Exploring the connection between art and fashion with award-winning fashion illustrator Dzung Yoko
Dzung Yoko walks in and before he gets to the third table, our table, he is stopped by three fashionably dressed men who fawn over him and congratulate him on his success. He thanks them genuinely and comes over. For a man so influenced by movies, it’s appropriate to pull a line from an old Humphrey Bogart film: “He’s like any other man, only more so.” Dzung is neither tall nor short. He wears his hair short but not too short. There is something slightly more than a shadow on his chin. His clothes are the unprepossessing comfort and color uniform of many creatives: dark t-shirt and jeans. Unlike others in the fashion world, what you see reveals little of what’s in store. But once he shares pieces from his creative process, it’s easy to marvel at all that’s stored inside his head.
Dzung was going to be an architect. That was the plan. But one day, on a trip to Thailand in 2003, he went into a bookstore where there were imported fashion magazines from floor to ceiling. Vietnam didn’t have anything like this at the time. The magazines were not about products as much as they were about atmosphere and aesthetics, showing that one could live a life of art, could live a life in art.
“The first magazine I bought was L’Officiel from Italy. The photos were not just photos, they were stories. Every feature was a narrative. I found this very striking, very beautiful. It was life elevated by passion,” says Dzung. “Every time I traveled I bought these magazines and soon I had a large collection. I just absorbed them – all the photos, the features. They were art and they fascinated me. So I moved on from studying architecture to graphic design and fashion. That is how it all began.”
Dzung may have left architecture behind, but if you look carefully at his work, you can see the training in arranging space and light is still very much with him. His compositions are carefully balanced between subject and setting, color and space. “After studying architecture, I started designing CD covers and artwork. I worked with singers that were out of the mainstream, who made very unique, personal, experimental music. For the artwork, I always used the space to set the mood. A lot of singers start with the styling; I started with the atmosphere. From there, I created the concept and then the styling. It was this work that brought me to the attention of ELLE magazine, which had just arrived in Vietnam. They saw me as a concept artist and asked me to work with them. One year later, I said OK.”
Architecture is not the only influence that is evident in his work. There are traces of other visual masters: the films of David Lynch (Mullholland Drive a particular favorite), the grand playfulness of Tim Walker, and the graphic pen and brush work of Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele – two early 20th century European artists known for their intense emotionalism, vivid color and distorted lines that made their subjects seem more alive and confrontational.
Dzung aims to do the same. “Good composition is not enough. There must be more in the photo. I always start by sketching the space in order to know how I will manage the work. And I send my sketches of the space to the team, so that we can all start with confidence and a common understanding. From this, we are free to explore the real emotion of the scene, to give it passion. When you have passion, your work has impact.”
What Dzung saw in those first magazines he brought back to Vietnam nearly 12 years ago still pushes his work today. “What I have learned in working in fashion is that it is not about the product as a product. That is only a shallow idea. It is about everything around it – the particular world and the values and life experiences that go into it. Every product began from an inspiration: nature, or art, or a particular culture, for example. From this inspiration came the development of its character. And my challenge is to show in one photo or one series of photos all the qualities and values of this character to the reader, so that they can be so inspired. By working this way, you also educate yourself in terms of living a life of quality. You learn to see, to appreciate, and be inspired. It becomes a life philosophy.”
It is this life philosophy that he is taking, after more than three years as Art Director with ELLE, to L’Officiel Vietnam as Creative Director. “It was very difficult to leave ELLE. It was a great place to work and to learn. With L’Officiel, I can continue to explore, to blend art and fashion, but to take it deeper.” L’Officiel Vietnam is getting in Dzung a talent self-taught from Western products and perspectives, but with an exceptional sensitivity to Asian and local pulses. “Many Western magazines often take a minimalist approach to their features, their content. I don’t think minimalism works so well in Asia. Perhaps because of the way life is lived: the culture, the style, the layers of history, the life on the street – this all translates to photos and features with many layers. Not a lot of stark, sharp images. I think we prefer layers and atmosphere over absolute clarity.”
The coincidence here is that Dzung’s on-the-job education has been mirrored by the growing sophistication of the Vietnamese consumer and local fashion industry. Ten years ago, there was little available – both in terms of international products and media. Incomes were only starting to rise, and with them the opportunity to travel outside the country and beyond the region. The Vietnamese fashion industry was in its infancy and trying hard to get noticed. There were plenty of fashion shows but the products had trouble finding customers. There were talented designers, but few were able to put the whole package of identity, customer, publicity and production together. But what a difference a decade makes.
“From ten years ago, Vietnam’s fashion scene has become very current. The designers and the customers have seen more through travel and through more international products coming here. It has opened their eyes and minds, and inspired new creativity. And I am seeing now that customers, both men and women, from every level are looking for individuality, not just brand status. This is good for our designers – if they can figure out their place in the market. But they have to be quick and they have to have a real feeling for where the market is going. If they can do this, then you see they are really appreciated by the customer. And it is a real pleasure to work with such designers.”