Silk, chinoiserie and old-world silhouettes: this is ‘Made in China’ fashion from a bygone dynasty era
Inspired by the beautiful traditional fashions of China’s master craftsmen and women, young Italian designer Pia Zanardi launched Yali, a brand which has all its items handmade in China’s rural regions
Pia Zanardi discovered a whole new meaning to the term “Made in China” after travelling as a student from her home in Italy to Shanghai, where she saw beautiful traditional crafts such as silk weaving, hand-dyeing and embroidery that had survived thousands of years.
In 2015, she launched Yali, a luxury collection of jackets and robes inspired by clothing from China’s ancient dynasties. Today, she designs the line from her studio in London and regularly travels to China’s rural regions, where each piece is stitched together by some of the country’s remaining master craftsmen and women.
Here she talks about starting the brand, what fascinates her most about Chinese culture and what she has planned for the next year.
What prompted you to start Yali?
After spending some time in Shanghai and Beijing, I began making jackets for myself and my friends in London inspired by antique ones that I’d found at markets. At the time, I was still at school, writing my thesis.
Soon after graduation, I decided to make a capsule collection and start selling my designs officially. My idea was simple: I wanted to bring the spirit of these old Chinese traditions back to life and show everyone else what, to me, is so special about China.
What elements of Chinese culture fascinate you?
In the West, relics of the Oriental era are always considered to be so beautiful – the detailed chinoiserie, the fine porcelain, the jade carvings. We hold these things as precious and protect them in our museums.
When I first went to China, I was surprised to see that some traditional crafts still exist. There aren’t many artisans able to practise them, but a number of wonderful techniques – like weaving pure silk velvet and hand-dyeing textiles and embroidery – have managed to survive through thousands of years of history. It’s important to me to help preserve these crafts – which is why I’m proud to say that Yali is 100 per cent made in China.
In a larger cultural sense, I suppose China holds my attention because there is still so little known about it. It’s still undiscovered, still hiding. People talk about all these other beautiful places, but China is rarely a part of that conversation. There’s a general assumption that things – clothes in particular – are made poorly there, but that’s only a tiny part of the story.
When did Yali get its first big break?
My success, so far, has happened very organically. I haven’t pushed anything and I don’t consider myself to make fashion. In a world where everything is so quick and clothes are almost made to expire, I think people have been attracted to Yali because it feels special and unique – each piece is something you can have forever and pass on to your grandchildren and their children.
Press-wise, I had my first big moment when Leandra Medine from [fashion and lifestyle website] Man Repeller wore one of my jackets to a fashion week. I gifted her one in Yali’s early days and then [photographer and blogger] Phil Oh took a photograph of her that ended up on vogue.com. The editor actually got the designer credit wrong on the site, but eventually I managed to get in contact and they changed it.
How do you find inspiration?
My travels are my biggest source of inspiration, so I look at each trip as continuous research.
Wherever I go, I visit vintage stores, textile markets and museums. I am inspired by cultures, paintings and colour combinations, and I love seeing antique objects and imagining them in a contemporary setting.
My next capsule is a collection of linen jackets and I’m working with a designer in China to silk-print the inside lining. I knew that I wanted something that represented Chinese nature – like lotus flowers or Ginkgo biloba – so I’ve been researching them in books and seeking out antique Chinese paintings to see how they have historically been depicted.
Who shops at Yali?
People who have an organic, but qualitative lifestyle. They look for tasteful things everywhere they go. When they travel, they will only stay in a certain kind of hotel. Not a big showy affair, but something special and off the beaten path. They find themselves at parties around the world and have a love of art and different cultures.
What does the name Yali mean?
Yali is my Chinese name and the logo is an antique Chinese figure who is a spirit protector and wards off evil. A friend made my brand logo using traditional jade calligraphy on rice paper.
The spirit protects anyone wearing one of my jackets. So if you’re travelling or just going about your day, you’ll always have a protector looking out for you.
Have you received any negative backlash as an Italian designer making Chinese clothing?
My brand is fully manufactured in China from start to finish by Chinese craftsmen. It’s very traditional and everything is made from the purest materials. Sometimes I have to explain why I’m doing what I am, but I’ve never had a negative comment. Most people have been positive – just recently, a Chinese customer called and thanked me for bringing attention to his culture in the West.”
What’s on the horizon in 2018?
Right now I’m working on my next capsule, but in the future I see a full collection of all sorts including pants, dresses and more jackets. I would also love to open a store, ideally in New York as it’s such a melting pot and there’s already a big Chinese community.
I don’t invest in marketing as I like to keep it very niche, so I’m excited to expand organically. Sure, you could go to a different store right now and buy a full outfit, but I think that takes away the pleasure of shopping. Yali is more of a lifestyle. Little by little, step by step, I want to take my time and do things slowly.