Song for the Mute is the creative union of award winning graphic artist Melvin Tanaya and Parisian-born, Italian-trained fashion designer Lyna Ty.
In essence, the Australian based label is a self-described poem of tactile expectations and contemporary dreams. To mark the recent arrival of their latest collection MOTH, Diana took some time to chat with Lyna about the brand, her team and their flagship studio.
Lyna I was just trying to remember the first time I came in contact with SONG FOR THE MUTE, I believe it was during men’s fashion week in Paris. Was it your first collection that I stumbled across in Showroom Romeo around 8 years ago?
Yes, it must have been back in Showroom Romeo where we first met! It was the first time we showed in Paris and I believe that was Milieu II (SS12) which was our 4th official collection since our inception. It feels so recent yet so long ago that we met, time really flies in this industry!
Was it a strategy from the beginning to focus on international sales more so than domestic?
It may seem this way but we never really intended it to be… It just so happened that the international stores took more interest during the beginning of our brand. We originally showed our collection to a few selected buyers domestically and within the first year of business, we got offered by Showroom Romeo to take our collection to Paris. Since then, Melvin and I have the opportunity to travel for work and are very inspired by the cultures, people and things we get to experience along the way. Every collection is a reflection on the experiences we encounter, and every collection marks a new stage in our growth as a brand. It seemed only fitting to be able to translate and expose it to the world which meant focusing more on the international market.
The brand was picked up by the world’s best stores, very early on. What have the big international stores like Lane Crawford and Leclaireur taught you about the industry internationally? And how do you think it differs from Australia?
Both international and Australian stores are similar in their care and attention-to-detail. They all operate at a high level to deliver customers the best experience, and represent their brands in the best way possible. This pushes me to challenge my own ideas and to continue to grow and do better as a designer. I am always trying to emulate their high standards and work ethic in everything I do. After so many years, you build such a strong relationship and they become like family in a way. We never want to let them down and respect the feedback we get each season.
Can you tell me a little about how you and Melvin became friends and how that evolved into starting a business together?
Melvin and I have known each other since we were 10 years old, having gone to the same school together. We were always in the same Visual art and Design classes and have always shared a similar set of interests. Growing up, we had a relationship akin to that of a brother and sister - never thinking we would ever go onto start a business together! People always say a partnership can either make or break you - however I believe the amount of trust we have for each other is what keeps us together. Since day one, Melvin has always been able to understand what I am thinking without me having to say anything, and I can always sense his feelings before he tells me where he’s at - purely from being able to trust each other’s decisions and thoughts.
How does Melvin’s role differ from your own and has your friendship with Melvin evolved since establishing SFTM?
Our roles from the beginning were quite simple - we would do everything together. We’ve always shared and overseen every aspect of the business together, but as the brand grew, our work load did too. Time has become more scarce, the team has gotten bigger and so we’ve had to split our responsibilities. We’ve evolved both as individuals and as partners. Melvin now focuses on the business aspect of the brand - constantly looking at where the future will take us and marketing our collections so that I can concentrate purely on design. We have always said making a beautiful garment is only half of the process, and being able to communicate those designs effectively is integral too.
One of the qualities I love about small business is that there tends to be a real sense of family and that everyone enjoys working together towards achieving a common goal. I remember visiting your flagship store in Sydney and really getting an impression that this was the case among you and your team. Obviously your partner Karim manages wholesale for the business and Melvin is the managing director. However, it feels as though everyone involved really lives and breathes the brand and is effected by it. Does the team influence the direction that it takes aesthetically?
You’re right, we are a little family here in our studio hub. While Melvin and I are the founders, we are in a way just a small part of SFTM and without the rest of the team we wouldn’t have been able to have grown or achieve anything. As you remember, the studio space itself is an open working space, everything is exposed which lets us be very open in our thoughts and workflow and constantly bouncing ideas off one another. In times of joy and stress, we share it all and work it all out as a team. We are all very honest and open in our communication, and while this can sometimes be confronting, we all understand it is the only way for us to truly progress and grow together as a team.
Working so closely with your partner, what kind of challenges and benefits does that present?
Working everyday so closely with your partner definitely has its challenges, but there are huge benefits too. I met Karim 7 years ago right at the beginning of it all - I think it was our 3rd collection. He’s been around the entire time and has seen the brand develop and progress from when we had nothing; still working in my car, cutting samples on our dining table and sewing samples in the laundry room!
Having him by my side through all that has really bound us together and we’ve always had that closeness right from the beginning till today. He is my best friend that I can bare all to. In any relationship I guess it’s all about finding the right balance (it may sound cliché but that is what I work towards everyday). Seeing and experiencing his unwavering patience - always so calm and showing kindness to people, I really have learnt a lot from him. Vice versa, from me, he sees and feels the passion/drive/fire I have for the things that I do - I believe this constant inspiration from each other is what keeps us strong. To be honest, our whole team embodies this sort of mind set which is why I love them.
