PARIS — Designer Yang Li was standing outside his rather sterile showroom on a narrow stone street amid the elegant architecture of the fashion world’s capital, taking a break from the droning task of looking at clothes, selling clothes and talking about clothes to have a cigarette. Li’s shoulder-length black hair, parted down the center, hangs across his back. He wears several small silver hoops in his ears and his black shirt is buttoned to his neck. And he is still. Calm. Tranquil.
The demeanor he presents on a sunny afternoon at the beginning of fall when the fashion world is spinning at a frenetic speed is that of someone unwilling to be rushed or overwhelmed. No matter that every aspect of his chosen industry exudes impatience above all else. Even his voice is a soothing alto, with an accent that is an amalgam of East and West. His inflections are the sum of his experiences — born in China; lived in Perth, Australia; studied in London. Works in Paris.
Who is this guy? Mention his name and most consumers respond: Yang who? Well, he is a comer. He is a fashion designer just beginning his career. His modest company is self-financed; each retailer he wins over registers like a home run. He is a young man with an alluring point of view, unwavering focus and a back story that reflects the ever-rising influence of China in the luxury trade.
China is the world’s leading consumer of luxury goods — its landscape rapidly filling with designer boutiques and primed for growth. But it does not give nearly as much as it gets. Few of China’s designers have moved beyond their local market. Li is part of a new generation of Chinese designers determined to play internationally. And he is aiming at the highest level.
He has the audacity to work in fashion’s rarefied air, where a pair of trousers can cost $1,000. He is boldly creative — collaborating with performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who is out to eradicate, merge, blur gender through body modification. Li incorporated P-Orridge’s poetry into his spring 2015 collection: “So destroy the expected.” Li has done just that. And in return, he is finding success.
Li’s sensibility and his methodology are drafted from his peripatetic life. (“If I was still in China,” Li says, he would be creating “knockoffs, traditional clothes.”) Each time he moved, he had to start over. And in those moments of lonely silence, “with no friends,” he explored, listened and studied. But Li doesn’t romanticize feeling like an outsider. He prefers the edifying aspects of community.
“It’s not about staying an outsider,” he says. “When the environment accepts you, you learn.” And so, his clothes are informed by Western tailoring, Australian skater culture, punk subversiveness and dreamy romance. But his work ethic, his belief in the impossible, he attributes to his time in China. It gave him patience, he says, and the ability to see the long view — mostly because there was no other choice.
Li, 26, established his eponymous collection in 2011, mounting his first runway show in Paris last year. He moved from start-up to a fully realized brand in what seemed like a blink of the eye; his label includes men’s and women’s attire as well as shoes. But it is the women’s clothes that are, for the moment, the center of attention. He put them on the runway at the Jeu de Paume — a contemporary art museum and one of this city’s statelier locations for a fashion show.
After all, he has not come to disrupt the system or bend it to his will, but rather to excel within it. His clothes bridge a divide between polished and rough, cold perfection and the humanity of imperfection. Li believes every seam and every embellishment “is a study of human behavior,” with all of its flaws and failures.
Li, a frustrated musician, uses the difference between a recorded song and a live performance as an analogy. “When you listen to a CD, everything is perfect,” he says. “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.”
“If something is so perfect,” Li says, ‘it becomes almost emotionless.”
Li’s clothes don’t reference nostalgia, pay homage to a lost bit of history or attempt to reinvent another era. They are decidedly of the here and now, reflecting a world that still uses tailoring as a mark of formality, motorcycle jackets as a statement of rebelliousness and fluidity as a defining characteristic of femininity.
“We bought his first collection,” says Dominic Marcheschi, co-owner of the influential Chicago boutique Blake. “At first, it was almost uniform-like. But it evolved away from that. . . . Today, it does have a feminine edge to it. But it’s not about pretty clothes. So much is about pretty dresses and girly dresses. This is tailored.” These clothes are tough.
