Jean Yu is known for making beautiful, understated lingerie, but since her shop was damaged by a neighboring fire a few months ago, she's also discovered happiness in little things: traveling (to India), learning to play tennis, and feeding an addiction to iPhone apps. In addition to creating underthings in her atelier, she's also debuting a new line of layering basics — including T-shirts, camisoles, and slips — called 180, in stores this spring. Unlike her lingerie, the pieces are not meant to be delicately handled and preserved; rather, Yu wanted to add some well-made staples to wear every day. We caught up with Yu to discuss her recent collaborations with Rag & Bone and Proenza Schouler, finding inspiration in the aisles of Eataly, and why she prefers her fabrics sheer.
How did you get your start in fashion?
I went to college at F.I.T., and I made this matte jersey dress for a class project. I took it to a few stores in Soho, and I began selling during school. There was a boom with matte jersey in the nineties. The dress I designed was very Halston — clean, graphic, body hugging — and Geoffrey Beene–inspired.
When did you decide you liked designing lingerie the best?
I never tried lingerie until I opened my own shop in December 2001, right after 9/11. It was very slow, and there was not much to do, so I kept myself busy making new things. I wanted to open a modern dress shop, refined and well made, for a downtown girl going to an uptown party. My obsession is to have nice construction inside and out, which is why I like translucent fabrics. It doesn’t feel modern to have lining.
What do you love to do outside of work?
Travel. I’ve been going to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat [in the south of France] regularly, but this was my first real summer holiday. I’m going to India soon. Then I want to go to Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Who's your ideal client?
Someone who's interested in the aesthetics of a product — the way it is built.
How did the Proenza Schouler and Rag & Bone collaborations come about?
This was my first time being asked to collaborate, but I was asked by two teams of designers the same season. It was a funny coincidence, a double take. Shirley Cook, CEO of Proenza Schouler, is a client of mine. She showed Jack and Lazaro the line, and they started including the triangle bra in their sketches. For Rag & Bone, they started off wanting corsetry, but that's not what I'm known for. I didn’t think that was interesting. I did something completely different, and they liked it.
How would you describe your personal style?
Urban Pocahontas. I’m really picky and fussy. My uniform is this pair of jeans I made a long time ago. I like to wear a long-sleeve T-shirt, camisoles, and my triangle bra. I don’t wear heels much anymore. I got these Chloé boots at Barneys, and I took all the buckles out. I have a hard time finding a good mid-heel boot.
What was the first designer item you bought?
A bias-cut silk-georgette blouse by Donna Karan collection. I was 14, and I knew I must possess it, no matter what.
Where do you like to shop in New York?
Eataly, Sunrise Mart, Lifethyme, the Union Square farmers' market, and the Italian market in the Chelsea Market. My favorite thing is Eataly: I feel like a kid in a candy store again; I like looking at all the beautiful packaging. For clothes and shoes, A Détacher, IF, Balenciaga, Comme des Garçon, Barneys, and Uniqlo. My current vice is iPhone apps. There's this one calculator application [Digits] that's just beautiful; it looks old-fashioned, but it’s functional, and you can use it every day.
What trends are you appreciating right now?
Minimalism. I’ve OD'd on fashion for so long now.
Any trends you're ready to see retired?
Individualism. The concept is well, but the translations can be painful to watch.
What's one thing you’re saving up to buy?
A country house.
What should every woman have in her closet?
Good shoes and nice knickers.