Flame coloured clouds, Grecian statues and architecture, digital models flourishing on a runway built over a sky-high abyss. Welcome to the world of Korean-born designer Nayeh in her first-ever fashion show, showcased in all its digital wonder on Digital Village for Helsinki Fashion Week.

A brand built on foundations of sustainability and mindfulness, Nayeh’s self-named brand showcases versatile outerwear pieces in a muted, minimalist colour palette. Her look is androgynously feminine, with a unique approach to the statement coat accentuated by the detail of her signature detachable scarf. The pieces are an effortlessly bold statement– both aesthetically and in the process of their creation: Nayeh’s clothing is made exclusively with fully recycled materials. I spoke with the brand’s head designer to discuss her inspiration and future aspirations for the brand.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Nayeh.

Hazel: Hello Nayeh! So fantastic to speak with you. To start us off…where does this all start?

Nayeh: Well, I’m Korean originally, but attended middle and high school in Vancouver and Toronto. Then I went to study fashion at Parsons School of Design in Paris and New York. The majority of my work I’ve done in NYC, Paris and Korea, but I studied my masters degree in Madrid, Spain for around a year and a half. So I’ve lived in 4 different foreign countries for 20 years of my life!

I came back to Korea about 3 years ago and go back and forth between Paris and Seoul for work. I decided to stay in Seoul for lockdown as it’s super safe during Covid-19.

Hazel: Without revealing too much about your show…what approach did you take, and why? Did the process feel inhibiting, or did you feel you were able to realize your creative vision in a different way? 

Nayeh: The show was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. The amazing people at Helsinki Fashion Week, the incredible artists we worked with… Truly, a once in a lifetime experience.  And yes, there was a part of it that did feel inhibiting. But at the same time, there was a freedom in the limitation. The very idea of a digital runway is so new that it forced me to think about my process in a different way, and I’ve emerged a better designer for it.

Hazel: Why was it important for you to create a brand committed to sustainability? 

What led you to your commitment to sustainability? 

Nayeh: It’s funny because sometimes it feels like things happen by free will—but at the same time, you realize that it’s also destiny.  That’s how I feel about creating my own brand. 

Nayeh was the result of two intersecting truths: the environment and my own health.

After working in the fashion industry for over a decade, I experienced this moment. It was after the ego trip from season after season of high sales and promotions. It was the moment when I realized this: all of my accomplishments were at the expense of the environment. I was contributing to an ever-growing amount of waste in the world. On a deeply personal level, I couldn’t allow myself to constantly pump out ready-to-wear lines in ways that were prioritizing production speed and costs over everything else.  I realized that my gain came at a much larger, global loss. 

And right around this time, my career—this thing that I had strived so hard to work towards—started to kill me.  The fabrics that I was working with on a daily basis were causing respiratory issues.  I had tested positive for severe allergies for the materials that had built my career.  Duck and goose down, especially.  Being treated with harsh chemicals, I couldn’t work with these materials, let alone wear them. That was the moment where I realized that I had to make a change. Not only to continue with my chosen career but simply to create clothes that women like myself could wear.

Hazel: Thank you for such an honest and heartfelt response, Nayeh.

Onto the beautiful clothes! What materials and processes do you use to produce durability while reducing your environmental impact? How long did it take you, initially, to produce materials that you were happy with and wanted to use in your own designs?

Nayeh: I found inspiration in the materials. And believe me, it didn’t come easily.

It was so hard to find something I was happy with. Anything. I almost gave up at some points. But compromising the initial vision of the brand wasn’t an option. And we got there!  

Being able to use the number ‘100%’ is enormously satisfying. 100% recycled insulation that’s 100% recycled from plastic bottles. Machine washable, light, and water repellent.  Being allergic to down required me to find the right supplier to provide us with the right insulation material.

As for the rest of our fabrics, finding mills to collaborate with to source eco-friendly coated and dyed textiles, deadstock fabrics, and recycled poly that was up to our standard was an endeavour that took us years. Finding perfect sustainable materials was—and continues to be—the most challenging part of the design process. 

Hazel: Your perseverance is incredible. It must have been so rewarding to finally be able to say you’d found the perfect materials to create such beautiful clothing. As your brand grows larger in scale how do you intend to ensure sustainability in your clothes?

Nayeh: I think that one thing that the world is slowly coming to realize is this: to choose sustainability is to choose a side. I’m on the side of sustainability. Nayeh is a brand that was years in the making, and I have zero issues with it growing at the rate that ethical and sustainable suppliers grow.

Hazel: I notice a playfulness in your illustration style on your Instagram page. Is this something that you want to translate into your brand?

Nayeh: Sometimes the words “sustainable” and “ethical” can sometimes be anathema to the fashion buying experience. It can feel… heavy.  And that can be a difficult feeling to reconcile with. So that’s where the illustration motifs come in. The story comes from a real place, and it’s one that I think a lot of women can relate to. 

Hazel: You talk about mindfulness as being one of the integral aspects of your brand. How does mindfulness factor into your designs?

Nayeh: Ultimately, the design ethos that goes into my pieces comes from the idea of a woman who is in a constant journey between spaces. Travelling. Commuting. Social circles.  Where she can maneuver between versatility and sophistication, without having to sacrifice either of them. Whether it’s how she feels in her garment, or how she feels about where the garment comes from, she feels good—no matter where she is.

Hazel: You also talk about femininity and elegance as the defining characteristics of your designs. What do these words mean to you?

Nayeh: When I was diagnosed with my health issues, finding clothes (especially outerwear) was extremely challenging. Sustainability and material mindfulness often come at the expense of femininity and elegance. These are two worlds that I want to bring together.  

Hazel: Tell me a little about your background! Did you grow up pursuing the fashion world? 

Nayeh: At high school, I saw a bunch of Marc Jacobs fashion shows from the magazine post on the wall in front of fashion art class. I was thrilled and my heart was beating, so I knew that that fashion was something I wanted to pursue. I ended up at Parsons school of design and interned at Marc Jacob before I graduated college.

Hazel: What has your life been like during this time of pandemic?

Nayeh: Honestly? I’ve never been busier. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to collaborate with the amazing people involved with Helsinki Fashion Week, and that’s allowed me the opportunity to present my designs to the world, even when the world is in such an unpredictable place. 

Hazel: What are the next steps for you? Where do you see Nayeh going in the future, and what are the goals or ideas that you intend to follow next?

Nayeh: Hmmm. Better materials. More sustainable materials. Materials that get us closer to our goal.  

My current line is focused on travel, so I want to expand upon that idea. I’d love to create a line of blankets. Something like a sleeping bag!

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