Kendra and Rhea Yee are instantly recognizable with the many ways they experiment with their distinct style. Kendra is a Toronto-based artist, designer, and curator, while her younger sister Rhea is a student, who also dabbles in community work, modelling, & styling. VSP had the extreme privilege of shooting the Yee sisters at Gardiner Museum, Canada’s national ceramics museum located in the center of Toronto. We chat with Kendra and Rhea about sisterhood, Toronto’s bustling creative scene, and their visual influences.
We loved being able to shoot the both of you, as we are such fans of your style. What is your relationship like?
Kendra: I’m a morning person, Rhea is a night person. Feel like that’s the easiest way to distinguish our personalities. We have lots of common interests with fashion, music, art, etc. but I would say we either identically like something, or have entirely opposite tastes. Our most significant connecting factor is our sense of humour, literally a pair of trolls laughing at the world around us. Everyone always thinks she’s the older sister (maybe it’s because she’s been using my ID since she was 16). We get into bickering arguments, continually nagging, stealing clothes from each other's wardrobes and somehow, manage to talk to each other every day. We’re sisters!
Rhea: A moment that I think reflects our relationship the best is the time Kendra and I were staying in Montreal to set up for an art show she was a part of. It was the third day of install, and I really didn’t want to go for some reason. We got into a petty argument before leaving, which neither of us can remember what it was about. The whole walk I intentionally paced 5 steps behind her for a 20-minute journey, acting as if we didn’t know each other. We arrived at the place and both had a coffee and croissant. Shortly after caffeine kicked in, Kendra pointed out how insignificant the situation was and how hilarious it would've been to watch as a bystander. We laughed about it for the rest of the day and whenever we have a pointless argument we remind each other about that time. Regardless, we have a lot of fun because almost everything is a joke to us, even the times we take things too seriously.
How would you describe each other's style?
Kendra: Rhea literally has a new wardrobe every week, I feel like she dresses in themes. The girl who’s lived in the city her whole life, yet no one knows her address. Pride and Prejudice but, the Sparknotes synopsis. Underworld thot.
Rhea: During the day, Kendra dresses in workwear clothes covered in paint. When we go out though, Kendra can pull LOOKS. It takes her 15 minutes to get ready, and she will be wearing a full-on Met Gala outfit with a crazy eye makeup look. Mostly though, I think Kendra is an embodiment of her sketches and ceramics, sometimes I catch glimpses of things that she is doodling, and a couple days later, she looks exactly like it but without the devil horns or oversized feet. I don't think it is intentional either, Kendra is just such a visual person that whatever she draws becomes tangible in real life. She always writes about how she creates little worlds in her art, but she also designs her own visual world daily.
What are some visual references that influence both your art and style?
- Seiichi Hayashi (Fig. 1). Experimentation of negative and positive space, combining thick and thin line works. He’s the master of composition.
- Mystery Train (1989) by Jim Jarmusch (Fig. 2). All my favourite colours: heavy blacks, blue greys with pops of bold colours. All the suit jackets and slicked hairstyles. This movie has definitely inspired me to wear red lipstick again.
- Really obsessed with personified vegetables (Fig. 3)? Always searching for characters hidden in the unexpected. Google images is like, my ultimate distraction. I could spend hours going through “see similar images,” and find the most bizarre stock photos.
- I recently visited the Thierry Mugler retrospective (Fig. 4) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, so I am currently obsessed with all the extravagant gowns and pieces he created.
- Our family friend Kianna Love runs an Etsy store selling vintage dresses. She stayed with us this summer and heavily inspired my style. I frequently visit her Etsy store just to see what's new.
Another is Hans Eijkelboom (Fig. 5), he is a photographer who for about 25 years would take photos of people wearing similar clothes. He attempted to document the diversity of style but when done in mass and globally, resulted in an overarching feeling of similarities.
What kind of advice do you have for people who might not have experience in creating art, but want to experiment with it? I feel as though people can be a little intimidated.