Li was born in Beijing in 1987, and for the first 10 years of his life, he lived beyond the reach of popular culture, modern communications and the global community. He was isolated by China’s Cultural Revolution, laws and politics. It would be 10 years before he would know his mother.
“She gave birth and left after three months. She had the opportunity to get out and be a translator,” Li says. “During the ’80s in China, it was not easy to get out.” So, she seized the moment and moved to Perth, Australia.
His father’s side of the family, Li says, was Communist. His dad was a ping-pong player and worked in China’s government. “I was in Beijing for the formative years,” Li says. “You start to build a work ethic; you start to build patience.” The time without his mother “gave me an earlier maturity. What I take from that period is: Nothing of value comes without being earned.”
In 1997, Li joined his mother in Perth, where he experienced a new kind of isolation defined by language and culture. “Australia was all about nature and the extreme action sports,” Li says. He connected with a group of skaters and became enthralled with standing out as an individual while remaining part of a community.
“You have your group or crew. You all want to belong, but be different,” Li says. “There are all these little nuances. [Based on] the type of jeans you wear, I can tell the kind of tricks you do.
“That’s how I got into clothing: I’d think, if I have this kind of jean, it changed the way I walked,” he says. “It’s how I discovered the power of dress.”
In 2007, Li moved to London and enrolled in the undergraduate fashion program at Central Saint Martins, which counts designers such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and John Galliano among its alumni. He left school early to work for Raf Simons, whose forging of street culture with high style Li admired. Soon after, Li set out on his own. “When I started, I was 23,” Li says. The “naivete of youth creates a sense of braveness.”
Over time, Li has become an internationalist. Ask him where he calls home and it takes a few minutes before he settles on London. He has leapt forward to where China’s fashion industry is heading.
“The last few years is the fastest-growing period,” says Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China. “When I launched Vogue 10 years ago, we wanted to run a regular column devoted to Chinese designers. It was hard to find designers good enough to be presented alongside international brands. Now, there are too many.”
Many of those designers — who number in the dozens — have studied abroad, as well as in China. They have offices in Paris or London. They’re connected to social media, fluent in English and adept at self-promotion.
Even with a recent slowdown in sales of high-priced attire and accessories, China remains a market where fashion is voraciously consumed and unabashedly fetishized as totems of success.
Increasingly, it’s Chinese celebrities, such as Li Bingbing, Fan Bingbing and Shu Qi, who create turbulence at fashion week with all the media and handlers following in their wake. As American guests sit wondering who’s who, photographers jockey to capture these impeccably groomed young women.
The country is shaking off negative connotations that the “Made in China” label is synonymous with poor quality as pricey brands such as Prada, Michael Kors and Coach have set up production there. And the Council of Fashion Designers of America established an exchange program that has sent New York-based designers to China and brought Chinese designers — Uma Wang and Masha Ma — to New York.
“In the early years, people just wanted to wear the obvious labels and logos. . . . That generation of consumers has moved on,” Cheung says. “Now, they have a lot of clothes in their wardrobe. . . . They say, ‘Yes, I can buy a Louis Vuitton bag, but I can wear a Chinese designer’s clothing just because I like it.’ It all comes with confidence and experience.”
Chinese designers’ global reach is just beginning, Cheung says. The scale remains small.
But Yang Li’s collection, which is available in the Washington area at Relish in Georgetown, stands out. “He’s very serious about what he does,” Blake’s Marcheschi says. “I think he might make it to another level.”
As a kid, if someone had asked Li about fashion, he’d have said it was an industry of evening gowns. He briefly studied law to please his parents. He dabbled in music. “I don’t have a talent for music. I tried to play music before. I don’t have the balls to stand up in front of people and perform,” Li says. “The light doesn’t fall well enough on my face to act.”
Fashion became his creative outlet — the runway his stage. Fashion wooed him, and he was smitten.
“For 10 minutes, every six months, I get to say or do things I couldn’t in reality,” Li says. “I get to write a love letter.”