This story is part of Image issue 21, “Image Makers,” our third annual celebration of the homegrown fashion luminaries who are designing a global fashion future built from the L.A. that was. Read the whole issue here. You can purchase the issue in print here.
Leeann Huang, the Taiwanese American designer from South Pasadena calls herself a “goofy person,” but play isn’t something she takes lightly at all. Holding space for joy is almost sacred to her.
Drawing from their childhood memories, Huang calls on the magical transformations of Sailor Moon and the shimmery fluorescent vortex of Lisa Frank school supplies to inform the flower-shaped handbags, holographic cow print Mary Jane shoes, blinking-eye miniskirts and saturated sky-blue trench coats they build today. The constantly moving and changing images of her lenticular designs feel like activating the same part of your brain as a Chuck E. Cheese.
In 2020, when Huang wrapped up her textile studies at Central Saint Martins in London, she had her graduating showcase at London Fashion Week and made a splash with a debut line of edible textiles made from jelly, chocolate and resin orange slices. Taking notes from an Alessi cookware ad and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist cookbook “Les Dîners de Gala,” Huang posed the question: Why shouldn’t we play with food? Standout accessories from the line were her oversized fuzzy hats, which have recently been worn by SZA, Remi Wolf, Raveena, Kali Uchis and Lil Nas X.
Huang describes her designs as her survival tools in a generally bleak time. They transport her to the years when she stared out the car window on family road trips and played with her dad’s collection of image-changing postcards. For Huang, the world can always be more colorful than how you found it.
Leeann Huang Shrimp Cocktail Baby Tee and Fruit Sticker Chain Link Skirt. (Keith Oshiro / For The Times)
Astrid Kayembe: Tell me a little bit about what brought you to fashion.
Leeann Huang: I’ve always liked making stuff, and I’ve always liked to find out how things work. I think fashion was just the way I came into it. My mom was a ballroom dancer, so she always made her own gowns at home. It was really fun to just always see her make stuff. My grandma was a seamstress and also a doll maker, and ever since I was a kid, whenever she had to babysit us, she’d make us a doll from scratch. Crafting and art have always been a part of my world. Fashion melds those two worlds.
AK: Playfulness is key in your work. Why is that important to you?
LH: I’m really a goofy person. I enjoy fashion the most when it’s very, very playful: dressing up, playing with color, experimenting. In that way, you can also figure out who you are. Sometimes there is a side of fashion that can be very, very serious. Very dark or really cool and focused. I’ve never really identified with that kind of fashion. I’ve always identified with other designers like ’90s Moschino or Versace, where it’s just women laughing and being happy and wearing the funniest things but still looking so glamorous. That’s always what inspired me. I just want people to have fun when they wear my clothes.
In my work, I’m constantly discovering a lot of stuff that used to make me happy as a kid. I went through a period of feeling really cynical and nihilistic about the world, especially the news and climate change. I wanted to deep dive on that and think about what made me happy as a kid and what got me excited about the future. I went through this rabbit hole of retrofuturism — ’60s and ’80s cartoons were about how we’re all going to be in flying cars one day. We’re all going to be in this crazy, colorful world, but that never really came into fruition, so I tried to manifest that in my work as well: Tap into childhood memories of joy. That’s how I also like to bring certain materials that used to make me happy as a kid, like the lenticular material, the fuzzy materials.
AK: Though your work evokes a futuristic vibe, what draws you to ’60s mod cuts and silhouettes?
LH: Ultimately, I want people to be able to play with clothes. I get really excited when people try on my clothes for the first time, because there’s this moment where they’re just like, “Oh, my God, look at it.” That makes me so happy, and that’s why I do it.
Since the textiles that I make are so intense, so bright and so colorful, I try to make the shapes simple and easy to wear. It could just be a good canvas for it. I want it to be quite functional and make sure people can still go through everyday life with it. I make shoes, bags, coats and pants, and they’re all almost basic cuts — very inspired by mod ’60s utilitarian wear and designers Mary Quant or Pierre Cardin: really simple lines but really impactful.
AK: In what ways does growing up in L.A. show up in your work?
LH: I grew up in [South Pasadena]. Perhaps the culture on TV inspired me the most growing up, and also school life, in a way. Being a girl growing up, in the early 2000s and late 2000s, there were so many different materials that all of our school supplies were made out of. Weirdly, that inspires me a lot. Just the day-to-day materials that you’d interact with as a kid.
AK: What TV shows were you watching?
LH: A lot of Cartoon Network. Growing up in the 626 area, everyone’s deep into anime. Getting into [anime] as a kid inspired me, like watching Sailor Moon, Samurai Champloo and Studio Ghibli films as well. Just the humor and also the colorfulness and the motions of everything.
