It is a quietly acknowledged though ubiquitous rule among first generation Australians that a flawless academic transcript loses precedence to only one thing: devout, unquestioning filial piety. So potent did this truism seem that when I finally arrived at Song for the Mute’s studio in Glebe, which doubles as a flagship store, I was shaken by a recent memory of my own lapse in vocational judgement: after long telling my parents that I would pursue a career in law, I made the swift decision to move to Sydney in chase of a perfect sentence, when they would have rather, of course, I entered the rat race toward a swollen bank account. But moving interstate allowed me the luxury of sloughing my cocoon of reluctant obedience, which, I later discovered, induces the same uneasy feeling as groping in the dark for an epiphany. The progeny of Asian-Australian parents, whose artful calm is sporadically fractured by outbursts of misdirected emotion, know all too well the struggle of wanting to appease and wanting autonomy.
I met two kindred souls, Melvin Tanaya and Lyna Ty, the duo behind Song for the Mute, on the night they launched Un(e), their fall-winter 2015 collection, and their first foray into women’s wear. The street’s pedestrian drawl was dispelled when I was greeted by a coterie of shadowy figures who swamped two large tables (where, on a regular day, the designers cut their patterns), and whose pale faces were thrown with intermittent candlelight. They preened their inky feathers behind a portiere of elastic rope rendered in a lattice, not unlike the Bird’s Nest in China, where protean feats of human endurance seem less impressive compared to fashion’s own ruthless contest: the paradox of wanting to stand out while fitting in. The netting, I later discovered, was devised by Ms Ty herself. I wore mostly navy and was easily absorbed into the tenebrous cloud, though expressed sympathy for the woman who walked in shortly after me, whose mustard coloured trousers disrupted the peace like a sneeze in a funeral procession. “You’re the only one wearing colour!” another guest exclaimed.
Lean, elegant plates of artisanal sushi seemed to levitate through the room, before lone hands plucked the seafood parure from a sasa leaf. They were the result of a wrought collaboration between Song for the Mute and Tokonoma restaurant in Sydney, the Toko Group’s latest venture in the central business district. Finely sliced kingfish and scallop glistened atop a pillow of rice, with its own bijou of roe and squid ink. Not having eaten dinner, I took more than a few rolls speckled with black sesame seeds, and within the hour had waitstaff approaching me with hopeful deference to ease their burden. Their black uniforms honoured the aesthetic frugality and pure lines of a kimono, with the robe’s traditionally ample silhouette modified to ensure smoother mobility. “Each garment draws inspiration from the interiors of Tokonoma Sydney,” Ms Ty commented. “They are typically oriental, very Japanese in style with graceful draping ensuring comfort, structure and shape [to] create elegance.” The designs subscribe to the sumptuary laws of Buddhist enlightenment, but with a seditious use of “destroyed silk and linen blend or a robust tencel and cotton” where modernity was begging to be corrupted.
Those who meet Mr Tanaya for the first time will notice the fine hollows of his cheeks; next, his undulating hair, which could stir the great waves off Kanagawa to envy. Ms Ty is more tentative in her strides, and moves with a cervine grace. I duly requested a private interview with the designers. “Let me just ask the wife,” Mr Tanaya replied uxoriously. He disappeared, silently and quickly, behind a curtain of two crudely cut black swathes of fabric, as if he were the last member to enter a papal election. I was given the opportunity to return the next week, when, as I entered the glass doors, I finally noticed a staggering piece of magnified art work beside the women’s racks: the divine digits from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Rolls of fabric were leaning patiently against the walls. Native Australian flowers, whose names evade me, fought for dear life as their waters turned a darker, primordial brown. Most of the fixtures are original. The brick walls are derelict with age. You almost hear them threatening to crumble, and they might have, if the solemn beauty of the clothes hadn’t petrified them into a fawning stillness. “Un(e) is the most mature collection we’ve put together,” Ms Ty said. “For the men we are picturing a gentleman who is quite strong, and so you see a lot of double-breasted jackets and oversized coats. The silhouette is long, and the exaggerated textures show dominance.”
