It’s the buzzword marketing machines are built around, and the catchphrase that can determine whether you have an Instagram following of 42k or 4.2M. If you have a fashion company right now, you better be ready to talk about “brand identity,” because who you are and what you stand for is everything when it comes to gaining traction in the ready-to-wear world.
This poses a bit of a challenge to Australian-based Melvin Tanaya and Lyna Ty, who have essentially developed a brand identity around not having one at all. Instead, Song for the Mute is predicated on the concept of change itself, each season offering a completely new look and narrative. “It’s like we’re writing a book of short stories,” offers Tanaya. “And every collection is another chapter.” Pursuing that analogy, the label recently reconsidered its seasonal presentations and no longer refers to a Fall or Spring collection. Rather, each group of designs has a numerical reference akin to a book chapter, along with a title and subtitle. The current styles belong to “19.2 Hunter: The feeling of living. A pursuit beyond oneself, in search of beauty within solitude.”
Forming the Plot
In Hunter, the story being told is one of strength and independence, a man pursuing life on his own terms and seeking out sensory experiences that further enhance his understanding of himself. It’s heady stuff, but only the starting point for Tanaya and Ty, who want their choice of textures, colors, and silhouettes to be grounded in this character, to truly tell his story.
“Lyna designs with words first,” says Tanaya. “She’ll say, ‘This is the story I want to tell this season.’” Narrative established, it’s off to Japan where the duo sources the majority of their materials. The twice-annual sojourn involves days of sifting through archival weaves and new constructions with select mills, followed by the choosing of yarns and making of samples. Fabric—though never the same—plays a key role in every collection.
“We really enjoy the process of meeting the artisans in person,” says Ty. “There are so many techniques they use, from dyes to washes. I like to touch and feel the yarns—it inspires new ideas.” Of greatest importance is that all materials and silhouettes reflect the seasonal story in an authentic way. For instance, “a hunter wears a utilitarian jacket, not a coach jacket,” says Tanaya. “So even though the coach jacket was our best-seller from the previous collection, we won’t bring it back this season because it doesn’t go with the story. The clothes need to fit the character we’ve created.”
A Narrative Built on Trust
The seamless ability to turn phrases into fashion and ideas into apparel is due in part to a friendship spanning more than 20 years. Ty, born in Paris to parents of Chinese and Cambodian descent, moved to Sydney at age 11 where she soon met Indonesian-born Tanaya. The two struck up a friendship that remained through Ty’s scholarship to the renowned Accademia Italiana di Moda in Florence, Italy, and Tanaya’s master’s education at the University of New South Wales.
Though the pair often dreamed about what they would do for a living someday, launching a brand was barely a thought. “Growing up, we thought we’d have normal jobs—clothing was just a hobby, a way to express how we felt,” says Tanaya. The universe had other ideas, and when Tanaya asked Ty to design him a graphic T-shirt “for fun,” it led to the creation of a pair of pants to go with the shirt, which in turn required a jacket. Before they knew it, their first collection was born in 2010, consisting of eight pieces and a single goal: To make clothes that allowed others to express themselves in the same way it provided a canvas for Tanaya and Ty. It was, in other words, a song for the mute.
Every Story Needs a Soundtrack
As their collection began to evolve, so too did the founders’ concept of what the brand could become. Or rather, not become. “A lot of designers work in a lineal A, then B, then C process,” says Tanaya, referencing the traditional approach of choosing a color, shape, finish for every garment. “We wanted to be more abstract.” So instead, Tanaya and Ty consider more nuanced aspects of their protagonist. “We think about what his favorite scent would be, what kind of music he likes to listen to,” says Ty. In recent seasons, the designers have commissioned instrumental works that accompany styles in their digital campaigns.
“Every new collection gives us a blank space—an empty room—to fill with our story,” says Ty. “Like clothes, music is another way to communicate the narrative.” Their 45-minute-long soundscapes are intended to transport the listener to the story’s locale, be it a forest or the ocean. For Hunter, the designers partnered with a local artist to visit Kangaroo Valley, where they recorded sounds of running creek water and rustling underbrush.
Shades of Consistency
Despite the standalone narrative, a handful of design elements remain stable from one collection to the next. Jacket and shirt buttons, for instance, all feature the number of the collection. And certain key shapes—cropped, drop-rise pants and kimono jackets—recur throughout many, but not all, seasons. In cases where a silhouette is repeated, the designers change the trim to reflect the story being told. “I think of us as being movie directors,” says Tanaya. “You might not know the name of the particular movie you’re watching, but you’re familiar with the director and you recognize his little touches.”
Another identifiable feature: The raw, earthy color palette derived from Australia’s richly diverse natural environment. “We have the bush, the mountains, the beach—so many outdoor places, so close, where we can go to detach from work,” says Ty. “That’s reflected in our color palette and the textures we work with.”
And then there are the intangibles—moods and emotions Tanaya and Ty tap into each collection, regardless of season. Pressed to express what exactly those might be, the childhood friends pause and consider. Strength, they suggest. Empowerment. An ability to find beauty in imperfection.
As for everything else, there are no guarantees. You’ll have to come back next season to learn more.