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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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A chat with Jack

Salient feature writer Paul Comrie-Thomson talks to Jack Yan about his experience in the fashion industry and his hopes for Wellington’s very own fashion scene.

Designer, publisher, consultant, and more recently, mayoral candidate Jack Yan is, not surprisingly, an extremely busy man. Born in Hong Kong in 1972, if Yan is successful in his bid to be the next mayor of Wellington, he will be one of the city’s youngest at just 38.

Immigrating to New Zealand with his parents, Yan was schooled in Wellington before attending Victoria University where he graduated with both a Bachelor of Law and a Masters of Commerce.

In 1987, Yan started his first company designing typefaces and turning them into digital fonts, filling a niche in which no other New Zealand entrepreneurs were operating at that point. He now runs three companies simultaneously; Jack Yan & Associates is a global media and communications consultancy firm; The Medinge Group is a Sweden based think tank concerned with issues surrounding branding; Lucire, Yan’s third company, is both a web-based and more recently, in-print fashion magazine.

As a mayoral candidate, Jack Yan has campaigned on a number of platforms. Most significantly, he aims to see free wifi available in the city, while focusing on creating jobs through a technology platform. Long the environmentalist, as seen through his work with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Yan promises a comprehensive environmental programme for Wellington. And, perhaps most importantly, Yan, who co-wrote a book concerning transparency in branding, assures that a council under his leadership will be significantly more transparent in its proceedings.

In this interview with Salient, Yan spoke about just one aspect of his life. Offering reflections on both his introduction to the fashion industry, and his subsequent work within the industry, Yan also offers a vision that would see fashion at the forefront in presenting Wellington to the world.

Without further ado, Mr Jack Yan…

…on his introduction to fashion.

“Strangely enough, it had actually nothing to do with fashion to begin with. In 1987, I started my own business and that was in the graphic design world. I got involved very quickly with the typesetters around town because I really love typefaces. I had the ambition to become a typeface designer, and as it turned out, I did become the first typeface designer to work on a desktop in New Zealand, to do it digitally. So, when you have that love of type at an early age you’re very aware of what is good typography, what is bad typography, how much more it costs to get good typography, and good typesetting done.

“I can’t remember what project it was at high school, but I remember picking up a copy of Studio Collections, which was an Australian fashion magazine in 1989. The typesetting in that was absolutely beautiful. You could just tell that money was lavished on this product. It was much better than Vogue et cetera. Because I was involved in the publishing world, even then—doing my own layouts and stuff, literally cut and paste; physically, scalpel and glue—I thought, what is the most glamorous way to present information? The answer is fashion.

“The fashion magazine has an aesthetic of its own, but there was no reason that aesthetic could not be shared with lesser publications, and by lesser I mean things like school magazines. I was involved with publishing school magazines to some degree back then, in the late 80s and early 90s. If you have ever looked through your old school’s magazines, they are really boring—title, columns, text and a black and white photo of the First XV. Every page was the same. I thought, there is no reason, not even cost-wise, that that aesthetic couldn’t be shifted over to the school magazine, so I started designing school magazines along those lines. It was just understanding that form of presentation.
“It was inspiration by the fashion magazine’s art direction, and that is really the reason I got into. So, it wasn’t so much a love of fashion, although I grew to love it from talking to other people in the industry and understanding that their method of creativity is quite similar to mine. Creative people do seem to have that sort of kinship, in that we do take risks and we don’t base things on some cold calculated formula. There is something inside us that drives us. We look at what the next trend is going to be, we look at the behaviour of people, and we try to translate that into something tangible. So, I shared that with a lot of fashion designers, and that is why I love, not so much fashion, but I love the creativity that goes into fashion.

“I looked at ways of pushing the aesthetics because I still to this day believe that a fashion magazine is one of the most startling, beautiful ways to present photographs and text.”

…on founding Lucire magazine.

“In the 90s, the interest thing was the world web. So, the same question arises. Web pages in 1993 were boring. It was headline, type, headline, type—you couldn’t even do columns with the initial html 1.0 specs, so again, I tried to find ways to extend what was possible with coding, to turn something into what looked like a fashion magazine. Lucire in 1997 was really an exercise in that…

“I really used fashion as a means, and as a medium to really communicate socially responsible issues. Fashion was a means to an end. It was a way to show off great art direction, and great design. I think really my passion still lies more in design more generally as a discipline, with its graphics, animations and fashion, rather than just specifically fashion. It’s a world that I really love.”

…on Lucire and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“It’s a long story. It was about 1997 that I met this guy Chris Macrae whose dad was Norman Macrae, the deputy chief editor of The Economist. In 2001, DNA, a local Wellington firm, created a site called allaboutbranding.com, which is still going. They wanted the first set of articles to be of such a high calibre that we would set the stage for everything that followed. Chris was appointed the editor, and I was appointed one of the first contributors. The site got off the ground and was very successful.