Your flagship retail store, is also your studio space, what is it that you enjoy about working in this open-to-the public kind of environment?
We use our open space as a way of communication with our customers. It’s our open book to them and them to us. We like this open interaction we have with them and the relationship we get to create with them, they’re almost no longer our clients but our friends/neighbours. Chris, our last intern, started as a long term customer of ours and have always wanted to lend a hand - and that year where he was with us (sadly he moved back to NZ), was one of the best team bonding we’ve ever had as a team. It can be challenging at times to be exposed to the public but this is our way of connecting and you never know whom you could meet and connect with along the way so always be open to things.
Why did you decide to launch a womenswear line?
Introducing womenswear was a natural evolution for us. I was originally a womenswear designer before SFTM so we were just waiting for the right time… It just took us 6 years to do so! … and you never know there could be a kids line eventually.
Do you wear the womenswear yourself? And what is your favourite look this season?
Like all of the guys at the studio, I now wear full SFTM almost daily! Experiencing the work for myself is like the last step in the design process; it becomes something I can learn from. My favourite part of the ‘Moth’ collection would have to be the ‘Detached Sleeve’ pieces. they’re perfect for Australian weather as I can untie my sleeves as I like and have a sleeveless top or dress for the warmer days and long sleeves for cooler nights. I like that SFTM (speaking as a 3rd person) plays on the more playful side and is not restricted to how you should where the brand but more how you want to wear the brand. The clothes don’t wear you but you wear the clothes to your needs and look, play on your own character there are no rules.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
I like things for its comfort and functionality, which is important for any given day around the studio. A SFTM piece paired with sneakers is my usual choice. But these days I am obsessed with sliders, makes be feel even more at home at the studio/at work!
We have just received the new Fall/Winter 2017 collection instore, entitled MOTH, can you explain what inspired you during the development of this collection?
Inspiration comes from a central character. An old youth who is focused on taking something from the past, something forgotten, and making it new again. They are a collage of previous experiences, always deconstructing what is seen as traditional, searching to bring out the inner child and inner rebel within them. Driven by a state of mind rather than actuality, they do not respect authority or traditional ideas. He/she is stuck in the past, in something forgotten and is always in search of that sense of memory/history and what’s forgotten in the new world. He/she sees the beauty in imperfection.
Moth as a collection is the representation of the balance of Melvin and I, him being the new world and me from the old world. ‘Moth’ is our rebellious side that doesn’t want to grow up, we are ‘the old meets the new kid’ in a way.
Do you design the mens and womens at the same time?
Yes, starting from SS18 we now show men’s and women’s collections together in Paris. It only felt right to design them at the same time as they are telling the same story and are from the same stages of our lives. We never wanted our women’s line to be seen as a women’s version of men’s but be it’s our character instead. We want our women’s wear to have its own identity.
Who do you believe the SFTM woman is?
She is comfortable in her own skin and is not driven by what is conventional. She is an individual and carefree.
Fabrics and finishes are integral to your collections. You have relationships with traditional Japanese mills that produce fabrics exclusively for SFTM, Yohji Yamomoto and Comme Des Garçons. How did you establish these relationships?
We met our mills back in 2010 when we attended Première Vision for the first time and went from booth to booth trying to find our way in this massive fabric expo. From there, we made close connections with just a few mills from Italy and Japan and have kept working with them ever since. With time, our relationship was able develop which allowed us access to their archived fabrics - some dating 20-50 years back - collaborating with them to redevelop and creating new ones.
For the Moth collection, it really came from all the visits to the fabric mills and the development with them this time around. I spent hours, almost days going through their old archive rooms going through their vintage fabrics. I felt that these were their history and their story and that’s what I wanted to use and tell their story this season in a collage in the form of garments.
All garment manufacturing is produced in Australia, why did you decide to keep it all in house and do you think you will continue to do so?
Similar to the relationship we have developed with our fabric mills, the same goes with our manufacturers. We have known and worked with them since day one, we even remember going through the yellow pages calling factory after factory trying to find our way through without any contact back in the beginning. To this day we still work alongside them to the extent where we call them aunties and uncles just like they’re part of our family. We would have barbecues together and even attended some weddings together. That’s how close we have become.
These sort of relationships is something we truly value so we would stay onshore for the foreseeable future. However, in saying all of this - manufacturing in Australia has its limitation, as we are not fully equipped for variety of technics in sewing so design wise we have to be a little more creative. At first, it was very hard as the makers have their ways of doing things and it tends to be very traditional, for example - no raw seams were exposed or contrast fabrics were not sewn together, which we had to guide them and teach them new ways and new processes.
Little by little they started to understand our construction language. They have helped us from day one and now its our turn to help them as the manufacturing industry here in Australia is slowly disappearing and factories are getting smaller and smaller it is as hard for them as it is for us to survive in Australia. So us supporting each other is how we can grow.