Since establishing its namesake label in 2015, Claudia Li has emerged as one of the most attractive designers on the New York fashion circuit. Her collection is known for her intimate storytelling approach, with each season expressing something personal from her upbringing as a Chinese-born designer, raised in New Zealand, always surrounded by art.
For his first runway show in 2018, Li used only models of Asian descent – from Chinese to Nepalese – to celebrate the depiction and representation of Asian identities during Fashion Week. The next show also touched on the theme of his family and multicultural background. The brand’s fall 2021 collection, which was inaugurated in February, expanded to Li’s New Zealand roots, where he happened to be based over the past year.
She took advantage of the joyous atmosphere of her high school years, especially prom days and hometown dances. It was a time when it was all about fun, excess and luxury, and she credits looking back at that era as helping her rediscover why she first fell in love with fashion. Her latest collection, called “Homecoming,” combines the references in subtle and direct ways, from big puffy 80s sleeves and puffed dresses to meticulous pleats, pleats and drapes that are visible throughout.
PAPER meet Li to discuss his new collection, return to New Zealand, the AAPI community, and rediscover his love of fashion.
How does it feel to come back to New Zealand?
It feels good to be home. It’s very different here. I mean, it’s definitely less crazy and a lot simpler. The last two and a half years for us as a company – there’s been a lot going on. We went through a lot and just returned home, it seems like I need some space to clear my mind. So it’s better for me personally. But my team is still in New York. And with everything that’s been happening it’s been terrifying and I can’t be there to help them. My team is completely Asian.
You recently launched your Fall 2021 collection digitally during NYFW. What’s so special about this season?
We started making collections when everyone was home and we couldn’t go out. So, you are a little daydreaming. And this was before all the madness happened. That’s just the beginning of the lockdown. And I dream about fashion. I feel that it gives me more head space to imagine and think again, because a lot of the inspiration we get comes from my memories or strange thoughts. I have to think about the last time I really fell in love with fashion and it was in high school. Fashion then is just everything to me, it’s something dreamy and glamorous and fun.
You mentioned earlier how you can stop worrying about other people’s expectations of your job. How is that done for Fall 2021?
It’s not about having to listen to the shop or what they want and this person, what they want, what they think, what other people think of me or what I make or my clothes. And I feel like this has something to do with the last two years too. I’ve been buried under layers of opinions and suggestions of this kind and my projections about what other people project about me. I feel like I care too much about what people think and like what other people want. And this collection is in the sense that I am purely what I think, what I want.
How does the theme of the ’80s high school prom play a role in this?
I think the best place to go about it is to go back to where I originally dreamed about fashion, which is high school in New Zealand. I think the American prom today is a little more like our high school prom in New Zealand, it’s called a ball. And then we have a really dark disco ball. I remember there was kind of a little spotlight everywhere, in the gym looking like an 80s prom, early 90s. And I have a pink dress. Pink is my favorite color, actually it’s still my favorite color, secretly. So yes. So that’s where the collection type starts.
How does this collection best represent your ideas of letting go and being free?
Everything was much bigger and then the skirt got even more puffy. I think it also brings back structure, like all the slouchy shoulder pieces. And I felt that way at first when we started the first few collections, it reminded me of that. I feel like I brought it back because I thought at first, we didn’t really have all of those things around us. And I honestly feel, looking back at this collection, it’s one of my favorite collections so far. But I feel there is still a lot to say. I’m still trying to come up with everything that’s so distinctive. When you look back at something, you always think you could do a lot more.
Tell me about the headband and jewelry you made with a Korean label Fruit.
It’s our first official limited edition collaboration with the accessory brand. I think I’ve actually been wearing the earrings for some time and my team has been wearing them for years too. So we love them. And the creative director, he’s been an editor as well, and he’s a really nice person too. He moved to Hawaii for a year. But yes the headband is big, because I thought that in high school for me such an accessory, like a big bravado, it was a classic of fashion. The earrings were big, the headband was very large, but strangely they weren’t too heavy. So you can totally wear it if you go out.
Campaign image taken on a tennis court. Is there any significance to this?
I was sucked [at tennis so] I joined the hockey team. All the kids of family friends, the “good kids” play tennis and I hate it, and I suck it because I hate it, so I joined the hockey team, and I was great. So the tennis court is more of a representation of my rebellious and dreamy high school years, so I imagined I was wearing a hot puffy pink dress and a doc martens platform stepping on a tennis court.
As a member of the AAPI community, how have you reacted to all the news of anti-Asian violence in recent months?
Obviously we are all angry, but I got to the point where I didn’t even know what else to say because it was really frustrating for us, because the problem stems from how early we’ve been taught that you have to. be polite at all times and don’t cause trouble, be a hard worker, a quiet person. I think that’s how we act on the outside and also how other people see us. So therefore it’s a matter of the minority model. I wasn’t like this when I was young. But when I started working in the Western world, I felt like people were projecting those thoughts onto me. And slowly, even as I started my own brand, I kept feeling this kind of feeling, like you are an Asian designer and you should be kind and understanding. I think a lot of Asian people, especially Asian women, are just fed up and tired of being the image the Western world sees as us. And I feel like it’s time to really talk.
Do you see yourself putting on runway shows again after Fashion Week resumes?
Oh my God, I hope so, for me this is good and different. In my opinion, the images are really great, but I feel that when you see clothes moving in real life, I mean in the video, the image captures it clearly. But in real life it’s just a different vibration, it’s a different kind of sensation. It’s music, it’s scenery, it’s here, it’s everything. And you can see the people you’ve been trying to drink with for a long time, it’s just that nobody has time and you see them at Fashion Week.
Photo courtesy of Claudia Li
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