Photographs from Youths in Balaclava
Words by Kerry Tinga
Published on November 6, 2021
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The design collective draws on the narrative of scarecrows and their forlorn emotions in the middle of the field, portraying humanity in these challenging times.
Youths in Balaclava, or YIB for short; the name alone teases us that this is not a run-of-the-mill fashion label. They are not banking on the latest trends, neither are they pushing a single creative vision. Their pieces are an expression of collective group action, backed with a deeper purpose beyond the label.
“To don the balaclava is to unite and celebrate expression,” says the Singaporean design collective. “We believe it is vital to remind jaded youth that they have the chance to listen and to be heard.”
When the collective came together, they were industry outsiders, most without any formal fashion or design education. They were soldiers, students, policemen, skateboarders, photographers, writers, but had so much more to offer than what a single occupational description could suggest. Their raw, informal creative energy seemingly clashes with Singapore’s prim and proper image. From friction comes a spark and then a flame. The collective pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and captured the public’s attention with their precise perspective of youth culture, drawn from their individual experiences and style.
So much has happened since YIB launched in 2015. They are now stocked internationally, including at trendsetter Dover Street Market, and have shown at Paris Fashion Week. Their momentum was unrelenting, and then the pandemic hit. The constant barrage of news during these uncertain times may heighten our sense of helplessness; yet YIB has always championed the cause of inspiring jaded youth, showing them that they are heard. Once more channelling the youth’s anxieties and concerns into well thought-out pieces and a narrative-driven collection, YIB reveals “SCARECROWS.”
“The collection builds on how people are feeling during this whole rollercoaster ride of uncertainty,” says YIB. In the ‘new normal’ we are forced to be mere observers to the changing world, empathizing with the forlorn dissonance of a scarecrow in the middle of a field, they add.
During the lockdown period, the collective tried to come to terms with the feelings they were experiencing. But most of us who have been under a pandemic-related lockdown know these emotions are difficult to put into words. Fear? Woe? Lonesomeness?
“It is definitely tough on everyone,” YIB reflects on the current pandemic. “Things move pretty slow. We took the time to reflect on our past mistakes and also learn some new skills.”
As they were researching and building their pandemic reaction collection, they came across the term kuebiko (久延毘古) in John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow.” The Kuebiko is a Shinto kami, or deity, for, among other things, knowledge. In Japanese mythology, Keubiko is represented by a scarecrow, fixed in place, mute, unable to move or communicate. But because of his position, stuck observing the world without a say, the Kuebiko is burdened with wisdom and knowledge. Koenig’s dictionary entry adopts the concept as a whole:
n. A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world–mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.
“It is definitely a neologism that perfectly fits the feeling,” YIB shares. “And then the collection pushed it further. We created this world to convey the messages in a story format backed by the very substance that the word carries, and how it is perceived by people around the world. All of that is rooted in the mysticism of the narrative of a scarecrow. It is a play on both metaphorical and cultural views.”
“Some of the flannels, shirts, and graphic tees were designed from looking at literal scarecrows,” they continue. “They wear old, ill-fitting, and discarded clothes. There is also the stitching detail on them.”
The scarecrow, unmoving, stands in a field silent and alone. And while the pandemic has physically separated people, whether it be because of work from home arrangements or limited travel, it has undoubtedly created a shared experience. Albeit in different ways, there is comfort and strength in being part of a collective, which is something YIB knows well.
“YIB is built on perspectives,” they add. In the e-mail exchange with LINEAL, YIB always replies as a group, reflecting how their power lies in the fact that they are a collective team. “Perspectives will definitely be different for every individual, and that expands what we can do with each collection. That is what we love about it. It is a beautiful chaos.”
Raw, honest and unfiltered expression has power, and this very power is at the heart of YIB. Their garments and their narrative-driven collections are their chosen mediums of self-expression, a reaction to their youth experiences, both individual and shared. While “SCARECROWS” evokes the dispiriting imagery of a powerless figure alone in the middle of a field, it lies in contrast with how collective creative action brought the narrative and concept to fruition.
Many of us have felt helpless during this pandemic. We can thus relate to the state of kuebiko, much like an old scarecrow. Still as a collective, as a society, we have the chance to listen and to be heard. With their latest collection, YIB encourages us to don a balaclava, which means to unite and celebrate creative expression, especially during these turbulent times.
YIB shares one final tip to other inspiring creatives: “Daunting as it may be to constantly be stuck in a cycle of creating, focus on the satisfaction of completing every project and it will eventually pay off. When things start to become really tough, you know you’re going on the right track.”
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