Emily’s secrets

By Zhang Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2011-6-29 22:31:00

Yu Xiaodan with a design modelled at Beijing press conference. Photo: GuoYingguang/GT

New York-based designer Yu “Emily” Xiaodan is a good example of the “nothing is impossible” cliche: The former writer and translator is now a fully-fledged lingerie designer in Manhattan, the US center of fashion and fame.

Beauty Within: Notebooks of a Lingerie Designer from New York offers a glimpse of her 10-year career from an insider’s point of view, and also serves as a fashion bible for Chinese readers curious about the trends and legends of prestigious labels on the Fifth Avenue.

“It’s the closest work to her heart,” commented Xi Chuan, a poet. “Underwear seems trivial, but it shows inside beauty. It is important to pay attention to one’s inner concerns even in the impetuous and raucous fashion industry.”

Yu, who notably translated Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Raymond Carver’s short stories into Chinese, both with a great impact on China’s literary youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, abandoned her life as a literary editor for Foreign Literature Review by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and started anew in the US in the mid-1990s.

“Going through a big mindset shift in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people’s pursuit for literature began to fade and was replaced by a craze for wealth,” she said. “Facing the change, I was uncertain about my future.” 

After studying English in China, and working as a translator, she felt it was important to learn the language in the actual environment.

After moving to New York in 1996, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology under the State University of New York and decided to pursue a career in fashion, where her American dream took off.

“Writing and design are not unrelated, as being curious is more important than doing anything specific,” she said, adding it was a coincidence she became a designer. “New York in the 1990s was the best time ever. It was so open and full of chances. Everything was promising.”  

Cover of Beauty Within. Photo: GuoYingguang/GT

With no training, she struggled to reinvent herself to adjust to the new environment but eventually started designing for lingerie labels such as Maidenform, Elle and Vera Wang Princess.

“The fashion industry is all about vanity and competition, and other negative stuff,” she said. 

Coming from an intellectual background, she had to get used to the ruthless and fierce reality. “Nothing challenged me before, but it was a completely different world there.

“But I always try my best in design, and balance with the market demands, since there’s always a dilemma between the two.”

She often goes shopping for inspiration, one of the most enjoyable things being a designer. “Shopping is part of my job,” she laughed. 

Visiting museums also inspires her. An Egyptian exhibition’s sapphire collection, for example, gave her a hunch it’d be the popular color next season; it turns out she was right.

During an event in Beijing’s bookstore Bookfun earlier this month, she held a small lingerie show, while introducing fundamental knowledge of underwear, including daywear, sleepwear, lounge wear and shapewear. 

For most Chinese, though, “underwear” are just bra and panties, said Yu. 

“Lingerie culture is well-developed abroad and it is largely determined by housing conditions,” she said. “Loungewear is rarely seen in Hong Kong as there’s no living room in many homes.”

She plans to launch her own label, Emily Yu, for “women willing to appreciate the details,” with emphasis on cotton textures, a comfortable and functional material she values.

She continues working on fashion, translation and writing, following her whim and do whatever it takes her.

The collection is a compilation of her more than 100 column articles for Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily in 2009 and 2010, and was written quickly under pressure and restraints, said Yu, who is about to finish her new novel, which takes her more time to settle and contemplate. 

Not that it’s her first – Lover of 1980 was written in 2009 to recall her private memories of the “passionate” 1980s – proving that when it comes to what lies beneath, we all have our own guilty secrets. 

Booktag: Beauty Within: Notebooks of a Lingerie Designer from New York, by Yu Xiaodan,  270 pp, Yilin Press, 35 yuan ($ 5.41)

Newspaper headline: Emily's secrets

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