Yena Ahn reflects on her design career and shares her journey learning new skills

Hong Kong-educated Korean diaspora Yena Ahn is a multi-talented creative with years of experience in the fashion industry as a shoe designer, working with names such as Dr Martens and Topshop/Topman. She has seen glamour as well as the obstacles in her former career, but also found times difficult as an East Asian woman working and living in the UK. Struck with Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, Yena decided to re-evaluate her priorities and she took it upon herself to learn new skills. Yena has recently pivoted into other areas of art, particularly in 3D sculpting and self-portraiture. Equipped with an inspirational sense of resilience, self-awareness and artistic conviction, Yena is an explorer of mediums and possibilities. In this exclusive interview, Yinsey Wang asks Yena to share the challenges of her former career and why she thinks it is always possible to explore other passions.

YW: Your former career was in fashion. What are the bits you enjoyed the most and what were the bits that you found challenging? How did it shape you as a person?

YA: The fashion industry is wonderfully creative, full of talent, ideas and collaboration. I had the pleasure of meeting some fantastic people, shared work with incredible talents and learnt how to swim among sharks and legends. I particularly look back fondly on meeting the accomplished craftsman and artist Mr Noriyuki Misawa at the Sway Gallery in London. I had known about his work back in my school years and had the pleasure to meet and briefly speak with him. These are great memories , meeting iconic designers and creators alike, however it’s not often all that it’s made out to be.

Fashion varies depending on which part you’re involved in, for example, design, development and buying. In addition, differences exist depending on whether you are working within the field of the high street, luxury or independent designers or boutique. These factors affect so many things!

Coming from an international background and as an outsider who didn’t quite fit into the stereotyped Asian box (speaking fluently without an ethnic accent but also not born or raised in the US/UK), confused a lot of people initially. This is particularly true 12 years ago, where times are a little different compared with now. It’s bizarre to think it was even considered weird back then!

The most challenging part was the subtle prejudice and racism I found throughout my career. I recollect the obstacles of being put aside simply because I wasn’t from the UK off the bat, how my foreign name could reduce my application’s chances of success, or a lack of opportunities due to how I had too dissimilar of a cultural upbringing (which meant it was perceived I might not be as “easy” to work with).

There is also the assumption that as an Asian, you would be more eager to please, work harder and longer for less pay but better (if not the same) quality of work. This was the most astounding stereotype that I encountered behind the scenes. It baffled me when friends would share their grief and dejection when fighting for promotions, or climbing higher for better pay.

Designers are more often underpaid and under appreciated but are desperately needed. It’s a strange and ugly truth and is part of a cycle. Unfortunately, most companies are not entirely willing to pay well because brands, labels and titles hold more value, and designers and artists seem like a dime in a dozen in their eyes, despite the immense talent out there.

The fashion machine that makes up the giant industry is riddled with harsh realities and isn’t always glamorous as depicted by the media. As a mic drop: unless you had a “shoe-in”, connections or money, the climb up can be pretty steep. But understandably, this is probably very relatable to other industries as well.

Overall, my time in the industry taught me to put my unique talents and qualities front and centre. Such experiences teach you to be insightful, do the leg work, brush up your skills and stay on top of the trends and the market without losing what makes you different and valuable to work with. Experience will come eventually, but I’d say the key is knowing what makes you different (even if you don’t fit the typical fashion mould) and marketing that as a desirable and valuable skill set that has a competitive edge. And most importantly, you must fight for your worth because no one else will champion you better than yourself.

YW: You have now transitioned into a freelancer, and you also have developed new skills including self-portraits and 3D modelling. What helped inform your choice and how did you choose which mediums to channel your creative energy? What do you like about each of them?

YA: Self portrait photography was something I only saw differently after reclaiming my health from suffering the first variant of Covid-19. This was before vaccines were accessible to our age group.
I think I started seeing this differently as a means of personal and visual expression. I couldn’t digitally sculpt what I envisioned in my head as quickly or effectively, so photography was a little shortcut in capturing what I wanted to convey. It’s not always from a story but sometimes the result takes form as its own narrative when you see the image.

