From Beijing to Perth and then to London where he now resides, Yang Li is a rebel with a cause: create stunning, luxurious silhouettes through a perfectly imperfect mix of elegance and punk. And he’s winning. After dropping out of Central St. Marten’s and interning with Raf Simons, Yang Li broke out on his own, and was very (very) quickly recognised as a visual voice to watch. Two years into his tenure at LECLAIREUR, the Chinese designer spoke with us about why his FW 16 collection might be his most important to date and what he did differently this time. The full-length conversation below.
There has been somewhat of an evolution in your work recently—how would you explain it? How do you define it?
Yang Li: Specifically this season, I think it’s been the most courageous season we’ve done and with the most defined point of view. I’ve come to realize that most important is to have a point of view and to stand in that point of view rather than compromise or try to appeal to a wider range. It’s more about concentrating on what you like. And then just really standing for that point of view and actually developing it, and pushing it as much as possible.
You’re taking things to a higher end also, it seems. Is it in the change of fabrics? Are you bringing more attention to details? Is there something specific?
YL: It’s always an evolution of fabrics and experience, but we’ve also started working with new suppliers which are at the best of what they do. For example KTC as a technical fabric supplier is top of the world, and also an Italian group which now concentrates all our production and sampling within their networks. So it’s streamlined the work and also allowed to focus more on development and actually making the work better, rather than running around.
Your pieces are always very feminine and yet there is something almost unisex about them. Is that something that you feel might represent just your approach of the world, or is something that is representative of what the world is turning into?
YL: Well, it’s really about a girl who does not give a damn whether it’s a dress, or a jacket, or a coat, whether it men’s or women’s — it’s more about the attitude. And that’s definitely something we’ve pushed this season. I think the world is kind of fused into this idea of unisex, but I think there’s such a pleasure about appropriating menswear for women or womenswear for men. I think if it’s promoted as “unisex” it’s less effective. We always get more of a pleasure out of appropriating the boyfriend’s coat — fashion is about the appropriation of iconic things and taking them out of context, so it’s natural that people are choosing that. Fashion is always just a mirror.
Is there a particular influence, or several influences, from where your silhouettes stem?
YL: Especially this season I do think it’s been my most courageous season, as in being really really strong. The opening sequence of the show showed really extreme proportions: very short skirts, which is a very new thing at Yang Li, mixed with very hard, almost protective jacketing and coating. And that’s definitely a new silhouette, you know, having something so extreme at the top and something so small at the bottom. And then we play with the opposite where the top is small and the bottom is big. It’s been the most relentless research into silhouettes this season. Also working on a winter season gives the ability to use beautiful fabrics to describe the silhouettes. The collection was made, actually, in two parts. This is more or less the concept of the season… We all, as designers, create a collection, hand it off to the factories and then one month later we receive the samples. Whereas this season, we left 30% of the work undone. So we finished the collection, sent it off to the factories, but we didn’t really finish it and, especially myself, I kept in the back of my head that there would be final intervention days, or at the show, seeing the show almost as a last fitting. So leaving that gap for spontaneous energy which creates a lot of things that you can see in the collection, for example the jackets which have kind of been sewn together from different jackets, or pieced together from different parts. That was planned but not visualized, and only crystalized at the last moment. And I think working like that is kind of natural anyway, but this was the first season where we actually planned to un-plan ourselves, if that makes sense. That was a really stressful but fantastic way to work, in that you can kind of create special things like silhouettes, and techniques, and fabrics mixing together, at the last moment. And also destroying some of the garments at the end, you know, seeing the destruction as a final kind of passage
It feels like you are allowing yourself a greater realm of freedom.
YL: Absolutely. Allowing for beautiful mistakes, and really celebrating those. Some of the cuts in the jackets are really similar to kintsugi which is a Japanese concept of pottery where they celebrate the cracks and they fix them with gold rather than trying to make them invisible. That’s definitely a part of the influence.
When you think about the people who wear your clothes, individuals or the collective, how do you imagine them? How do you think of them?
YL: There’s definitely an attitude — it’s more than just a physical thing, it not all blondes or brunettes, or anything like that. The kind of people that we try to dress, they are people that are connected by attitude rather than physical appearance, a fondness, or a fabric, or something like that, it should be a lot deeper than that. It’s definitely a girl who doesn’t give a damn, somebody who’s had a $600 haircut but doesn’t have time to look after it. You see her at 4am in the morning, and you don’t know if she’s leaving somewhere or going somewhere, stalking the streets. It’s that kind of perverse, but confidently perverse attitude.
How do you achieve the extremely luxurious, yet worn everyday appearance of your work in general? How do you make it work? Where is that meeting point between luxury and everyday wear?
YL: To make luxury you need time, consideration, precision — that’s the first part of the creativity. It’s choosing the fabrics, making sure the technical details are all sorted out and the finishing and all that kind of thing. But then, there’s that spontaneous energy, which is the other 50%, which is why we actually separated those two processes. I’ve been in the factories asking them to make the most beautiful double faced hand-finished coat, them not knowing that moments before the show we would be adding one gesture, almost in a way that an artist would destroy his own painting or something like that, to give it a bit of raw human emotion. And I think that’s what people connect with — you give them the familiarity of fabric, finishing and cleanliness, but you also give them something that is not precious and not intimidating. Clothing should not just be in a glass case. It should be worn and thrown on the floor, but also feel completely luxurious. And I think, using that and even applying it to the method, has created something subconsciously rich that is luxurious, and with a punk spirit.
Who is Yang Li?
YL: A 28 year old person who’s very obsessed by things. Yeah. I would say obsessed.
“Meeting with Yang Li” is the first of our video interview series. Coming up: Greg Lauren.
Creative Direction: La Frenchy (Mary-Noelle Dana & Michael Hadida) for LECLAIREUR
Images: George Dragan
Edit: Charlie Rojo
Music: For All Intents and Purposes by Falling For Frankie (SuperPitch)
Additional images courtesy of Yang Li