“In 2002, I was just walking about, and went to a travel agency, just out of total inspiration, and said how much is a ticket to Stockholm. I didn’t really think about, I just loved Swedish design. There was no rhyme or reason for me to go, but I just enquired about it, got the price, and went back home. About four hours later, Chris sends me an email which says ‘how would you like to come to Sweden? We’ve got this conference on there—the chief brand offices meeting. It’s in Medinge in Sweden, come along’. How many times have you enquired about going to a place just before you get asked to go? So, I took that as I sign that I was meant to go to this. I went, and that meeting really became what is now known as The Medinge Group.

“The big topic then, right after 9/11 and the Enron collapse, was social responsibility. The feeling was Naomi Klein has attacked us, Enron has collapsed, and people think branding is defunct and irrelevant to society. Well actually, it’s not. It’s just that if it is being used for evil it is bad, if it is being used for good, it’s good. We decided to write this book called ‘Beyond Branding’, and use good for good. We came up with this thing called the ‘Brand Manifesto’, which the CEO of Medinge now calls the ‘Constitution of Medinge’. It was writing this that gave me this reputation for corporate social responsibility (CSR).

“One of the people I met as a result of having gone to Medinge, was a guy called Will Rogowski, who then worked at the UNEP. I recognised that the organisation was never going to get the word out preaching to the converted. The only way to get the word out was by aligning it with a medium that was considered ‘cool’, and we could make the environment ‘cool’. I remind you this is 2002. The deal went through the UN machinery by 2003 and then we announced it. We started promoting eco-fashion, but also showed that eco-fashion didn’t mean wearing khaki tones, and hemp, but is as good, and as fashionable, and as meritorious, and as deserving as mainstream fashion, and that has always been our bag.

Lucire really was started to show that niche fashion is as good as mainstream fashion. You could go to somewhere like Frutti, and the design integrity of those garments was as good as what was at the top of New Zealand fashion at that time—Zambesi, Karen Walker, Trelise Cooper. They deserved coverage. Late 90s fashion media was very focused on those top labels—it was very Auckland-centric. I like to think I helped change that in my own little way. Anyway, we coordinated that promotion with the environment…

“With UNEP we had eco-fashion, but we wanted to start looking at other causes. We thought let’s look at fair trade, let’s look at other things that we can promote using the UNEP banner, and they fully got on board. It generally was brought up by social conscience, but if you look through my career it has always been about game changing. With fashion on the web, I recognised you could have an international fashion magazine coming out of New Zealand. With Lucire we’ve launched here, we’ve launched in Romania and we’ve launched in Thailand. We’ve got one more country coming up which I can announce in the next few weeks.

“Again, it is showing we can do this, you don’t have to be a French company like Elle, you don’t have to be a US company like Vogue. You can do this from New Zealand and show Wellington to the world. And it’s the same with the environment.”

…on the importance of fashion to Wellington.

“Fashion is something that is very tangible, so if you are talking about creativity, it is a very tangible sign of Wellington’s creativity. There is no reason why we can’t market Wellington to the world using our designers. Say to the world: This is what we are capable of. We are leaders in this country for creativity.

“We have had a very successful run, promoting ourselves as a tourism destination, and an event capital—not thanks to the incumbent mayor, but thanks to the incumbent’s predecessor, Mr Blumsky. It is entirely conceivable that, now that we are in a creative age rather than a leisure age, we use fashion as the poster-child for Wellington’s creativity. Sure, we can use Weta. I’d love to use Weta as well, but I think it takes Weta and the geek community, equally used with fashion, to send a picture out to the world to say: Wellington is actually a centre of creativity on this planet. I don’t think that is an arrogant thing to say, and I actually believe that we are well equipped to promote ourselves as all of those things. All we need is a creative leader who gets this industry.

“Think of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is known for geeks, it doesn’t have the other things that make Wellington great. It doesn’t have special effects, that is in the North Bay Area. We’re talking an hour to two-hour drive north. We are the only city in the world that has all three of these things in the one space—special effects, tech and fashion. You go to Paris, they’ve just got the fashion. You go to Milan, same thing there. There is nothing else that stands out in terms of their creative realm, so there is a lot of backing in saying this is the most creative city in the world.

“We need to capitalise on that and use fashion as a gateway. Not everyone is going to be impressed by geeks. I know that. Despite the great work they do, they are always going to appeal to the Technorati. Fashion is a lot more mainstream. It is a lot broader, certainly for females—it is a much bigger area for them to sink their teeth into. So let’s use that as a means for promoting Wellington.”

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  1. Dave Smith says:

    How fortunate Wellington is to have a true innovator and visionary standing for Mayor. Imagine if this was the case in other regions, cities….imagine if we had dialogue between major centres like Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland where our leaders not only spoke but acted on the opportunities that present themselves. Imagine if they actually worked together understanding the ‘Brand’ and identified how they could enhance each others identity instead of playing the we are better then you game.

    Time the ‘Old School Boys’ retired to Tauranga…let the shakers and movers in. Maybe we saw a sign that its time to shake things up a little this week.

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