I enjoyed learning about myself in this process, both the good and bad. It teaches you to stay humble and hungry to learn more and expand on different avenues of growth.

I did a Lunar Year of the Ox series, as tribute during lockdown last year. A typical beast of burden which I incorporated a feminine element, by telling the story of the sun and the moon affecting each side. Most of my projects at that time simply had a theme and some bullet points. The rest came naturally and formed itself. I’m no expert on this, so it took a lot of experimentation and different projects to understand what I was trying to capture from my imagination.

Interestingly (like a reverse uno card!), sometimes the photography helped inform my 3D sculpting projects. They both provide useful crossovers, where I could use these as visual baselines to work from or try out something I can’t quite grasp digitally. Both seemed to work fluidly in line with each other, when maintaining a creative outlet.

YW: You have managed to pick up new skills so quickly. Are there any pieces of advice you would give to those looking to learn something new? 

YA: Micro-dose yourself a little bit every day to avoid feeling overwhelmed with the wall of challenges ahead.

Rome really wasn’t built in a day and like all new things, it takes time. Self-motivation is probably the hardest hurdle for most (if not everyone!), so it’s all about allowing yourself to falter, but also keeping your eye on the ball.

I am still no expert, so I am far from an authority on this subject! However, what I have found is that  slow and consistent steps are the way to go, even if it comes to horrible results, just keep trying. It especially helps to go with something that really inspires you and try to recreate it, or emulate a look so it gives you practice.

Change and doing something new can definitely be frightening, especially jumping into the unknown future. But a little courage with the love and guidance of those near and dear to help you along the way, makes the world of a difference.

YW:  You are influenced by many different artists and creative inspirations. What or who is your biggest inspiration and why?

YA: I guess I can say a lot of my influences and styles stem from old school manga/manhwa, anime, games and fantasy books. As a former Otaku and still a geek/nerd at heart, they really inspired and shaped my sense of dress and self growing up. My list would be endless if I went on, but RG Veda from Clamp, The Four Daughters of Armian, Final Fantasy and the two iconic novels of LOTR and Wheel of Time would make fair examples. The first two examples actually have roots in Indian and Persian lore. I also found the Egyptian, Norse and Greek mythologies remarkable in their vast storytelling. I’m a person of vivid imagination, so these worlds were places I’d travel to as a child and I particularly found their way of dress and fashion so interesting. There’s attention to detail in these artworks and the words used to describe them. Perhaps from these, I found my blend that aided to fuel my creative exploration.

YW: How did you stay inspired during the pandemic? Do you have any advice for finding motivation during challenging times?

YA: As an ambivert by nature, spending time at home didn’t prove that difficult. Of course, like most, I missed seeing friends and having activities together. The biggest benefit during then, was having the opportunity to self-reflect and invest into learning a new skill set. As much as I love footwear design, this was a chance to explore a different creative terrain.

It was also worthwhile with the rise of 3D artworks making an impact in fashion. Much like the transition period when CAD CAM started affecting the industry.

Instead of focusing solely on footwear, I decided to return to my roots of gaming and concept artwork. In a way, I felt like I had reached a glass ceiling in my field of work and needed a new avenue of growth, pursuing a personal happiness that I left to one side.

I’m no life coach, but if I had to give a piece of advice, it would be for individuals to take time and weigh out what success and happiness means to them. Are you able and willing to take the risk of change, for example? All change has some trade off, and in a motivational rut I feel it’s finding a fulfilment and reward in the vocation that you do. Otherwise, sometimes it could be the environment of said workplace. There’s quite a lot of factors out there, but finding what makes individuals happy is a deeply personal process.

YW: You had a rich and exciting career in the footwear design field. What was that like? 

