Two friends from primary school went on to create an internationally successful fashion label that draws on rebellion as well as discipline. By Lucianne Tonti.
An Australian design duo’s dystopian vision
Moss is growing through cracks in the tiles of Song for the Mute’s first concept store in King Street, Sydney. The dirt, tall grass and shrubs on the floor evoke an end-of-days scenario and nature taking over. As a dystopian installation, it’s weirdly hopeful – a mood reflected in the garments hanging on the drycleaner’s rail above it.
This year’s Spring/Summer collection is titled 1999, and inspired by the panic around the turn of the millennium. It was predicted that a coding glitch would cause the world’s computers to fail, planes to fall from the sky, bank accounts to be drained and supermarkets to be looted.
“Half the people were thinking the world’s going to end because the computers are going to freak out and crash,” says Melvin Tanaya, the brand’s director. “And then half the people were really looking forward to welcoming the aliens.”
Song for the Mute was established in Sydney in 2010, about 15 years after Tanaya met his co-founder, Lyna Ty, on their first day of primary school. They took different paths and reunited after Tanaya graduated from UNSW Sydney and Ty had finished her studies at the fashion school of the Accademia Italiana in Florence.
The brand was quick to draw acclaim, winning the Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award in 2011, and international attention followed. They are now stocked in some of the most prestigious stores in the world.
Ty, the brand’s creative director, designed 1999 in the throes of the pandemic and saw the parallels between Y2K and 2020. She drew on movies from the 1990s about survivors running around barren, tumble-down cities with supplies and ammunition weighing down the pockets of their cargo pants, and reinterpreted this imagery in the technical jackets, pants, shirts, vests and coats that make up the collection.
“So, a lot of the photo shoot and the looks really have this nomad, back-to-earth vibe,” Tanaya says. “The protagonist, like Bruce Willis or Brad Pitt, trying to kind of live in the present against drones and androids that have come from the future.”
This idea of dressing for survival is captured in several styles made from a thick canvas. The pants are cut like slightly baggy straight-leg jeans. The jacket is a classic denim silhouette with breast pockets and silver buttons. The colours could be army issue: green, clay and camouflage.
As with everything Song for the Mute designs, it is the fabric that makes the clothes exceptional. They wanted the garments to feel lived in, so they worked with a mill to develop the canvas and trialled different washes and finishes before settling on something Tanaya describes as “kind of stone-washed” before it is dried in the sun.
The design duo are a rarity in the Australian industry – they work closely on textile development with some of the oldest and most prestigious mills in Japan and Italy. One of these fabrics, which Tanaya describes as their longest development, is made using the needle punch technique – based on an old technique from Japan where thick loops of yarn are poked through fabric to create a rug-like effect. The struggle was to find a way to modernise it. They took inspiration from the technology of the Y2K era, such as motherboards and plastic cable links, to make a technical fabric with tiny strands of threads in colours that evoked the back of old computers. Texturally and visually it re-creates the clunkiness of that early digital moment before Silicon Valley made everything grey and sleek.
The fabric has been turned into a pair of narrow trousers, a matching shirt and square jacket with a zip up the front. The resulting outfit is all about proportions. The trousers are slightly cropped, the shirt and jacket are long but designed to layer so that each item is visible.
This ability to balance old techniques with streetwear silhouettes has earned the duo a spot on the Hypebeast100 2022– a list of the world’s most accomplished creatives. Last year they collaborated with Adidas on a capsule collection that will be launched globally because it was so successful.
The brand has a cult following in China, a lucrative and notoriously difficult market to crack. Two years ago, Tanaya was invited into a group on the Chinese instant messaging service WeChat dedicated to Song for the Mute. Two men in Sydney started the group, which now has more than 350 members. Tanaya describes them as acting like ambassadors, because they discovered the brand while they were studying in Australia and spread the word when they returned home. “They talk about the collection, they talk about the brand, they talk about what they like, what they don’t like. They sometimes share shipping costs,” he says.
Both Ty and Tanaya have Chinese heritage – she was born in France, he in Indonesia – but there is something deeper that resonates with their fans.
“It’s more than just clothing, it’s like an expression of who they are,” says Tanaya. Seven members of the group chat have Song for the Mute tattoos.
Tanaya believes this devotion has a lot to do with the shared experience of growing up in an Asian family and expectations of achievement that can feel oppressive. “In Asian culture we were brought up a certain way. You have the expectations of the older generation, like your parents, that you’re supposed to [achieve],” he says. “My dad, for example, was like, ‘Oh, you need to get a master’s degree at the minimum.’ ”
Tanaya and Ty came up with the concept for the brand before they’d found a way to articulate it in a name. It arose from their experiences as immigrants – for whom English is a second language – and the work Ty had done in the non-profit sector for the United Nations Human Rights Council and Beyond Blue. While the phrase Song for the Mute could be jarring, or interpreted as ableist, the duo wanted to create something for people who may not have the confidence or ability to speak for themselves, and for whom language can be a barrier.
“For us it’s kind of like why representation matters so much. Because there’s a lot of people that don’t get seen and don’t get the opportunity to tell their story,” Tanaya says. “We are firm believers that by telling your own story, you don’t know how much that could help other people. As unique as you think you are in the world, there’s always someone else who’s experiencing the same thing,” he says.
In each Song for the Mute piece, there is a line of contradiction, a creative tension. In more than one way, the clothes are so beautiful and the quality so good because of this. They are made of fabrics created with ancient techniques but using new, technical fibres. The past served as inspiration for the designs in the 1999 collection, but it is juxtaposed with the reflection that two decades later we are living through our own apocalypse, with its plagues, fires and floods.
And there is a sense of rebellion in the silhouettes – the hooded jackets and chunky boots – that contrasts with the discipline required to construct each garment. Tanaya says these opposing forces are embedded within their creative dynamic: Ty loves things that have history and tradition, whereas he loves new technology and anything digital. He describes it as the yin and the yang: “We balance each other really well.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Dystopian visions".
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