Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Hong Kong menswear designer Joseph Li on having his own label after years as Shanghai Tang womenswear head

The former creative director for Shanghai Tang loves being in charge of his own label, Saam1, which blends contemporary streetwear with traditional Chinese iconography on jackets and shirts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 3:12pm

Just back from the Premiere Vision trade fair in Paris, fashion designer Joseph Li is busy working on his new Hong Kong-inspired menswear label, Saam1.

Li, who was in Paris sourcing fabrics for his latest collection, is relishing his new direction after a long stint as creative director of Shanghai Tang’s womenswear.

“For both personal and professional growth, I think it is important that one continues to step outside of one’s comfort zone. After having done womenswear for so long, I decided to take some time off for reflection,” Li says, “and wanted to explore something new and more personal. Menswear was the right way forward.”

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From international brand to emerging label, he now manages all aspects of the business – not easy, given the industry’s demands.

“The jump in terms of designing was also not too drastic. Menswear is more direct, and is about making clothes that I or my friends can wear, as opposed to womenswear, which is all about the fantasy and how you see the woman... plus I can try and model the clothes on myself,” he says with a laugh.

Saam1 mixes contemporary street-luxe styles with traditional Chinese iconography – reflective Year of the Rooster icons feature on a satin souvenir jacket or tattoo-like zodiac, floral or numerology motifs on cotton shirts.

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Touting its Hong Kong roots, the brand’s name is a direct translation of “shirt” or “garment” in Cantonese. In its second season, the label is already stocked in Lane Crawford and Opening Ceremony (for whom he’s created a series of special edition Henley T-shirts).

Li’s creative approach and application of Chinese heritage at both labels is different. While Shanghai Tang, owned by luxury conglomerate Richemont, is known for more traditional Oriental or Chinese designs, Saam1 is more of a subtle nod to Chinese iconography, street-style, and executed in a modern way.

Saam1 offers a Chinese version of the souvenir jacket, which had its roots in post-war Japan when occupying American troops had Japanese embroidery sewn onto their jackets.

“I liked the idea of creating a jacket that commemorates an experience. I think living in Hong Kong is such a unique experience, and this jacket helps to capture that,” Li says. “Saam1’s designs feature not only the zodiac animals from traditional Chinese horoscopes, but also the corresponding plants and flowers of each animal, and the chronological dates. These are all represented through intricate embroidery sewn onto the garments.”

The embroidery involves delicate needle work, a process Li likens to tattoos. He works with tattoo artists to create many of the motifs. In Li’s words, this design helps to “explore the relationship between what we wear physically and what we ‘wear’ on our skin.”

Another signature of the brand is Henley shirts – a style favoured by Hong Kong legend Bruce Lee – which are made in collaboration with knitting factory Lee Kung Man. The line doesn’t include bottoms.

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Except for its Henley T-shirts, Saam1 is produced in mainland China and Li visits regularly to check the manufacturing process.

“It’s about being responsible for, and maintaining the integrity of the product and the brand as a whole,” he says.

Li is happy with the brand’s positioning. “We are in an interesting time, particularly with the emergence of China on the international stage, so we are seeing a lot more interest in what Hong Kong has to bring to the table,” says Li. “And having the support of key Hong Kong retailers such as the Lane Crawford Group, allows the city to be well positioned to become a significant contributor to, rather than just a consumer, of fashion.”