Why the creative duo behind TUR Studio is creating garments the old way

Photography by Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Good Yarn

Don’t wait until retirement to take up weaving and sewing, says the crafty young duo behind TÜR Studio on Karangahape Road.

Drive past TÜR Studio after dark and you’ll often see an ethereal chap bent over a loom, while another, equally delicate, sews intricate linen tunics to a soundtrack of Icelandic electronica. When it’s time for lights out, they retire upstairs to a futon in the front bedroom, but as you may already have gathered, this is no urban sweatshop.  These gentlemen, Christopher Duncan and Joseph Yen, are contemporary craft practitioners, and they are doing what they love without rules or compromise.

“It’s not too dissimilar from what might have happened pre-industrial revolution, before globalisation, before designers weren’t really touching anything anymore, before they became a business person,” says Duncan, 31. “Three hundred years ago, or even a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been weird that someone lived above their business. That was the intention for these buildings.” The appeal, he says, is independence. “The autonomy to do whatever you want.”

Whatever they want stretches to selling a whimsical collection of pit-fired pots, hair combs and handmade leather shoes crafted by other lone-wolf artists and makers from far flung locations such as Osaka, Taipei and Nelson, alongside their own work. Theirs is a deliberate rejection of fast fashion, of mass production. The store is a Zen sanctuary, exquisitely curated, and sealed off from Karangahape Road behind a thick glass door. It’s a door they would love to keep open to attract more customers, but the traffic is prohibitively noisy.

When they’re not staying up late making kimonos, the pair can be spotted floating down K’ Road in their own androgynous, hand-woven tunics, a devoted fashion pack in tow. The aesthetic they peddle is hard to pin down but if they were not in the haute fashion business, one could be forgiven for thinking they ran a Steiner school in the woods.

“We get all sorts of names for it,” says Yen, whose exquisite, covetable linen tunics retail under the name Thyen. “Traditional, ethnic, Chinese, Japanese, kung fu…” “…Bedouin, Middle Eastern,” adds Duncan. “We do look at a lot of old clothing, traditional and work wear. Whether it’s Chinese, Middle Eastern or European.” Not only do these two finish each other’s sentences but a short way into the interview, Yen approaches Duncan with a pair of scissors and snips a loose thread from his tunic.

Yen, 29, was born in Taiwan but moved here when he was seven with his mum, dad and brother Albert. His family is half-Taiwanese, half-Chinese, and all the men, including Joseph, are dentists. By night he sews tunics, and by day, to fund his passion, he fixes teeth at a Royal Oak dental practice. But in a roundabout way, it is teeth that lead Yen to discover his love of clothing. Dunedin is the only place to study dentistry in New Zealand, and while he was living there Yen walked into a store called Plume and fell head over heels with fashion, generally, and more specifically, the Nom*D look. “You end up buying lots of things, and then you start making things. By the end of Dunedin, I had a domestic sewing machine, and I started making silver jewellery.”

Yen worked for a year full-time as a dentist, then he enrolled in a fashion design degree at AUT. In his second year, he interned at Lela Jacob’s store The Keep, four doors down along K’ Road, where he met Duncan. Jacobs – another peddler of androgynous tunics – and Duncan go way back, and at that time he was working in her store. Yen didn’t finish his degree. About a year later, he and Duncan opened TÜR.

Working side by side and living together is intense, “but it’s also really rewarding,” says Duncan. Living and breathing art must, to him, feel like home. His mother is landscape painter Bari Duncan, from Napier. His father is a train traffic controller in Wellington. Duncan got out of Napier when he was 16, started an arts degree at Victoria University, then switched to a fashion diploma at Massey.

As a young fashionista, Duncan worked for Lela Jacobs in Wellington, but not in a flowing tunic. “I had a magazine with some friends down there, a free zine called Fluoro.” How very Wellington of him… “I know,” says Duncan. “It was so of its time as well. That New Rave scene was happening. Everyone was wearing brightly coloured Lycra tights. It was fun.”

Until it wasn’t. Sick of Wellington, Duncan moved to Melbourne, where he worked his way up to accessories buyer for a high-end fashion boutique. “Studying look books, forecasting reports, forecasting the future about what’s going to sell, ordering, all these bits of paper, projections of the past, trying to figure out the future. I thought, ‘oh dear, this is terribly boring’. It gave me a headache. So I quit.”

Duncan left the city to work at a cafe on the Great Ocean Road, two-and-a-half hours out of Melbourne, in a one-horse town called Wye River. He had been talking about learning to weave when his sister sent him a portable loom she’d bought on Trade Me. He is self-taught. The loom has grown to full-size, and occupies a prominent place in the shop. Weaving is physically arduous, and requires patience. Unlike a painting, Duncan can’t view his work in progress, even though it is carefully planned. “When a two-metre long shawl is on the loom, and it’s rolling onto the front beam, all I can see is 50 or 60 centimetres at a time. It’s always a massive surprise at the end to see what I have woven.”

Each length of textile takes around 20 hours to make, including up to three days for the set-up process. At that rate, Duncan can produce three lengths of textile a week, tops. After such an investment of time, cutting the cloth feels like sacrilege. Hence, he sticks to robe-like garments. His wall hangings have exhibited in Masterworks Gallery, and further afield in Kyoto and Antwerp. In 2016, two of his works were acquired by the Auckland Museum.

The business model at TÜR isn’t designed to grow. Each time Yen thinks of producing a bigger run of a garment, he reminds himself why he’s doing this in the first place. “It’s not to make 10 of something. It’s to make two of each one: one for me and one for a customer.” The only expansion they’d consider is a bigger space so they could showcase more of other people’s work.

To live life as if the industrial revolution never happened is an extreme form of resistance to consumerism, but who knows? When the robots come for our jobs, we may all have to live this way. “We really love what we do,” says Yen. “I can be here ‘til 1am doing things, and it’s never-ending. It’s a lifetime’s practice.” Duncan concurs. “One of the reasons I moved to the coast in Australia was that I kept thinking, ‘I just want to retire and go live by the beach’. But why wait until I’m 65 to pick up knitting again or do a hobby? Could a hobby be what you do all the time?