the designer to replicate the scents she smelt during her trip. After models paraded down a runway strewn with bales of hay and soil to evoke Bhutanese landscape, guests were treated to a taste of authentic Bhutanese food and drink whipped up by a chef hailing from Bhutan, making for a unique, immersive experience.
Here, Wong speaks to BAZAAR about her journey to fashion, and the memorable trip that inspired her new collection.
What is it about Bhutan that inspired you to create your new collection?
The Bhutan that moved me wasn’t the colourful costumes, the intricate traditional architecture or the visually exciting festivals – it was the silence that accompanied all these overwhelming sights and sounds. Instead of translating the world’s perception of Bhutan in my collection, I want to express my very personal experience of Bhutan. In my collection, I used colours that I saw in Bhutan, I used shapes and forms that pay respect to the land, and I used Bhutanese crafts and textures. The red in my finale pieces were a tribute to the devotion of the Bhutanese people, which was very moving. I visited many temples in Bhutan, and I often saw little kids coming in with their grandparents, with deep devotion and respect.
Can you tell us about the blind embroidery done for your collection by the Bhutanese craft-masters?
Embroidery is something new for Stolen, but I really wanted something tangibly Bhutan-inspired in the collection, beyond the conceptual. To me, Bhutanese embroidery embodies their devotion, dedication and the intricacy of their rich culture. Blind embroidery was not something that the Bhutanese are familiar with – they are used to having contrasting colours that pop. When I told them that I wanted embroidery that was the exact same colour as the fabric, they could not understand why I would want to embroider (since it’s painstaking and time consuming) if it would be barely visible. Then I explained that with blind embroidery, I was trying to translate the silence of Bhutan while celebrating their rich culture.
Also interesting are the embroiderers that I engaged. They are handpicked skilled craftsmen that make traditional Bhutanese Thangka, grand tapestry-like scrolls depicting deities, mythological scenes or mandala. The crafting of Thangka is a sacred act, and while successful execution of the task grants credits to your karma, failure could lead to the detriment of the craftsman. Thus, such an important task is undertaken by only the most skilled craftsmen in Bhutan.
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You worked in advertising for nearly 20 years. What led you to shift career tracks, and how difficult was the change?
I felt insecure as a creative, so I wanted to start something on my own to validate my own ability. And fashion has always been at the forefront of creativity, so I thought to myself, if I want to explore something new, I might as well challenge myself to the extreme. It was a steep learning curve at every junction. Psychologically, it was probably like being parent – you will never be ready. I have no kids, but I guess Stolen is my kid now. Being a business owner, you learn to become extremely positive, because that is the only way to embrace the daily uncertainty, challenges and possibilities.
What inspired you to make the exposed back a signature in your collections?
I felt that it was lacking in the industry. I love backless designs, but what was available was mostly overtly sexy, body-hugging designs. I was looking for backless pieces that are more edgy, and more structured. I call this alternate sexiness! I also love that backless pieces are actually accommodating, no matter your age, body type, or even occasion – a backless piece will always look classy. It works for everyone, and honestly, how many of us can carry a short cropped top or a plunging neckline?
How much does your personal style reflect in your collections?
Comfort is my priority! I always make sure my Stolen pieces are comfortable before anything else. Aesthetically, I like simple and clean colours and shapes, mixed in with some vintage pieces for that personal touch. I love vintage, which reflects in my brand ethos to create pieces that are trend neutral and classic, so they stand the test of time.
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