In label-conscious Hong Kong, designer Joseph Li has remained true to his ideals of subtlety, understatement and good craftsmanship. By Jennifer Cardenas.
AS CHIEF MENSWEAR DESIGNER of Hong Kong-based fashion label Blanc de Chine, Joseph Li exudes a quiet confidence in his crisp white shirt with navy blue piping, cashmere jumper and dark grey blazer paired with basic jeans. Li, it seems, has mastered the smart-casual look that so many men find so difficult to pin down.
'I really wish Hong Kong people would dress up more,' he says with a sigh as he settles into his chair in the Clipper Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental. 'I try to dress smartly as much as I can, even when I'm just meeting friends. But I'm not overly fussy. I guess I like there to be an ease to what I wear.'
This 'ease' Li speaks of is apparent not only in his personal style, but in the clothes he designs. 'I'm quite a subtle person in my tastes. I don't like anything too over-produced. Not to say I don't like details, but these days, I don't like anything too over the top.'
Although Li's interest in fashion began at an early age, he didn't pursue it until he was much older, opting instead to study sociology at the University of Western Ontario. After completing his degree, Li returned to Hong Kong and launched his first label - in womenswear - in 1999. The chic, elegant dresses were a hit with buyers worldwide and were snapped up by Lane Crawford, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York.
Itching to study fashion, Li finally got his wish and spent some time training at the Studio Bercot, Paris, before gaining an apprenticeship with Alber Elbaz at Lanvin. 'Working with Alber was an amazing experience. He's very hands on with his designs and I learned a lot from him. But I felt like I wanted to do more, so I applied to Central St Martins in London for an MA in fashion design and I got in.'
Eventually, he found his way back to Hong Kong. Now at Blanc de Chine, he is making great strides putting modern twists into traditional Chinese tailoring.
'Blanc de Chine and I share very similar aesthetics so it's been great working there. Its image is very classic and simple with a focus on craftsmanship. It's very me.'
It's easy to get swept away with the label-conscious crowd in Hong Kong, especially as a designer. But when it comes to high fashion, Li prefers understated items over signature pieces.
'I'm not a very loud person by nature so I don't want my clothes to jump and scream. If I'm going to buy a designer piece, I tend to go for brands that are unrecognisable. I'm a big fan of Ralph Lauren Black and Purple labels because they're just so wearable. I also love Martin Margiela.
Most designers have very defined collections from season to season, but you can buy a Margiela piece from spring/summer 2007 and it will go perfectly with another from Margiela fall/winter 2005. Ultimately though, I'll buy clothes from anywhere as long as they fit right and look good.'
This hasn't always been the case. 'Now that I'm older I tend to wear slightly less colour. But when I was younger, you could say I was more experimental,' Li says. By experimental, he is referring specifically to a Yohji Yamamoto multicoloured, multi-fabric patchwork waistcoat. 'It really was as bad as it sounds,' he says.
His most important style rule? 'It's all about the shoes,' Li says. 'The right pair of shoes can make or break an outfit. It can change the entire proportion of your look so I think it's always important to invest in a great pair of shoes.' Li swears by Church's, classic Berluti and, on his more casual days, Vans and Dunlop.
But being stylish isn't about following all the rules, Li says. 'I think being stylish is finding the balance between knowing what looks good on you and knowing what's in fashion. I love what Stefano Pilati is doing at YSL, but I know it wouldn't suit me, so I don't bother. Instead of falling into every trend that comes about every season, I pick and choose according to what looks good on me.' And Li is certainly looking good.