For three generations, Carolyn Yim’s family has been running a manufacturing business. And even though she studied literature, philosophy and the arts at university, she’s now working with her parents while running two different knitwear brands: Ply-Knits (for women) and Dreyden (a newly born brand for men) – as she herself puts it, “I always felt a natural disposition towards style”. 
So, after three generations, what are the most important things for her when creating new garments? Firstly, she avoids trendy design; instead, she focuses on creating long-lasting, comfortable, low-maintenance clothes. Secondly, she takes sustainability very seriously. Thus, the clothing by Ply-Knits is made of recycled materials (merinos, cashmeres, and silks). And last but not least, negotiation and concession with her parents: “With three strong, distinct personalities, there’s always a strong push and pull from all directions.” Meet Carolyn and discover how a traditional Shanghai-based company can become the most relevant by embracing and solving contemporary society’s issues.
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Before we start, could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I’m Carolyn and I help develop my family’s knitwear manufacturing business. As part of that, I have two knitwear brands that I design, produce, and sell: Ply-Knits, for women, and a new addition as of last week, Dreyden, for men. Ultimately, I like making good, well-made products.
You studied literature, philosophy and the arts at Columbia University. How did you end up in fashion?
My family’s DNA is deeply woven in the clothing business. My grandparents were tailors and shoemakers in Shanghai. Shanghai was the only port city in China, so there was a big mix of British, Russian, German, and American soldiers and traders – and their styles. Therefore, style in Shanghai is very international and advanced. Shanghai is described as the ‘Paris of the East’, but I believe the city, and China, should stand for a style and aesthetic of their own right.
I like to think that because of my ancestor’s vocations I always felt a natural disposition towards style. This lends itself nicely to my keenness towards good literature – nothing excites me more than reading well-formed writing style with the right turns of pace and a surprising lilt.
How would you say this very humanistic background has influenced the way you design and perceive fashion in general?
I find a deep interest in how clothing mirrors our society and our individual identity, down to how it informs individual meaning and long-term satisfaction. Long-term happiness, as any philosopher will tell you, is never reliant on external things, let alone clothing! So, I never want my clothing to be something that incites so much hype or temporary thrill – for that will fade, and emptiness’ hunger to consume more will growl again.
It is strange to say this: I find it my duty to make my clothing somewhat unexciting at first. But after you have come to get to know it better, you find it to be reliable, long-lasting, quietly at frequent rotations in your closet, and always a dependable choice on different occasions. This is what Ply-Knits is about: comfortable to wear, low-maintenance, unobtrusive (not itchy, doesn’t drape strangely) to your daily life. Long-term peace.
“We have been here for three generations, and to be around for the next three, we have to use resources carefully. It is not a choice.”
That seems ideal. How do you achieve that?
I avoid design that’s too trendy. I don’t like the idea of putting on a trend someone else tells you that you should wear this season – that would be no different to a costume. I don’t believe anyone will be content in the long run if they do that. I try to create designs that are at once quiet and differentiated enough that whoever wears it can adapt it to their own individual style and personality. The clothing will not overshadow the wearer either, but the wearer will have enough space to let her own strength of character speak for herself.
Your project Ply-Knits consists of a series of knitwear garments, mostly made of recycled merinos, cashmeres, and silks. How important is sustainability to you and your brand?
We have been here for three generations, and to be around for the next three, we have to use resources carefully. It is not a choice. This responsibility is very important and obvious to me. I have a visceral reaction to too much… stuff. I see so much being produced at our factory, and I watch the same stuff go into stores, then go to markdowns, then float around somewhere at resell, then in bulk for cheap at black markets. Stuff doesn't just disappear.
In developed societies, we are at once privileged yet disadvantaged to be so removed from the producers. It seems acceptable that consumers don’t quite know where things come from nor where things end up, and that is a shame. Clothing magically appears in stores, then vanishes after the clothing donation center. But that is only a fragment of the story. Only 10% of donated second-hand clothing goes to second-hand stores – the rest ends up piled up in compressed twelve-ton bales, shipped off to developing countries for sale.