YA: Footwear design and development to me is a wonderful union of resistant materials, textiles and leathers. It combined all these aspects that I loved about fashion design, but applied into a small pair of three dimensional objects I can hold, like a piece of architectural ingenuity. It’s amazing how shoes for women and men have changed throughout the times. Both in shape, style, cut and also fit.

It’s quite technical from the get go. The slightest shift of a millimetre could vastly affect comfort, but also there’s the challenging balance of making something fashionable but also functional. When I made shoes by hand and worked on the higher end, there were different kinds of limitations. You could use premium materials but the retail price would end up reflecting this to cover costs. Whereas on the high street, material choices are more common, therefore allowing price points to be affordable. This reflects the usual supply and demand chain.

This links back a little to the first question where it’s been both wonderful and difficult. I enjoyed being able to experience different parts of the sector, and it’s certainly been a journey, as much as that word might be overused at times!  

YW: What do you think is your most iconic men’s/women’s shoe and why?

YA: There are unsung heroes that I’ve designed which have flown under the radar, because they were more mass market. One of my most notable were several Dr Marten floral prints that ran for 3 consecutive years, and are still floating around in the market! I was also part of the original team that started the children’s footwear line at Dr Martens.

The others have been catwalk exclusives or luxury designer exclusives that were a team effort. It’s not designs you would typically wear or get, but a handful of people are likely to own these in their private collections.

During my time at Topshop/ Topman, there have been several boots, loafers and sneakers that I’ve designed and resulted in trending across the high street and influencing the competition. It’s all about pushing the envelope and predicting trends in just the right way.

YW: You are Korean, but you spent time in Hong Kong and now are based in London. How did these experiences shape your identity today? 

YA: It broadens your perspective, both in sensibility and awareness of how locals and foreigners perceive you and vice versa. How one shapes their identity is a personal voyage.

I found these experiences helpful in connecting with people, providing insight and averting ignorant comments between others I meet and educating those around.

Cliché as it might be, it’s true that I do feel like an international or third culture person at times. Mostly because I’ve moved about often and can’t really hold a singular flag as what makes me entirely me. But I am confident in who I am. It takes solitary resolve in staying true to yourself without being pressured into a box that the rest of the world wants to label you as.

I think more than anything, these experiences made me appreciate the hardships my parents went through to send me abroad for education and for opportunities they never had. It reminds me to work smart and not just hard; be a better human being and that not all successes have to be financial ones.

Another interesting part of the experience was seeing how different market trends are like, both in fashion design and also work culture. Now that I’m eyeing to join the gaming sector, it’s easy to say that there’s always been a distinct difference in the graphics, artwork and playstyle of games between a typical Western and Eastern sense.

A quick example would be the distinct look and feel of the classic World of Warcraft next to Lineage, or Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy.

YW: As well as a creative, you are a proactive gym-goer and have experience in various Asian martial arts. What is it out about having a strong body as well as mind that gives you fulfilment? Any thoughts about how others can incorporate this in their own lifestyle?

YA: I think having any type of physical activity instils good discipline for yourself. Be it walks, playing group or solo sport. Not only does it help clear your thoughts, provide a private mental space but it also cycles any excess energy. I find it a great outlet from a mostly sedimentary work life, where mentally there are days that I could be tapped out, but physically I know I haven’t really moved. I personally find joy in movement because it’s about making shapes, form and structure, while enacting a different task that can be like a dance. My eventual love of lifting weights and fitness came about as a curiosity and fascination of strength, seeing other powerful women. And now it’s a full-on lifestyle I can’t live without.

It taught me to understand and listen to my body and find its strengths, limits, and areas of growth. I found this reflected in my approach to work, pushing past challenges and hardships that may typically be easier to say “no”.

My suggestion to others who might be as curious: I’d say as long as an activity gives you personal fulfilment and joy, as well as enriches you, this would surely add value. Eventually, the repetition of this could become your lifestyle choice, field of work or competitive hobby!