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People to Know: The Lifelong Friends Distilling Narratives in Clothes

By Bianca Husodo

Melvin Tanaya and Lyna Ty, co-founders of Australian label Song for the Mute.
 
Tung Pham
Melvin Tanaya and Lyna Ty, co-founders of Australian label Song for the Mute.

To talk about Song for the Mute is to delve into the intricate bond between its two founders. It was apparent from the get-go that the partnership Lyna Ty and Melvin Tanaya shared was not of the ordinary. For one, they’re polar opposites of each other. Tanaya is the affable sanguine, while Ty emanates reserved assuredness. Though despite their antithetical personalities, they constantly finish and supplement each other’s sentences like two heads that break as one.

Lyna really likes everything old and that has history, like patina. Something that’s imperfect,” Tanaya says. “While I’m the other way: I like technology, anything modern, contemporary—”

Polished,” Ty chimes in.

Yes, I like everything to be measured down to the millimetres. And she likes everything slightly off,” Tanaya continues.

Ty and Tanaya’s coalescence was inevitable. They both just turned 33. They share the same birthday month, January, and also the first letter to their surnames, which was, in fact, how they first learned of each other’s existence following a roll call at their primary school in Sydney, their hometown, at 10 years old. Their families — Ty’s used to live in Paris, Tanaya’s in East Java’s Surabaya — somehow decided to move to Australia’s largest city at the same time. The duo has now known each other for a grand total of 23 years, significantly longer than they’ve been apart.

In that sense, a collaboration between them felt almost preordained. The two founded Song for the Mute in 2010. Without prior experience in the fashion industry, it debuted as a menswear label with a small 8-piece capsule collection. “We just wanted to have something that we could call our own,” Tanaya remembers. “It was a channel for us to do what we wanted to do as opposed to doing our full-time jobs. Lyna studied fashion in Florence, but she was in bridalwear. I did graphic designing and I didn’t know anything about clothes. It was never intended to be a business.”

When buyers started calling and putting in large quantities of orders, however, what began as a pastime amusement soon turned into business. Ty and Tanaya had to pick up the nuts and bolts of running a brand as they go, from learning costing off a fashion business textbook to phoning random numbers on Yellow Pages in frantic search of an organic cotton supplier. No one thought it would work. The decision to leave their full-time jobs for an uncertain venture that intermingles business and personal life had their families and mutual friends sceptical.

Cut to the present time: Song for the Mute is carried by 60 stockists the world over, from Dover Street Market to Japan’s Opening Ceremony. They’ve expanded into womenswear, presenting their co-ed collections in Paris. They’ve Australia’s National Designer of the Year award tucked under their belt; they were the youngest recipient to have ever won the accolade in its history.

Tung PhamFor Song for the Mute’s Spring/Summer ’19 installation at Dover Street Market Singapore, the pieces were set against a picturesque backdrop of New South Wales’ Mount Kosciuszko landscape, a point of mood reference for the collection.
For Song for the Mute’s Spring/Summer ’19 installation at Dover Street Market Singapore, the pieces were set against a picturesque backdrop of New South Wales’ Mount Kosciuszko landscape, a point of mood reference for the collection.
Tung PhamSong for the Mute’s Spring/Summer ’19 pieces. Of the outerwear on the right, Tanaya says it was inspired by “the extract of being in a room [Ty was inspired by] where you have this strong presence. It’s just there, and it’s like the fabric just marbled. It’s 100 percent cotton but it’s an original print. We took a marble and printed it onto the fabric.”
Song for the Mute’s Spring/Summer ’19 pieces. Of the outerwear on the right, Tanaya says it was inspired by “the extract of being in a room [Ty was inspired by] where you have this strong presence. It’s just there, and it’s like the fabric just marbled. It’s 100 percent cotton but it’s an original print. We took a marble and printed it onto the fabric.”

What makes Song for the Mute special is how personal it is. Reflective of their bond, their clothing is what the partners call “a long-form story”. Their garments, typically constructed in familiar easy shapes, are set within a labyrinthine narrative nexus.

The process always starts with one of the most intrinsic of human senses: the sense of touch. The duo sources fabrics from Italian and traditional Japanese mills that produce one-off fabrics for the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. Ty, who acts as the creative designer for the label, anchors each collection on both the tangible and intangible qualities of the material. She and Tanaya visit the mills two to three times a year.

“Feeling and touching different textures and materials and patterns evoke a certain emotion,” she says. “From there, I start imagining this narrative or this person — him or her — where they would be, what fits and what don’t fit within their world, and then that’s where the shapes and cuts come after. After the fabric.”

To her, the idea is to design no-fuss comfortwear, where beautifully cut yet unrestrictive outerwear, shirts and trousers take precedence. Her penchant for imperfection ingrains a wabi-sabi sensibility to the pieces, where raw edges or deliberately unlined and exposed interiors insert a notion of perfect imbalance. There’s also a whole range of t-shirts and sweatshirts.

For an up-and-coming clothing label largely dependent on its international market, the peril of being based somewhere far removed from the glitzy capitals of fashion is that it may render the label irrelevant. For the Song for the Mute duo, however, that’s hardly the case. As a peripheral outsider who needn’t succumb to the industry’s relentless speed, they have the freedom to thrive on a dreamy sense of removal; it’s one of the definitive streaks to their ethos.

“Sometimes it’s good to be detached from the rest of the world. We have more imagination on what the rest of the world is like,” says Ty. Their Spring/Summer ’19 collection, for instance, was largely fuelled by an imaginary house, constructed somewhere in the idyllic southern part of France, of which Ty envisaged a certain person to inhabit. Ty and Tanaya were in Paris at the time, they could’ve easily taken a train there, yet they didn’t, not wanting to risk marring the consummate picture Ty had painted in her mind if reality didn’t live up to it.

Daniel Gurton“We shot this [Spring/Summer ’19 lookbook] in Harry Seidler’s house, which is one of the most famous architects coming from Australia. It has this very retro vibe; it’s similar to the house in south of France that Lyna pictured,” says Tanaya.
“We shot this [Spring/Summer ’19 lookbook] in Harry Seidler’s house, which is one of the most famous architects coming from Australia. It has this very retro vibe; it’s similar to the house in south of France that Lyna pictured,” says Tanaya.
Daniel GurtonOf expanding into womenswear, Lyna says, “We felt that something was missing and to complete the Song for the Mute book, a female partner was the next natural step for us.”
Of expanding into womenswear, Lyna says, “We felt that something was missing and to complete the Song for the Mute book, a female partner was the next natural step for us.”

“Every season is like a chapter within a book of Lyna’s overall look over her life. The story creates its own character, its own space, its own sound,” says Tanaya, before whipping out his phone to show pictures from their recent Fall/Winter ’19 showroom in Paris, where they shipped botanical plantations from Australia to build a foliage ceiling to roof the collection. Next, the brand director places a box of candle on the table. An extension of the collection’s mood, he says. Its scent was extracted from an Australian plant foraged from Mount Kosciuszko.

“We create everything around the collection,” says Tanaya. “Song for the Mute has grown to become more than just—”

“Clothes,” Ty swiftly fills in.

“Yes, it’s more than that or the brand or the business, actually,” adds Tanaya. “It’s who we are, and that’s something we want to leave as our legacy.”