Politicians in these countries have in recent years tried to reduce United States/European Union’s exports of bulk second-hand clothes, but unfortunately, have received unfavorable trade threats and higher tariffs on other imports that forces them to continue imports of unwanted second-hand clothing. In Nigeria, they are known as ‘kafa ulaya’ (the clothes of the dead whites), and in Mozambique, ‘roupa da calamidade’ (clothing of the calamity).
But clothing is not the only problem.
For plastics recycling, this is even worse. This is all your sneakers, fleece jackets, windbreakers, gym leggings, stretchy socks and underpants – nylon, spandex and lycra are all simply non-biodegradable plastic. Although 95% of people in the United States and the European Union markets recycle, only 30% recycle carefully enough for it to be reusable, and only 2% ends up in new products. Furthermore, since 1992, did you know that China had imported over half of the world’s plastic scraps for recycling processing?
Why this is a big deal is because, since January 2018, China enacted the National Sword policy, banning imports of plastic waste. China has effectively been pulling the rug out from under the world’s flawed recycling system. The world is awash with rubbish. After all this, do you also see why it is necessary to be sustainable with using resources?
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More and more, we see sustainable brands emerge and thrive. And that’s good because the fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world. How do you see the future of fashion in terms of sustainability and environmentalism?
Economically, it is now much more expensive to manufacture clothing, so there will simply be less throwaway clothing made. It is now much more expensive to manufacture than the glorious 1980s – right after Deng Xiao Ping opened up China to the world, when a lot of the fast fashion behemoths like H&M, Zara and big label retailers like Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren grew. So now, there will be less clothing made. When clothing is more expensive, people will buy less and only buy wisely.
Strong females are also part of your brand’s DNA. For the third series, you chose to feature two models and two artists: Stephanie, Gail, Amy and Margarita. How did you find them and why did you choose them?
I worked with Roxanne Doucet of Quadriga Management for casting our campaign. We were looking for women with innate character and style. It is a very intangible quality – they don’t list that on model’s casting sheets! But we sought a combination of inner grace and quiet decorum. Fashion doesn’t quite celebrate these traits often – loudness, particularly of the clothes, often seems front and center. The fashion model is forgotten, objectified, interchangeable. I find that not only disrespectful but a waste.
Some of the characteristics that make a woman beautiful, according to you, are her wit, inner strength, or expertise. And you don’t care much about age or ethnicity, for example. So how would you define beauty?
A beautiful person is wise and chooses the path of compassion, particularly when it is difficult to do so.
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The pictures you present were taken in in-between moments, so most of them are actually not staged and the models are not posing. Are honesty and rawness other elements that make women (or people) beautiful? Is this sort of frankness what you were trying to convey?
Yes, I am interested in who they really are. I hope there is integrity in the images, as in everything we do. There’s one of Margarita laughing on the couch: she had just hit her head on the lamp in a friend’s house in Greenpoint. Then, there is the one of Gail tenderly looking at her husband, who is off-screen, at their long-time home in West Village. The warmth in her eyes at that moment cannot be faked. Our photographer, Sasha Lytvyn, who we always partner with, has a sharp eye and is quick to be able to capture these little moments.
Who’s your top female role model and why?
My mother, of course. She never gives up, is ever-giving, and can do anything.
It actually makes sense that you link women with knitwear. To me, there’s nothing warmer than a mother’s hug, which can be ‘easily’ translated into the feeling of a cosy, soft sweater warming you up during cold days. You also do what you do because of your grandmother, who owns/owned the factory where you produce the clothes. What role do family and tradition play in Ply-Knits?
Family is entrenched in Ply-Knits. Today, my mother, father, and I work together for our knitwear business. With three strong, distinct personalities, there’s always a strong push and pull from all directions. And as with making anything, there’s often a lot of blood, sweat, and tears involved. But in the end, when we finally complete a beautiful product, there’s a great sense of quiet and contentment shared by all. And then, we do it all over again. And again. It’s our version of the ritual of preparing the annual Thanksgiving or Christmas feast – now isn’t that family?
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