“It was by no means imagined to occur this manner,” says New York designer Yuri Lee Keown. She had deliberate to return to Kilkeel in spring final 12 months to marry her fiance Thomas Keown, however because of the pandemic she discovered herself stranded in Northern Eire, unable to go forward with long-held plans to return to the States to launch a vogue line.
nstead, she discovered herself debuting her Love Wonky model from a sheep farm within the Mournes and recruiting her mother-in-law’s associates to knit hats and scarves that retail for as much as $200 within the States.
The 38-year-old designer, who’s of Korean descent, has been a part of the trade for 17 years, working for giant names akin to DKNY, Victoria’s Secret and Anthropologie.
A couple of years in the past, she started working for the sustainable way of life model Amour Vert in San Francisco. The model expanded vastly within the following years, with Yuri turning into a designer with the correct automobile, the correct house, the correct social circle and “the correct metrics”.
As soon as she had acquired all these issues, nonetheless, she encountered the age-old downside of discovering they weren’t as fulfilling as anticipated.
“Three years in the past, one thing broke in me. I believed ‘This is not the best way I wish to reside’, regardless that I used to be doing vogue in a kinder manner,” Yuri says.
“I had achieved all of the objectives I had got down to be ‘profitable’. I lacked nothing materially, however my life lacked function and that means.
“I used to be part of an trade that was superb at telling you what you wanted to look sexier, cooler, smarter, however I did not know find out how to make my very own life extra significant.
“I had seen the worst of the style trade and the methods through which individuals who produce the issues we put on are exploited and mistreated.
“I believed there was a greater manner and I needed to make use of my expertise to assist discover it.
“I had no concept how, so I stop my job, put my issues into storage and set out on a journey, spending six months in Africa and India.
“I did not understand how, however I knew I needed to do one thing that helped individuals who weren’t me.”
It was round this time that she fell for Northern Eire-born Thomas Keown, whom she met at a buddy’s marriage ceremony in Brooklyn.
When she was searching for an organisation to volunteer with, somebody recommended she contact Thomas, the co-founder of the Many Hopes organisation, a non-profit based mostly in Manhattan and London which goals to rescue youngsters from poverty and abuse and equip them with the instruments to sort out injustice.
When she met up with Thomas, issues didn’t go as deliberate. She quickly realised that her abilities as a dressmaker weren’t what Many Hopes wanted, however the assembly did result in the beginning of their relationship.
“Whereas he was very light in letting me down, the subsequent time we have been in New York, we met up and talked a bit of bit extra,” Yuri says.
“That is how our relationship started – with a sequence of noes.
“In so some ways, he mentioned that their work was with orphans they usually cannot have folks coming out and in of their lives.
“After I got here again from my travels, I needed to be actually aware of how a lot I did not know and (I needed) to supply one thing that folks would want. I’d attempt to be taught from our conversations.”
After travelling round and making connections with organisations in different international locations, Yuri realised that whereas many ladies in creating international locations have been unable to entry education, they’d usually discovered craft abilities from the older generations that may very well be tailored to incomes a dwelling.
Her intention was to work intently with ladies in Latin America to create lovely handmade clothes that may very well be offered through her Love Wonky model, whereas on the similar time producing employment.
The plan was to launch a partnership with a non-profit in Bolivia in 2020, adopted by one other non-profit in Guatemala this 12 months, however Covid modified all the pieces.
“I used to be going to return to work with the ladies and collaborate on designs and do sampling, then the pandemic hit,” Yuri explains.
On the similar time, her Kilkeel marriage ceremony plans have been thrown into disarray.
“The plan was to get married in Could. My household was coming from Korea and we had a bunch of associates coming from the US,” she tells me.
“I began listening to about Covid in Korea in mid-February, so in April I made a decision to return to Northern Eire a bit of bit early to see what the scenario was like and monitor issues.
“However come April final 12 months, we needed to cancel all our plans as a result of all the pieces was shutting down. We have been imagined to have our marriage ceremony in Thomas’s dwelling church in Kilkeel and have the reception on the Inexperienced Cottages, however it was postponed to September after which it was going to be postponed to Could this 12 months.”
Including to their issues was Donald Trump’s choice to shut the US’s borders to non-essential staff, that means Thomas was unable to return to New York.
