When you meet designer Claudia Li, the sharp craftsmanship, voluminous silhouettes, and cute design quirks of her eponymous label all of a sudden seem to make sense. The pint-sized powerhouse is a force to be reckoned with. With her pink hair and colour-coordinated Care Bears phone case it’s easy to see how her outward strength and resilience has enabled her label to thrive during this challenging time. The 32-year-old, Chinese-born, New Zealand-raised designer recently returned home to Aotearoa after fifteen years overseas — the majority of which was spent in New York. Li escaped just before the Covid-19 pandemic caused the city that never sleeps to shut down.
“Things got a bit insane — stores were closing, we got cancelled orders, we were stuck with inventory. My mum was calling constantly asking me, ‘Come home, what are you doing over there?’ so I said to my husband, ‘You know what? Let’s go back for a bit’,” Li recalls. Fast forward to the recent New York Fashion Week unveiling of her autumn/winter 2021 campaign, ‘Homecoming’, and you can see the slight Kiwi sensibilities that influenced the collection. Yes, there is bold colour, and a more-is-more approach to volume and layers — but the glitter, embellishments and otherworldly textiles seen in Li’s previous collections have been replaced with knitwear, jersey, and corduroy.
‘Homecoming’ marks Li’s first collection designed in Aotearoa, and her first campaign shot in Tāmaki Makaurau. Much like most of the designer’s previous collections, ‘Homecoming’ is inspired by her upbringing and her New Zealand high school experience — more specifically the fun and youthful glamour of the prom-esque high school dances. “This is the collection where I felt like I went back to the beginning [of my design journey]. I felt liberated, I felt like I just didn’t really care: Would it sell? Would it not? Whatever, the world is in sh*t right now, let’s enjoy and celebrate the things that we can.”
The design liberation that Li felt closely paralleled the freedom of her return to New Zealand. “I think somewhere in between these past six years [of Claudia Li], I went from: ‘I’m going to express myself, I’m going to celebrate because I love fashion, it’s fun making clothes, it’s what I want to do’, to ‘Oh my god, is this going to sell?’” Li explains. “As a young designer, when you first start a brand , you’re like: ‘Wow, this is [all about] me, me, me! It’s all about expressing yourself!’ And, well, you know what? People are going to tell you: ‘We would like to see this, more of this, less of this, oh maybe you should try this, maybe you should do this,’ or if something doesn’t sell, it’s like: ‘This didn’t sell, so can we have it as this colour?”
Li recalls a rather unpleasant Claudia Li Vogue Runway review from 2018: “It was really bad. That was the season where I was like: Oh…okay, I’ve got to stop doing this [what I wanted to design], and do this [what others told me I should be doing].”
It heavily influenced Li to listen to her industry peers — highly regarded fashion critics and international buyers alike — and for a few seasons, she did exactly that. “Everything became smaller and more monochrome. I listened way too much — and it didn’t work out in the end. It made everything worse. There were a lot of people in my ear,” she says.
It wasn’t until Li’s spring 2019 show that the designer realised she could use fashion as a vehicle for joy and connection, and create real impact within her community. The designer sent her collection down the runway on a cast of all-Asian female models.
Alongside the first (of many) presentations that felt closer to home—the collection’s key print was of the New Zealand-native Mount Cook lily. Li felt she needed to be represented by not only herself but different types of Asian women, rejecting what Li describes as a common Asian female experience: that we all are, and look, the same. The response was mind-blowing, with Li’s Instagram flooded with messages of praise from the Asian-American community at the sense of belonging that they felt to see their people represented on the New York Fashion Week stage — not just as a token inclusion, but as a whole community.
“I was very inspired by those messages — by connection. That was the first time I felt I had actually connected with my audience on a deeper level,” says Li. “That was a turning point for me when I realised: ‘I’m just going to do me, and not listen to all that crap’.”
Li is a regular commentator in international fashion media on the rise of the current anti-Asian hate crimes, and sees her brand as a platform for change. “We need to sit down and talk to our community about [these crimes]. We need to speak out. I feel like we’re always told we would be okay with it, and not cause any trouble.
That’s how my grandparents taught my parents, but I’m not like that. It’s not okay, and I can actually say that. And that’s what I’m trying to say with my collections now, it [the criticism] wasn’t okay, but I was taking it. I was taking a beating for years, and now I’m like: ‘Nope, not doing it’.”
Since Claudia Li spring 2019, her design evolution has, as Li describes, come “full circle”. She’s gone back to her roots — as the daughter of fine artists and art dealers, she’s rediscovering her love for art, with fashion as her medium.
And her inspiration? Family, always. “To me, being a designer or being a brand is expressing yourself, trying to tell the story of you. Whatever my collection looks like, it all comes from my experiences and my upbringing, and my interaction with the world.”
Li says of her design journey: “I kind of lost myself a little bit along the way, which now I think is a good thing, because I’m more certain now than ever that I’m just going to do me. I just wanted to find a reason again, and the reason — with ‘Homecoming’ — was to simply create again.”
This article was originally published in Fashion Quarterly Winter 2021.