YANG LI’S REALISATION that he wanted to become a fashion designer happened in the most unlikely of places – a basketball court. In fact, if fashion – or his height – hadn’t got in the way, he would be playing basketball full time.
“What was interesting about sports was this culture of tribes. What you wore represented who you were within that community – you express yourself by rolling up your pants or
wearing a certain shoe. That made me think about how you can represent yourself through clothes and that’s how I got into fashion. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a romantic story about me playing with my mother’s dresses.”
Li has never done anything conventional which is what makes his story interesting. Born in Beijing, educated in Australia and London, and launching from Paris, his edge derives
not only from his international background but from his approach to the craft that is inspired by old-school modernists like Helmut Lang and sub cultures like music and sport. As such he has become a poster boy for a new generation of Chinese designers who draw inspiration from a culture outside their own.
“Of course there are no obvious Chinese references in my work but at the same time I was born in Beijing and I am Asian, so you never lose the identity. It’s just not necessarily represented physically as a design reference in my work.
“That said, being a Chinese designer now is interesting. In America, Chinese designers are nothing new but in Europe it is still bubbling. The one playing the right game and doing the right thing will get the pay-off. At the same time I don’t want to play the Chinese game. I can’t ignore it with my name and looks, but my success should come from my work, not where I am from,” he says.
The 24-year-old Li has had his fair share of experiences. At 10, he moved to Perth in Australia to learn English, and later received a scholarship to study at Central Saint Martin’s in London in 2007. During this time he interned with designer Gareth Pugh which failed to keep him sufficiently interested. Seeking greater inspiration, he headed instead to Belgium where he interned with Raf Simons working in what he calls a “creative kitchen”. In 2010, he returned to London, ready to launch his own line.
“Good design for me is about timing; it’s about when to propose a certain silhouette. Even the great masters are not reinventing the wheel – it’s about summarising everything you have seen and saying what can I add? It’s like being a DJ – the more tracks you listen to the bigger your repertoire.
“I wanted to propose something different. Something with the energy of a young designer that could fit in the Paris environment. The DNA of the company is that the product and spirit of clothes shouldn’t be separate. Many designers in London have strong identities that don’t necessarily translate into product – I don’t want to do this. It’s sad to make clothes that no one can wear. I wanted to focus on quality, setting up and working in a way so it looks like a bigger company but still has a fresh hand,” he says.
Quality and design go hand in hand in Li’s collections, which he describes as a “quiet shout” where subtle details do the talking. Razor sharp 1990s minimalist silhouettes are achieved through double-face construction (an expensive laborious technique that involves connecting two fabrics with a fine thread rather than a seam), sporty techno fabrics and elongated shapes. What’s more, he subverts clothing convention by mixing machine and handmade details on one piece.
“The woman I want is really strong. She can ride away by herself, she doesn’t need to be carried,” he says.
While womenswear dominates the line, he also includes several men’s pieces each season. Both are presented together, never separately, so they tell one cohesive story.
“It’s what you see in the real world. They exist side by side instead of separately. But honestly, I prefer women’s clothes. Women are beautiful so it’s easy to propose something for them. It’s more than just the clothes – it’s about creating the mood and the whole expression,” he says.
While the brand is only in its second season, it’s already been featured in publications like Elle and i-D, while stockists include high-end boutiques like 10 Corso Como in Seoul and Blake Chicago. Does this mean that Li is well on his way to becoming the next “it” Chinese designer?
“I’m not in a rush. You may have a great idea but if you can’t translate it in terms of quality and finishing then what’s the point? I have to build the Yang Li woman layer by layer. Maybe one day I will design a car, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he says with a smile.
THE QUIET SHOUT
Called “After Zero Hour,” Li’s mainly black and white autumn collection features pared back, elongated or voluminous silhouettes that are designed to be worn layered. Fabrics are bonded together to create luxurious double-faced cashmere, wools and jerseys. Classic styles are reworked to create modern basics for women like the tuxedo cargo pant, perfecto biker jacket (that’s worn like a shirt) or a trench-coat dress with an extended hem made from couture lining. Highlights from the men’s line include a crew-neck sweater made from double-faced wool while a trench coat plays on deconstruction. Classic shirts have been sliced down the back and held together with a single stitch. Everything is finished with a combination of hand and machine stitching for an undone look.