Yang Li: A Shout Amongst a Chorus of Screams
Yang Li: A Shout Amongst a Chorus of Screams
- Words Andrew Hughes
- Date August 25, 2017
Good things come to those who wait. Such is true in the case of Yang Li. Arriving on the world’s stage in 2011, the 29-year-old designer carries himself with the reserve of a time-honored veteran. Li was born in Beijing in 1987, during a time of cultural isolation in China. Li would remain in China for his formative years. While his father was a ping-pong player and member of the Communist Party, his mother left China three months after giving birth to her son; when opportunity arose for her as to work as a translator, she relocated to Perth, Australia. He would not know his mother for another ten years. He attributes his patience and work ethic to his humble beginnings. “What I take from that period is: Nothing of value comes without being earned,” Li said in an interview with The Washington Post.
From the start Li was met with obstacles, primarily in the form of language barrier and cultural disconnect. Li struggled to find himself, until he forayed into the world of action sports. He spent his teenage years playing basketball and skateboarding, which he considers to be his inlet into the world of fashion. To him, skateboarding was about style and expression; the way you wore your jeans, the graphic on your skateboard, were all powerful-yet-simple ways to show how you express yourself. Skateboarding gave him the opportunity to belong to a community, while remaining true to himself as an individual.
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As a child Li initially wanted to pursue a career in professional basketball, rooted in his love of Michael Jordan. In an interview he said, “There comes a time when you decide you want to invest yourself in something, and get really great at something. For me, the excitement and challenge of design made it a natural choice (plus, I was never really a natural at the basketball thing). So when I was 18, I decided to put all my eggs in the ‘fashion designer’ basket. So far, so good!”
Even with his interest in design, Li started his journey pursuing a degree in law, a step he took to appease his parents. In 2007 he was awarded a scholarship to study at the famed Central Saint Martins (whose notable alumni include Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, Henrik Vibskov and Stella McCartney—and that’s just a start). However, CSM was not fulfilling for Li. He felt pigeonholed by the rigorous structure of the university setting. Even though he would inevitably drop out of the prestigious fashion institution, he doesn’t carry resentment for the school. Without his experience there, Li acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to make clothes or cut patterns. But having a grasp of the basics is just that—Li’s designs ultimately rely on more than just the fundamentals. Li’s time at Central Saint Martins wasn’t all for naught though. His time at CSM led to an internship under post-Rick Owens disciple Gareth Pugh, even if the experience—as the South China Morning Post notes—“failed to keep him sufficiently interested.”
Following his time at Central Saint Martins, he landed in Antwerp. For the next three years, Li would intern in the legendary Raf Simons’ atelier, working in what he described as a “creative kitchen.” Of all the lessons Li learned during his time with Simons, Li prizes one realization as his most valuable: "Keep a cool head and the ability to design on demand as the industry requires. You have three months to make a collection, so you really have to be organized.” Li said in a 2012 interview with Elle.
After his internship ended with Raf, Li set out to craft a brand of his own. He was 23, naïve, brave and dead set in his goal to create something meaningful. His inaugural collection—dubbed “Zero Hour”—was a unique exercise in the subtle rebellion that he has known through his life thus far. Debuting in Paris during the Spring/Summer 2012 season, Li took a deliberately unconventional approach, looking to evolve with the ever-changing systems that dictate fashion, rather than bend them to his will. Li’s razor-sharp aesthetic is the amalgamation of dozens of reference points, blended into a wholly unique product. He compares his design process to that of a DJ’s. Sampling, remixing and crossfading different focal points to lay the groundwork for entirely new material.
Li overturns traditional tailored silhouettes with anarchic attitude and restrained use of
edgy details. Raw edges, tab closures and side slits create a quiet sense of roughness. He likens
his design process to hearing music from a recording to hearing the live rendition. “When you listen to a CD,
everything is perfect,” he said in The Washington Post. “Then you go see the band live. It’s hot, sweaty; a guy’s bumping into you. [The singer] is maybe a bit off-pitch. The imperfection draws you to the experience.” In the same way, Li’s subtle imperfections found within the clean, minimal silhouettes give character to every garment. “If something is so perfect,” Li said, “it becomes almost emotionless.”
In the same vein, Li uses luxury fabrics and intricate design processes just as strategically, like the double face wool construction seen throughout his “Zero Hour” collection. Li’s vision of luxury is not simply giving the consumer everything. He subtracts the unnecessary, as he explained to Business of Fashion, “Luxury is not about giving everything. It’s about knowing what to give.”
Li’s garments don’t allude to the past, pay deference to any lost history, or attempt to
reinvent a bygone era. They are distinctly of the present, reflecting a world that still uses
tailoring as a mark of formality, motorcycle jackets as a statement of rebellion and fluidity as a
characteristic of femininity. The runway is the conduit for Li’s emotional expression, deftly
manipulating proportions to express the acute emotive differences from season to season,
garment to garment. Speaking on the emotional, sentimental qualities of each of his runway shows, Li confessed, “For 10 minutes, every six months, I get to say or do things I couldn’t in reality. I get to write a love letter.” Like his more romantic tendencies, his punk attitude also subtly materializes in every design. That attitude in mind, he reacts with his gut and does what he feels like. "For me, a good designer is someone who proposes things at the right time," Li explained to Elle. "That means having good knowledge of context—what's been and what's there right now—and then asking, `What can I say right now that's interesting?'"
Although he calls London home, Li is part of a resurgence of Chinese-born designers, stepping into the limelight alongside the likes of Uma Wang and others. Over the years, “Made in China” has become a pejorative, thanks to both mass-market and corporate luxury labels outsourcing manufacturing in the name of cutting costs. Designers like Li are erasing this stigma of a tainted Chinese luxury market, proving that Chinese-made and Chinese-designed garments no longer automatically equate to—at best—cheaply-made product, or—at worst—knock-offs of globally recognized European maisons.
“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,” Li explained to the South China Morning Post. That said, while Li is proud of his heritage and the rise of quality Chinese luxury labels, he certainly doesn’t want to be defined by it. “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.”
A look at his archive shows that Li really began with a focus on womenswear design—even as he slid his menswear designs into his women’s-centric collection. Recently however, Li made the choice to move his men’s line as a standalone presentation—beginning in the Spring/Summer 2016 season. With a new focus, Li’s used his recent men’s collections as a canvas—especially when it comes to dissecting his cinematic inspirations. This passion for film is clearly displayed in his Fall/Winter 2017 collection. Photos from the lookbook feature towering figures; models bearing the menacing features of a character ripped from one of the many serial-killer thrillers that Li drew inspiration from. If Li’s inspiration wasn’t clear enough, prints from Abel Ferrara’s cult classic, The Driller Killer, adorned a heavy black coat. This cinematic drama continues into Li’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection. The new character is a dirty cop, the second installment in Li’s focus on film villains. Utilizing loosely-styled detective uniforms, flowing trench coats and plenty of sliced up tailoring like that seen on the villainous Gary Oldman in Léon: The Professional, Li channeled both gritty crime cinema and classic film noir into each look, accomplishing yet another feat in what is rapidly becoming his own “fashion design filmography.”
Coming up on his 18th collection, Li has seen exponential success since “Zero Hour.” Even still, he’s a designer who’s not afraid to slow things down for the sake of his brand as a whole. If anything, that defiant attitude and deliberate design choices has helped mark Li as one of the best new designers in the game today. As Li told Business of Fashion, “I’d rather build one brick solidly at a time to build a church where it’s a ritual for people to go than build a pop-up which is popular for a couple of seasons.”