AK: When you’re starting your creative process, how do you approach the interplay between scale, color, function and dynamism?
LH: I studied fashion, and then I did a master’s degree in textiles. Some people design from “Oh, I love the shape.” Some people design from “Oh, I like this tailoring or this fit.” Some people go by silhouette. The way I think is from material up. I want to build everything up as I go, so that inspires the dynamism and the feel of the fabrics. I gather a lot of imagery that is inspiring at the moment. I’ll go to different markets and art fairs and museums, and take in everything, take samples of stuff and take pictures of everything. Then, I compile and try to decide what’s going on. I’ve gotten into a method of it because I’ve started specifically focusing on lenticular stuff, so I’m constantly thinking about how things can change and look differently.
I like to try and put the things out into the world that I want to see. There are certain colors I want to see in the world that I don’t get to see that often. I wish people drove more colorful cars. Back then, in the ’70s, ’80s, everyone had crazy-looking cars. My brother and I just bought my car, and we’re like, “How can we pimp it out? We’re gonna get this wrap, we’re gonna get an underglow for it.” I want more playfulness in the world, so I try to put that out there.
AK: Why is it important to use recycled and recyclable materials in your work?
LH: Working in textiles, I remember the first few days in college when we were getting oriented to all the labs. Half the labs I was in, I’d have to wear an N95 mask even before COVID, because of how toxic all the materials we were working with were. Going into the dye cabinet and getting a dye, we’d have to put it in one of those chemical booths in order to even work with them. You’d stick your hands in and then scoop out dyes and weigh them like that because they are so carcinogenic.
When exploring things like lenticular material, it’s always made from PVC. In school, we learned that PVC emits a lot of toxic chemicals, but then I realized PVC is in everything. PVC is in fake leather. It’s in our pipes. I think I got not only into a sustainable mode but I realized how toxic everything we’re working with is, and in certain ways it was affecting my health as well. I started developing a cough at school, and I got really worried because I didn’t want to develop cancer just from going to school.
I investigated a lot of alternative materials and ways to make the world healthier. I found a way to print this material using this lenticular technique of printing not on PVC but on TPU, which is a rubber alternative. I found out that it’s also recyclable, so that was a plus. Aside from the toxic side, I think the fashion industry has a strong tendency to be really wasteful.
It always made no sense to me how there’s sustainable fashion and then regular fashion. A lot of people use marketing to be like, “We made a sustainable fashion line” — ignoring the fact that there’s a regular fashion line that they make unsustainably. Working in the fashion industry for years and seeing that waste, it made it clear to me that there’s so much byproduct and deadstock material that still needs to be utilized. [I] try to put sustainability as a standard rather than a niche thing. That’s my philosophy: I think all fashion should be sustainable.
AK: What role does play continue to have in your life, even outside of fashion?
LH: I’m someone who wants to go out and explore or do something or find a workshop. I’ll make all my friends play laser tag with me on the weekend. Again, it’s tapping into core memories of joy or fulfilling your inner child in a way. My friends always want to go to Disneyland, so we go to Disneyland. My boyfriend and I went to a dog grooming show, and we dressed up like dogs, and it was amazing. There are so many different aspects of life to explore. I’m very attracted to kitsch and campy things. Going to the flea market, I saw a giant goldfish cracker display. And I’m like, “I must have it.”
It’s super easy to get cynical about what we do, especially in L.A. Surrounding myself with positive people and the right friends, with the right intentions with similar values, keeps that energy up and keeps that playfulness up. Life will inspire and inform your work, and that’s how I get it done.
AK: Are you experimenting with any new textiles? Or what new spaces are you hoping to take the textiles you work with now?
LH: I am taking things into two different directions at the moment. I’m playing a lot with the [patchwork] technique right now — T-shirts with a patch on it or I have handbags with just a single patch of lenticular rather than full lenticular garments. Instead of rubber-based, I’m making cotton- and silk-based clothing with patches and lenticular embroidery on it. It’s gonna be a lot more wearable, and I think it’s a lot easier but [will] still have the elements of surrealism, just at a different scale.
Aside from that, I’ve been doing a lot of furniture and installation work, which I’m quite excited about. Being a textile designer, the material itself can be an art piece. If I took the textile chain-link off [the blinking eye dress] and just put it on a wall — I can make this into wall art or sculptural art. I have a show in Korea in November, so I’m excited about that.
Furniture has been my obsession recently. A lot of people have been like, “Hey, could you make me a chair?” It’s just thrifting old chairs and reupholstering. One of my childhood friends reached out to me — we’re making this little lenticular garden chair. I’m really happy with the material I’ve developed because it can be kind of on any surface.
Lettering by Jake Garcia / For The Times