Kendra: When I’m scared to make something, it’s usually because I’m being too “precious.” I place really high expectations on myself, and sometimes this leads to restrictions. You spend all your energy in crafting the works for the audience, rather than using that motivation to experiment and create messes. Put those distractions away (switch off that phone!), create a clear working space and tune out the world. If you don’t feel like creating, experiencing other artwork is just as important. Have days where you go on long walks, peep into galleries, see movies by yourself. We’re so caught up in production, that we forget having “fun” is also essential!
Rhea: I went to an arts-focused high school, and at the time I really felt pressure to consider myself an artist and produce work, I was super last minute with my assignments because I was always comparing it to others. Truthfully, I wasn’t as dedicated or interested in art as the people I was surrounded by. For one class, I had the opportunity to create my own assignment, which I ended up curating a mock exhibit. This assignment let me test out other skill sets and broadened my field of curiosities. Through this, I realized my hesitation and fear of producing work were because I was trying to appeal to others more than focusing on myself. With art, I feel like you have to experiment to find your niche and personality, I found if I realized I was working towards my own goals, I became less intimidated.
Who are some designers doing new and inventive things?
Kendra: I’ve always been a huge fan of following local creatives. Toronto is filled with TALENT, it’s hard to keep up. I first came across Eclectic.Hoe’s styling as a performance at Little Sister / Sibling Gallery. I see the work as drawings come to life, the ways that fashion is not subjected to wearability, but rather used as the foundation for a storyline. Eske at MAD Mfg, focuses on crazy layers, I feel like his clothing is wrapped in secrets. Modular textures, and craftsmanship. I’ve also been following the concept thrift store, By Pseudonym. Summer’s eye and styling is really beautiful. 100% Silk Shop and SoopSoop are favourite stores, that stock local and abroad designers.
Rhea: I am always interested in what people in Toronto or around me our working on. I am currently obsessed with S.P BADU, I think the idea of genderless clothing is fundamental. Also LaughbyLafaille, I’m very inspired in the construction of their garments and endless ways to style pieces. Also a designer who I stumbled upon recently is Ying Gao, a Montreal-based designer who creates interactive garments, I saw two of her pieces at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and was amazed. This is not clothing related, but I love steph___george’s wigs and hairstyling. I have been through so many hairstyles in the past couple years, it has made me view hair as a separate outfit, I feel like Steph’s work really captures the idea of hair being a standalone piece rather than complementary to an outfit. Also, I am obsessed with nails, it's something I notice immediately on someone, Cindywiththegoodnails, is a nail tech based in Montreal who has the most amazing sets.
Tell us about a couple of upcoming projects for the both of you.
Kendra: Next couple of weeks are busy! I just had a pop-up show with my friends, Moya Garrison-Msingwana and Joshua Advincula at KID. Studio. This upcoming Saturday, I will have a piece debuting at Purple Nights: Field curated by Alyssa Alikpala, My community program, Speech Project wraps up. I’ve been working with a group of young women / gender non-conforming students from across the city to develop comics surrounding personal identity. We will be having a launch party later this spring with the debut of a book! I’m going to LA for the first time in April as I’m tabling at the Art Book Fair. Finally, I’ll be spending a month in NYC in June for a residency with Juxtaprojects / Juxtapose, so that will be a blessed month of making a-r-t.
Rhea: As of right now, I am just focusing on finishing my semester at Concordia, and moving back to Toronto come summer. The next months are more practical so I can settle back into the city and start a new school again. Hopefully I will have some time to visit Kendra in New York for a couple weeks, Other than that, I am just very excited for warm weather and honestly, I think Toronto is the best place in the summer.
Kendra wears Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe, Ann Demeulemeester
Rhea wears Simone Rocha, Givenchy, Comme des Garçons, & Jil Sander
Photos by Aurora Shields
Styling & Text by Marlowe Granados