Photo by Jenafer GillinghamWASTE INSPIRES THE DESIGN TEAM KNOWN as Josh and He Yang -- damaged rolls of fabric, pieces of costume jewelry, an old doily found at a garage sale. Give them a couple of hours and they will turn a few spools of thread and a bit of upholstery fabric into a panel that's a mosaic splatter of color. You could hang it on the wall, as they sometimes do, and have a striking piece of art sure to start a conversation. Or, four panels later, you could have a jacket, sumptuous yet simple, Road Warrior meets flower child. Sometimes a piece will be just so perfect that they can't bear to make the cuts necessary to turn a panel into clothing. But usually they scissor away with abandon -- the beauty of working with "waste," they say -- and in doing so have created a sensationally original line (and with the prices to prove it), defined by shape and texture, that's deconstructed clothing down to its most essential and elemental part: thread.
They take a singular approach to making the fabric they call "thread," which is not knitted, or crocheted or woven but, rather, created by using a complicated process in which different colors of thread are repeatedly sewn in a grid on a specially designed machine until layers of thread piles become virtually solid panels. There's a randomness principle at work: No two pieces will ever be exactly alike -- it's a psychedelic journey as complex as a spider web -- but thickness can be made consistent. Then the next step in the recycling process begins. Pieces of old lace, or red Chinese silk, or blue and white Guatemalan fabric are cut into small strips and stitched into the panels. This layering forms bright and ethereal colors with a visual texture that almost appears like the fibers in handmade paper.
Josh Grenell is a beachcomber hailing from Malibu, He Yang an art teacher from Nanjing, China. When Grenell was majoring in international relations at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, he decided to explore his roots on his mother's side, which meant a trip to China. A few months into his cultural backpacking expedition, he met Yang, who was teaching art at Nanjing University. The meeting resulted in love, marriage, and relocation to their eponymous Sunset Junction boutique/studio/home four years ago.
Grenell and Yang opened a second-hand-clothing store, and also started getting into the desert rave scene, constructing ambient "coverings" for giant rocks while Yang also made herself outfits which were later sold at the store. They got such an enthusiastic response that they started designing their own line, which over the past two years has evolved from being site-specific costumes to clothing sought after by high-end retailers.
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A rep is negotiating their line for overseas distribution, and is talking about placing orders for hundreds of pieces. While the two are excited by the opportunity, they worry about the challenge of handcrafting their garments, while maintaining the quality, at that volume. Grenell and Yang remain stubbornly committed to controlling their creations, from inventing the material to avoiding such promotional devices as a shop sign. They don't run their boutique like most: There's their dog, Beluga, who is half Saluki and half Kuvasz and likes to sun in the window, and there are the dozens of garments and hats that are displayed but most definitely are not for sale.
Grenell and Yang resist playing by the rules of the fashion industry, of designing by season and having shows, although they have done so. However, they seem more enthusiastic about presenting their collection at Black Dragon Gallery in Chinatown than appearing in a major runway show during fashion week. Nonetheless, they are popular with stylists, who frequently pop by the shop and pick up outfits for shoots. For example, a mesh dress that they made out of beer-can tabs found at a garage sale was cut down to create a shirt for Kid Rock, which he wore on a Rolling Stone cover.
"Our goal is to share this with more people. Selling ourselves is our least favorite part, but the next thing would be to have a showroom represent us," says Grenell. "We try to embrace an appreciation of the random and natural way things evolve. Once you decide not to go straight, once you break the machine, you can find a million different angles and ways. Ours goes any way but straight. We started modifying home sewing machines, and now we're modifying industrial machines. We see a zillion possibilities, and there's just not enough time in the day."
Josh and He Yang, 4015 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 953-1701. Also available at Madison and Emma Gold.