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COOLS: Yeha Leung

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Yeha Leung, designer of the ethereal intimates label, Creepyyeha, was 10 when the world of fashion popped her cherry. Sitting cross-legged in front of her family’s modest home entertainment system, she slid a hand-me-down VCR tape into the player and exhaled as she waited for the image on the screen to load. Madonna appeared, belting “‘Like a virgin, touched for the very first time,” flaunting Jean-Paul Gaultier’s now-iconic cone bra, as she strutted across the stage. It was the first leg of her “Blond Ambition” tour kicking off in Chiba, Japan, and the world was transfixed as the Queen of Pop challenged notions of sexuality while simulating masturbation in front of hundreds of fans.

As a first-generation Chinese American, Yeha’s mom was from mainland China and her father was from Hong Kong. She was born in Brooklyn before her family ultimately moved to settle in Staten Island once they established themselves as lucrative members of the working class. Yeha’s beginnings were humble, and she and her brother were not exposed to the internet and had limited television access. “The VCR tape of Madonna and Michael Jackson was my first foray into that world and it was very, very foreign to me. I was like, what is this?! Why are they dressed like this? I loved it and thought it was so beautiful. I asked my mom where I could get that bra? If I could wear it to school? My parents just looked at me like, no, you’re not supposed to wear that, it’s for indoors only and no, don’t even buy that,” said Yeha with a certain tartness. Her eyes had since been held wide open, and we all know that you can’t unsee something or simply brush a feeling aside. Call it destiny or the gates to hell, Yeha’s world would never be the same. The dark side of the moon called her name.

Sneaking around in her mom’s closet while she was cooking dinner in the kitchen, Yeha soon began to steal her clothes and bras as she tried to bring Madonna’s out-of-this-world wardrobe to influence the intimate spaces of her own life. She was a quiet, petite girl, with bangs that covered her forehead and a squeaky voice that made her forever “cute.” The slashed t-shirts held together by safety pins and the DIY spiked boots that made her a foot taller in middle school were cause enough for her parents, her father, in particular, to question whether or not she was on drugs. “Middle school was when I started experimenting. He literally thought I was on drugs and did not talk to me for many months. My dad’s a very stubborn person, and I didn’t understand it because I was really shy and just trying to play around with dressing up. I wasn’t a bad kid, I didn’t really do any of that so it kind of scarred me in a way, like maybe I shouldn’t play around like this, it’s hurting my family,” said Yeha of her childhood. Ironically, her father is where she thinks she gets her creativity from. Working as a self-taught handyman, she would always see him drawing out ideas to make things and yet there proved to be a gaping disconnect. There was no way he or the rest of her family could understand that fashion, for Yeha, was merely a form of self-expression.  

As she aged, Yeha inevitably was forced to reconcile who she wanted to be with who her family wanted her to be. In high school, she began wearing high heels to school, “they [my parents] were just like, it’s too much, you’re 16 and dressed like a prostitute; that’s what my dad kept saying, that I was giving the wrong idea. I was like, I’m not doing anything. It’s just how I look,” said Yeha. While she never found a community of people who she could align herself with that might’ve offered sound advice or an empathetic safety net, Yeha in her heart knew who she was and that she should not be judged for how she dressed. “I’ve never stopped creating and doing my own thing, but when I went outside, I had to put on this persona like I was a good girl, even though I am, I had to look like a good girl,” explained Yeha, “I feel like they [my parents] didn’t understand who I was. Clothing really is just decoration of your outer shell and it doesn’t really define you as a person. I just dress in what I like, that’s what it is, it’s just an outer thing, it’s not deep within.”

By the time college applications rolled around, Yeha decided that she was going to pursue a career in fashion. Her sense of self-expression began to manifest openly as she would dress up after school and plop herself down on the same couch that she first witnessed Madonna’s graces and black magic. Her acceptance to the Art Institute of New York City essentially meant that she would be able to come out of hiding, escaping judgment’s critical eye and the racism that bedeviled her formative adolescence. “When I came to Manhattan I was like whoa, I can be whoever I want, I can go wherever I want. I lived in New York my whole life but I never came to the city. I started shopping and was exposed to high fashion and studying all these designers and brands at school, it was like a whole other world and I felt connected to it,” Yeha said with an airiness to her sentiment. As she grew into herself, her family simultaneously too began to develop a certain immunity to her wild sense of expression. “I don’t know what happened but it just took time. I just wanted to make myself happy and hoped that they would catch on, and they did. I think I’m very lucky in that sense because I didn’t really do anything special, I was just staying true to myself,” said Yeha.