“The selection for me was between going again to the States on my own or staying in Kilkeel, the place I haven’t got a group. I could not even drive,” Yuri explains.
“It felt like a little bit of a tough choice, however what I hadn’t anticipated was simply how heat the group was right here.
“I actually adore it right here, which is shocking as a result of I’ve all the time lived in massive cities like New York or Seoul. I’ve by no means even lived in a home earlier than.”
Thomas provides: “We ran right into a thousand administrative and authorized points that might have been comical in the event that they weren’t so laborious and irritating.
“Weddings have been banned right here, so we thought we would go and get married in America as a substitute, then America closed the borders to Europeans, so Yuri might go there, however I could not.
“The following possibility was to do it right here later, however then we realised Yuri’s visa would expire earlier than we might do this. She was already right here, so it was very laborious to get a marriage visa to enter a rustic she was already in.
“Later, weddings have been allowed outside, however the Church of Eire can solely marry folks inside church buildings.
“Lastly, we received a ceremony in entrance of seven members of my household and two iPhones Zooming to Korea.”
Yuri’s plans for launching her new model had been thrown into disarray by the pandemic, partially as a result of the ladies she was working with lived in distant areas and have been unable capable of transfer round due to Covid roadblocks.
Even when they’d been capable of proceed working, they have been unable to maneuver their merchandise.
Due to the shortage of labor and tourism of their space, their revenue was badly hit.
Yuri remembers receiving a textual content from one of many ladies she was working with in Bolivia who was attempting to look after 4 youngsters with no revenue.
“These have been folks I would frolicked with and I needed to assist ultimately,” she says.
Impressed by the ladies in Thomas’s household, Yuri got here up with the concept of recruiting native knitters to create handmade clothes that may very well be offered and the income used to generate employment in Latin America.
“Since shifting to Kilkeel and seeing how many individuals right here wish to assist the much less lucky all over the world, seeing how many individuals like to knit and realizing how many individuals within the States need handmade items, this concept jumped out as a win for everybody,” she says.
“The concept first happened due to Thomas’s grandmother, Sadie, who regardless of by no means leaving Northern Eire, knitted virtually each evening for 80 years for untimely infants in Malawi that she would by no means meet.
“I puzzled if there is likely to be extra Sadies round – and, goodness, there have been.”
She began off with two or three Kilkeel women knitting hats and scarves to promote underneath the Love Wonky model. The concept shortly caught on.
“That become 5, six, seven and impulsively we had 20 women knitting for us. They’re so quick that I used to be stunned. The demand has been shocking. I believe folks actually like that it is hand-knit they usually like the truth that after they buy, it’ll an excellent trigger,” Yuri says.
One in every of her volunteer knitters, Ruth Johnson, describes the venture as a “win, win, win”.
“It is a win for the women in Northern Eire to have the ability to assist another person, a win for the women in Guatemala and Bolivia to realize regular employment, and a win for the shopper who will get a lovely hat that additionally helps somebody,” she says.
Rathfriland knitter Elizabeth Watterson, who has been knitting for Love Wonky since October, provides: “It is good to know you may sit in your couch along with your fireplace lit, knit a wee bit and realise that you’re serving to one other girl out of the country and there is a reward in doing it: a wee satisfaction for your self.”
Yuri named the model Love Wonky as a result of she believes the great thing about handmade merchandise lies of their imperfections.
“We consider that handmade items carry a soul that manufacturing unit made items by no means can,” she explains.
“We consider that your garments must be as distinctive as you’re and that each buy you make can and will make a distinction.
“To have the ability to do one thing that we take pleasure in doing anyway and in addition know that it’s serving to a lady on the opposite aspect of the world offers our knitters an excellent feeling.”
Whereas Yuri is delighted together with her model’s efficiency, she’s additionally loving life in Kilkeel.
“I am studying new phrases and pronunciations, that soda bread is one thing that exists and you can by no means drink too many cups of tea,” she says
“The distinction between the tempo of life and the perspective of individuals right here, I simply adore it, even the little issues like waving at folks over the steering wheel if you meet them driving.
“Wherever Wonky goes within the a long time forward, it’ll all the time be the kindness of Northern Eire that began it.
“That this was additionally capable of present women with one thing significant to do with their time and ability throughout lockdown is so good for what Wonky seeks to be on this planet.”
To be taught extra about Yuri’s vogue model, go to www.lovewonky.com