George Town Festival 2019: Deciphering THISNORTHAT

Cultural explorations through fashion

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B-Side went down for the final weekend of George Town Festival 2019. This week, we’re dropping a special five-part series, featuring performances and interviews with their South East Asian lineup. This is Part 3 of 5 keep a look out!

Read BIRD – Part 1 here.

Read Armour and Skin – Part 2 here.

THISNORTHAT comprises creatives Tan Li Chen from Penang and Lin Yu Bo from Shanghai. Both met as university classmates and after multiple collaborations over the years, it culminated into THISNORTHAT in 2015. This is the first time they are bringing their collection to Penang, and it is the continuation of an ongoing narrative they have that inspires them.

“We make comparisons to no one but ourselves, so we are constantly improving. How do we move from point one to point two. There is a constant improvement in our techniques and the maturity in our designing style. What is important to us is that we keep making.”

With a range of go-to materials such as denim and textures such as leather, the duo is currently exploring softer materials to balance out the toughness and structured shapes of their designs. They also enjoy mix-and-matching different patterns and cuts when designing an outfit. These explorations and priorities were evident as the models strutted on the runway in their bold and bright ensembles.

The level of colour contrast and how the designs sat on the models’ bodies demanded attention and made for an engaging visual conversation. They felt fun, whimsical and yet comfortable enough to dress in on an ordinary day to feel good about oneself.

“It is all about positivity. We try to spread that as much as we can.”

Curious about the brand and how their collections came about, B-Side met with Li Chen and Yu Bo, who were dressed in their own designs, at a quaint coffee place.

“We stand by our design as our identity, not the label.” Can you elaborate on what this quote means?

When we started, we wanted to find something in our vision that when people look at the design of the garments, they will instantly know that it’s us instead of having to look at the labels to find out that it is THISNORTHAT.

That’s the whole intention of the quote; we stand by our designs and not the label.

So, being based in Shanghai and now bringing your designs back to Penang, how does it feel?

Li Chen: It feels kind of like a homecoming, like I feel at home in a way. I was born here, so when I am in Shanghai, I’ve always felt like it is more of a work environment for me. But here, it truly feels like home.

Do you think your background and being born in Penang have influenced your designs or how you design? How so?

Li Chen: Definitely. In Penang, there’s always been this heritage and tradition, which is kind of Western. We’re also a multiracial country where you have Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, and I know that I can adapt to different cultures and types of understanding. Like how do I incorporate different elements and also, the use of colours here. How it is kind of colourful, so I think it kind of expresses itself in my designs.

Would there be a difference if your studio was based in Penang instead of Shanghai? Would that influence anything?

Li Chen: Yes, definitely. I like the creative scene right here in Penang.

Yu Bo: Bringing it back to the previous question, I feel there is a sense of pride in bringing the collection and brand back here.

I also feel that the creative and artistic community here is great. In Shanghai, it is different. Being geographically smaller, Penang has a feeling of warmth and homeliness to it.

Coming back here, we get to invite the local community to get to know the work of a fellow Penang creative who has been doing good work in China. How we have been able to work from two different cultural backgrounds and create our designs.

THISNORTHAT is an active collaboration between the both of you. What is the beauty of working with another creative person who comes from a different culture or background?

Li Chen: I think because both of us are very different persons and personalities, we complement each other.

For you to visualise better — she’s the ice and I’m the fire.

We are very different in working styles and what we look out for, so we make up for each other’s oversight and build new positive qualities from this collaboration. This is definitely an advantage. And with both of us being creatives, we are able to bounce off ideas and give each other critique to encourage improvements and gain a more complete perspective on our designs. It is different than, say, working with a partner who solely focuses on the business or marketing aspect.

We attended the runway presentation and we are curious as to how the models were chosen.

So George Town Festival, Hin Bus Depot and THISNORTHAT, we held a casting call. We wanted to cast the locals because we thought it would be a great idea and move for us to engage with the community here. We wanted to connect with the audience as well and in fact, if we were to cast professional models, everyone might feel that distance from where they were seated and the runway.

We wanted to relate to people and we think that the models we chose represent what Penang or Malaysia is.

We looked at diversity and we even cast a young mum. You couldn’t tell that there was a mum walking on the runway, right? We looked at different individuals from all kinds of backgrounds — illustrators to baristas and other professions.

That’s interesting, and we could feel the intention to connect the models with the audience since the venue was quite intimate. Was the venue chosen for this reason?

The venue was actually how this project started. Hin Bus Depot engages an entire community of creatives and they have always wanted to work on something fashion-focused. We thought that the THISNORTHAT Runway Presentation would be a good mix of fashion and art. These two realms are always never separable and go well together. Hin Bus Depot has the art, while we bring the fashion, so it is a perfect match.

What do you think people think of when they look at your brand and clothes?

Playfulness, colours and, in a way, everyday life. The ideas are always simple and you don’t see overly complicated designs. We want to express that childlike view through our creative visions as adults.

Even the runway presentation itself, there were yellow pipes laid out along the runway and there is a concept behind them. At the beginning, two models walked in and started to shift them around and play with them. It was inspired by one of our reflections that millennials are always online and using their phone, so they might not have many real human interactions compared with generations before. In the past, people were more than willing to open up to strangers, and that does not happen much now.

So we reinvented the paper cup telephone chain with these pipes to allow people to talk to each other, give and receive messages, and start conversations.

The yellow pipes were like communication and interaction. It was a gesture of invitation and to start something.

Lastly, share with us how you envision the future to be.

We feel that fashion in the future will be more diversified and may not have one major trend that influences the majority, as a whole. Because of the movement and rise of subcultures, with easier access, more trends will emerge, interweave and intersect with one another. It is already happening and probably will be even more so in the future. This will be interesting to look out for since there will be so many elements to draw from, especially in Asia.

Will there be a lot more Asia-driven designer brands and fashion known to the world?

Because more Asian students are now travelling to the West to learn skills and attending schools there. When they come home, they will be able to put their own spin on fashion by mixing their elements and creating designs that ride between the East and the West.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Photography courtesy of THISNORTHAT and George Town Festival 2019

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