As the founding creative director behind award-winning Singaporean design studio Foreign Policy, one might expect Yah-Leng Yu’s design hero to be a graphic designer. Or, at the very least, an interior designer. Foreign Policy, has, after all, made a name for itself by reinvigorating brands from the inside out, engineering everything from their office interiors to their logo. But no—it’s Rei Kawakubo.
“As a young designer, I had an endless fascination with her clothes,” says Yu. “I realised that, more often than not, she would start with a simple form which she would then take apart and reformat. It was ingenious.” The anti-fashion approach that Kawakubo had once taken to shape the beginnings of her now-iconic brand, Comme des Garçons, struck Yu. “There is a universality to her designs that I find visionary. She wasn’t just making clothes for the female form or whatever our idea of the female form is. She was making clothes for all people.”
In her own practice, Yu has adopted a philosophy that is centred around quiet disruption. In other words, her work is known for subverting expectations of what design can be, but in a wholly soft, near-invisible way. “My goal is for a finished work to look very simple, almost deceptively so, when in reality it was very well thought out. I like taking something and making unexpected tweaks, allowing me to present it in a fresher format without over complicating things.”
Yu received her design education at the Art Institute of Boston before moving to New York, where she worked across a range of established design studios and agencies for 15 years. “Back when I started, we mostly worked in print. I was desperate to be in the digital age. We started taking on work from fashion clients like Versace, Vivienne Westwood and Bulgari. Our job was to bring them from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce stores because we were on the cusp of the rise of online shopping.”
Eventually, Yu moved back to Singapore to found Foreign Policy with her husband and business partner Arthur Chin. Their purpose? To uplift the local creative scene with the help of design.
Who better, then, to reinvigorate the visual language behind a legacy publication like Vogue? When asked to design Vogue Singapore’s October ‘Voices’ issue and add an authentically regional flavour into our pages, Yu jumped at the opportunity. “I grew up collecting and reading Vogues from around the world. How often does a designer get the chance to touch a publication with such history?”
There is so much creative buzz and a huge design community in Jakarta”
True to form, Yu wanted to keep the revamp as simple as possible while maximising impact. “The first thing I did was to pore over issues of the magazine, examining the typography. I wanted to keep it clean and super elegant since that is Vogue’s identity. After some experimentation, I picked a combination of different fonts, used in a variation of sizes. I also played with white space to add texture. The result is a little more graphic and edgy, but not over-designed or cluttered.”
Between working with clients (a Rolodex of mostly local, fiercely creative brands and businesses) and the Vogue Singapore redesign, a third idea has been brewing, taking up a huge amount of Yu’s time and creative juices. This project is one she has dreamt up with Chin, who is the brand strategy director of Foreign Policy.
“As a design studio, we have always been very enthusiastic about outreach. Over the years, we have set aside a lot of time to organise events and engage with the community,” says Yu. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Foreign Policy launched an online platform named Design Diplomacy, which put the spotlight on Asian designers at varying stages in their careers, allowing them to talk about their work in real time.
For Yu, it had always been an ambition to create avenues that would celebrate Asian talent. Now, she is honing in even further on our region with a landmark event set to launch this month in Jakarta, a city that Yu firmly believes is a future hub of design. “There is so much creative buzz in Jakarta. There is a huge design community in the city. They are young and hungry, but lack access to networks that would help them see the potential of how far their work can go,” says Yu. “With this event, we are hoping to put these students in the same room as some of the top designers in the region and the world. Allowing them to meet and learn from their design heroes would be the greatest thing on Earth.”
Yu and Chin are launching Out of Office, a two-day design conference bringing together a plethora of exciting events for the artistic community in Jakarta, from keynote speeches given by industry-leading creatives across various design disciplines to a pasar malam-inspired creator’s market featuring an eclectic curation of regional brands.
To run Out of Office, Foreign Policy has partnered with Manual, an award-winning media company in Jakarta that is known for its laser-sharp focus on elevating the creative scene in Indonesia.“They are wonderful partners who are very aligned with us on the intentions behind this event. They know, firsthand, how difficult it can be to survive as a creative in Jakarta. The understanding around design is still quite basic in the city. We are hoping to kickstart some momentum around expanding the imagination of what design can do. This event isn’t just for designers, but also for clients and design buyers.”
A key feature in the line-up is Clientell. As the clever portmanteau in its name suggests, the event will set the stage for presentations, not from designers, but from clients—the other, equally vital piece of the design equation. Key speakers from top brands in the region (including Rebecca Ting from homegrown Beyond the Vines and Daniel Mitchell from Bali’s Space Available) will speak on the role of design in their respective businesses, shedding light on how valuable the designer-client relationship can be.
“We are trying to use the common ground of a love for design to build friendships and networks within the community. It’s a very designer thing, I know,” Yu laughs. “But the end goal is to grow a movement which celebrates the value of this skill. It’s not just an artistic practice for the sake of making things beautiful. If you use design well, it will drive your business like nothing else.”
Out of Office runs from 28 to 29 October. Tickets are available here.
Editor-in-chief Desmond Lim
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Associate lifestyle editor Chandreyee Ray
Hair and makeup Sha Shamsi
The October anniversary ‘Voices’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store.