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Fashion meets art with a sustainable twist in Yay Abe x H&M collabo

05 May 2022 - 14:30
Russel Abrahams from Yay Abe.
Russel Abrahams from Yay Abe.
Image: Supplied by H&M

There are a lot of things to love about Cape Town — the sunny beaches, iconic Table Mountain, the creative people, the elegant restaurants and beautiful winelands.  

When we think of Cape Town, there’s always something to be in awe of. And when it comes to graphic design illustration, the incredible work of Capetonian Russell Abrahams takes centre stage in his latest collaboration with H&M South Africa. With a bevy of local and international artist collaborations under its belt, H&M’s latest partnership sees the baton being passed to the founder of Yay Abe.

Yay Abe is an illustration studio that puts people of colour first as they bring the ordinary to life in a very creative way — a feat that the 29-year-old artist has accomplished in the short space of five years.

Never one to be intimidated by the challenge of reimagining a design, Abrahams tells us what went into Yay Abe x H&M and how the sustainable retailer tapped him to take on this fabulous partnership.

What is unique about your illustrations?

It’s a style I’ve been developing over the past 10 years. It’s easily recognisable as Yay Abe so I’m excited to spot people in public wearing the pieces.

What is the ethos and vision for Yay Abe?

It’s really about building spaces for young people to work in the creative industry. I’m still building this vision but I try my best to facilitate and mentor younger artists, especially those of colour, as making the industry more accessible is something we all need to strive towards.  

What does your studio offer?

Yay Abe is a multidisciplinary illustration studio. Making things of all shapes and sizes, from T-shirts to packaging to paintings and rugs — anything that can be decorated becomes a canvas.

Abrahams poses with models wearing pieces from the collection.
Abrahams poses with models wearing pieces from the collection.
Image: Supplied by H&M

What influenced the Yay Abe x H&M collection?

This collection has been inspired by gratuity and reciprocating appreciation between people. I really wanted to create a collection of garments that people can wear and be proud of. It’s all about feelings, affirmations, and great craft. I think illustration should always invoke an emotion. It’s what makes people gravitate towards good illustration. This body of work is full of emotion and feeling and I hope my audience will be able to feel my hard work through it all.

Why did you decide to take the opportunity to collaborate with H&M?

When speaking to the team, they were as excited as I was. It’s a collaboration between so many people and to play a role in all of this, is such a great feeling. The H&M team have been amazing to work with and their display of passion from the start was something that had me hooked from the first meeting.

Why do you think H&M is initiating this collaboration?

I think it’s to show their support of local talent and suppliers. To put out and produce a high standard of work like this collection in SA, is such a great achievement. 

What can we all expect from it?

The collection is a joyous one, a celebration of people and good vibes. With lighthearted illustration work and bold prints, it’s an ode to everyone who has been surviving and just doing their thing over the past two years. My goal is to put a smile on my audience’s face. There are baggy hoodies, bucket hats and T-shirts. There’s really something for everyone. It’s basics that will adorn the wearer.

Each piece has a unique illustration that has been designed and drawn with love. The overarching theme has been the idea of giving people their flowers. This idea is to show people love and appreciation in the now. Celebrating everyday life now rather than later, because we all deserve to get our flowers.

Give us more details on the pieces included in the collection.

The hoodie has an illustration of a person with a flower behind their ear. The person is at peace and just enjoying life. With bold graphics and solid colours, it’s a piece that embodies everyone.

The sweatshirt sports bright colours and an image of a group of friends just chilling and embracing each other’s company while hanging between nature and cityscapes — an illustration that celebrates me, you and everyone else. On the front we see the Yay Abe logo in a clean and minimal layout. The zip-up hoodie has the camping flower on the front with an illustration of flowers in a vase on the back. It plays on the idea of putting flowers in a vase after receiving them.

The long sleeve T-shirt has an illustration of someone doing some self-reflection in the mirror. By handing themselves their own flowers, they see themselves blossom with self-appreciation. It’s a fun and playful story that embodies the mood of this collection.

Then there are the two T-shirts, one with a playful new take on the Yay Abe name. It’s colourful and just a bold statement for the Yay Abe brand. It’s a big shout-out to everyone for supporting my journey. The second tee has the campaign flower on the front. It’s the image that keeps reappearing throughout the collection. It has matching shorts and a bucket hat.

What materials and techniques were used during the making of this collection?

The illustrations were initially hand-drawn and then recreated digitally so that they’re ready for print. The amazing part about this body of work is that they’ve been screen printed by a local company in Cape Town, craftsmen who are highly skilled and passionate about print. It’s so precise and calculated and my style of work fits perfectly into this print method.

How do you as a brand support local?

I strive to use local suppliers for my projects. Whether I’m creating sculptures, buying T-shirts or even paints, I try to always support local because I understand how important it is. The more we all do this, the faster we can grow different industries and local companies.

Items from the Yay Abe x H&M collaboration featuring the flower motif.
Items from the Yay Abe x H&M collaboration featuring the flower motif.
Image: Supplied by H&M

Tell us about how you uplift communities in your work?

I think sharing knowledge is the first step to uplifting communities. This can be done by workshops or sharing info on social media. Listening to questions by the young guns is one way we can really pay it forward. The second and most effective way, is to pass work around or collaborate with like-minded people. There’s enough work to go around and being a gatekeeper is something I will never be.

Why is it important for POC (people of colour) owned small businesses to receive support from larger retailers?

It’s creating access and representation. I think representation is so important in today’s age. I’m forever grateful to be working with such great brands and I hope that my face being shown and celebrated directly inspires other young POCs to chase their dreams and to just do their thing!

How do you see your brand benefiting from this project?

Working with H&M is a dream come true. It’s such a loved and trusted brand so to be associated with them and craft an amazing collection of clothing with them, is something I can tick off my bucket list. I’m sure my brand will grow with the youth which is something I can’t even put a value on.

Where do you see your brand in the future?

I think more clothing for sure. Every year I’m surprised and shocked with the projects I get to work on. All I know, is that if my craft improves and I’m able to support more young artists, then I’ll be one happy guy!

Muted tones dominate the collection for all ages and sizes.
Muted tones dominate the collection for all ages and sizes.
Image: Supplied by H&M

Do you think your brand aligns with H&M products?

Definitely! I wear a lot of H&M clothing myself. So, applying my work to great quality clothing that I already wear is a plus!

Who is the customer you have in mind when creating?

I really wanted to create a collection together with H&M of basic illustrations that’s for everyone. I think it’s for the relaxed 19-year-olds and cool 25-year-olds. It’s also for the 30+ crowd who enjoy muted colours but who understand that pops of colour are a nice addition to their wardrobe. It’s for anyone of any gender or colour. Dress them up or down, the wearer should do whatever!

How has H&M supported you with this collaboration?

Other than H&M giving me the bag, they’ve guided me through the entire process. Understanding what works for their market is a great help. Being involved in the marketing campaign and putting it all together, it’s something I’m so grateful for. Being celebrated as an artist always warms my heart. H&M came through with great energy and respect for my work and I’m so happy that they’re as excited. It’s not just another project but rather one that feels like a passion project!

The Yay Abe x H&M collection will be available at selected H&M stores in SA from June 2.

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