One of the coats hung with the aura of a Malevich painting: in absolute noble reticence, until the invasion of a foreign body (my own) wore it down. The coat, supported on bodies typically used by fashion designers—towering ectomorphs with the grace of dancers and the stoicism of monks—is supposed to drop to somewhere between the waist and the knee. Mine fell much lower. “You would be an extra small in our stuff,” I was assured. The coat was soft to the touch and decorated with painterly panels of greying filaments. So gossamer did they seem that I could have been duped into believing the designers had exhaled the stitching directly onto the fabric. “It’s an ancient Japanese technique called needle punching,” Ms Ty confessed. “It’s done on 100-year-old machines that have hundreds of needles to create a seamless finish when you’re merging wool and silk.” Mr Tanaya folded the cuff on one of the sleeves inside out, where I examined the vestigial specks of the machine’s work. It looked like an accidental masterpiece of pointillism. He then offered me his favourite piece to try on: a blazer of wool gabardine that had been sun dried to create a more flocculent texture.
Creative work is tonic to a solitary mind (even separate minds whose cerebral rivers seem to run concurrently—they finish each other’s sentences), and most people who discover themselves authors of a new dialogue in fashion are almost allergic to having to explain themselves. But I dared to ask: Who are the mute? “It’s not about a physical silence, but a mental one. It’s about feeling like you can’t speak out. We want every garment to speak for the individual,” Ms Ty said. Clippings of Yohji Yamamoto’s and Rei Kawakubo’s greatest hits hung on the back wall, but despite their affinity for Japanese invention encompassing food, fashion, and philosophy, neither one of the acolytes speaks the language. “We want to learn, and we’re seriously considering hiring a tutor,” Mr Tanaya admitted.
One of the most memorable experiences they’ve shared as a team is a trip to a hidden textile mill just outside Nagoya, Japan, where Ms Ty saw “an infinity of samples” that dazed her to the euphoria of “a kid in a candy store.” The excursion was leaden with ceremony—part job interview, part spiritual ascension—because, according to Mr Tanaya’s testimony, these rarified mills create fabrics for just a sprinkling of brands, and work very slowly (it takes up to eight weeks to make one fabric). The textile wrights, dextrous as they are elusive, are also systematically wary, if not of strangers then of artistic temerity that might profane their ancient craft. “They put so much into their product,” Mr Tanaya adds, almost ruefully. “We have to respect the fabric, and they have to see that we can do that before we’re allowed to use the fabric in our clothes.”
Song for the Mute was launched in 2010, and up until April of this year both designers supplemented their fashion line with jobs at Harrolds. In their first two years, they worked solely out of a Civic sedan that “became our studio, full of fabric rolls, paper, sketches, everything—we even had meetings in the car.” But, as account managers tend to neglect, it is often fealty rather than finance that is the life support of an upstart. Ms Ty bridled at my suggestion that Song for the Mute could be perceived as a cult label, to which she responded: “We don’t want to be exclusive, but as with any cult we’d like to build a family. A lot of the guests at the launch were our first clients, and they’re our family.” Her sister and brother-in-law wear Song for the Mute; Mr Tanaya’s wife has been a patron since the label’s inception. Neither of the designers’ parents have volunteered to be guerrilla ambassadors.
Nancy Pilcher, formerly Editorial Director-at-Large for Condé Nast Asia-Pacific (and, as it turns out, the woman who was startled by the mustard trousers), has been a paraclete since she first discovered them. “We printed a lookbook and made handwritten invites, and sealed them with wax,” Ms Ty recalls. “That package must have caught her eye.” The designers have also made jewellery with their industry kin, including Noriaki Sakamoto, of fledgling brand Iolom: there is a leather bound journal with brass finishes, as well as a silver necklace of three chains, linked together with a coarse twine of horse hair. It boasts a rustic gleam, like the celestial rivière that swung from Amaterasu’s neck as she spun a corona.
The door to Song for the Mute’s studio is obstructed by a grey monolith that bears the brand’s logo: a trembling streak that resembles a lifeline, at the end of which appear two vertical lines that look like two Ts, to denote their surnames (“or chopsticks,” they joked). Before I left, I worked my way down the women’s racks, which included variations on the men’s designs: a raglan coat with the gossamer panels; double breasted vests ovine to the touch and almost obscene to the senses; blazers with dainty flares; pants with calculated cuffs; and a series of ivory shirts that crunch in the hand like origami paper. They hung alongside the designers’ last spring collection, Roots, a modest triumph of sartorial paganism still available in stores on and offline. Mr Tanaya says, with almost shamanic assurance, “We have a vision and we can’t let that get tainted.” Before I remember where I am, or what I’m doing, I lunge myself at each designer for a hug. I slip through the glass doors and hear the pulsating music slip back into the void, like echoes on a mountainside, and imagine the clothes growing their own roots: symbols, like trees, of an esoteric but incorruptible grandeur.