Immersing herself in the vaporous world of couture, Yeha’s maximalism and affinity for the surreal became her quotidian during college. It was there that she met amazing talents and people who seemingly understood her for the first time in her young adult life, namely her partner, Alejandro. Alejandro is from Puerto Rico, he’s trilingual and in contrast to Yeha, his soft-spoken minimalism and proclivity for the technical aspects of the craft of sewing made him out to be the yin to her yang. “Coming here to New York, he’s meeting [me], an Asian girl from New York and he’s thinking, oh she can show me places!”, Yeha let out a giggle before continuing, “We had to learn together. We would take the train, and it was like oh, what stop should we get off at? It’s also kind of the same with our business, we didn’t go to school for business so when I started my business we had to learn everything together, it was hard.” 

The year was 2011 and peplum dresses ran rampant across the city. Instead of jetting off “to travel,” or taking a gap year to “find oneself,” Yeha’s move postgrad was to start her own namesake label, Creepyyeha. Those who don’t know Yeha might call it “fetish wear” yet the designer doesn’t condone such a label, she prefers to think of her label as progressive traditionalism that is equally transformative of the wearer. Providing everything as made to measure, Creepyyeha prides itself on going back to couture’s most lavish roots because “before fast fashion, everything was couture, custom-made. I just wanted to make things for people that fit right, they don’t have to alter anything and if they do, I’m always free to do that and I always provide that service,” said Yeha.

Two years into her business, the label’s popularity “went off” and Yeha found herself inundated by a flood of orders from around the world. “In the beginning, it was like a two-to-four-week wait if you ordered, now it’s almost two months and it was really hard because sometimes people would be complaining like, oh my gosh, where’s my order? That was when I knew I needed help,” recalled Yeha. Cue Alejandro, then pursuing his own career in the industry, at the likes of In-House Atelier, a premier alteration service, he had the skills to help Yeha produce impeccably tailored pieces that were also incredibly sexy and made to fit like a glove. “We work where we sleep and ultimately, it’s working really well because we’re six years in together and we’re still very, very strong. Even for a couple that sees each other every day, working at home together everyday, we’re so opposite we balance each other perfectly,” said Yeha now slightly blushing.

Creepyyeha has since amassed a following of almost 400,000 strong and surely there is strength in numbers. Validation from her parents came when the money did, not because they were monsters, but because as first generation immigrants they inevitably had to work very hard to give their children better lives than the ones they had growing up, and there was no chance that their children were going to throw that away on a career in fashion nonetheless. “When I showed them this little world of my own that I created, pictures of people wearing the clothes, people buying the clothes, they then thought it was authentic,” said Yeha. 

From working intimately with FKA Twigs, to having her dad build out her showroom and having Rihanna’s stylist contact her for custom pieces, Yeha seemingly had found fulfillment in numerous manifestations of the word. Yet, she expressed that there are still times when she doesn’t feel as if she’s leading the life of a “New York fashion person.” “I do catch myself feeling like an outcast. I don’t really go out but there’s a part of me inside that wants to live that life, be in these fashion events because I do want that. I’m very confident in myself but I’m very socially awkward with people and that’s a totally different thing,” Yeha explained.

When I interviewed her she was dressed in a flaming red, vibrant and unyielding, “I wore red today because it’s very striking. I was really nervous to come today, I usually have my partner with me but I was like I’m going to do it alone,” she told me in the midst of our back and forth. As the spotlight shines brighter on Creepyyeha, Yeha is learning that being the face of her brand doesn’t mean changing who she is. Many people have expressed their misplaced ideas of her own identity as she is subjected to comments like: “online you look like a badass but I thought you were a bitch because you’re so quiet.” “I’m just creating and it’s just my story, it doesn’t go deeper than that. There is a power to [clothing] because sometimes you can be loud without talking. I’m not one that likes to be out there but I can still be there through how I dress,” said Yeha, giving living testimony that a flower can indeed bloom in a dark room.