Stylist: Sarah Zendejas
The designer Claudia Li was putting the last touches on the collection she would soon be showing at New York Fashion Week when she took a moment to reflect.
“There’s this feeling I get when a model puts on my work where there’s a sort of heart-racing, breathtaking moment where, I don’t know, I just want to cry,” she said.
You'd be hard-pressed to find many designers of the New York scene speak so earnestly about fashion, but Li has reasons to be optimistic. Although she's 27, a relatively late age to start a label, she's finding traction as an emerging designer, with Opening Ceremony picking up her spring collection and Converse sponsoring her presentation today at ArtBeam in Chelsea.
“Everybody’s starting their own line, fresh out of school sometimes, and I kind of feel old because the young designers I know are like 22, 23,” she said at her studio near Union Square on Monday morning.
A couple of days before she unveiled the collection, Li – a third culture kid who was born in China, raised in New Zealand and Singapore, and speaks with an Aussie accent – was the picture of calm in slouchy jeans and a sweatshirt. Unlike other young designers, she's had some time to figure out her interests and shake off pre-show jitters. A former painter, she gave up the canvas in her early 20's while studying at Central Saint Martins in London.
“For me, painting wasn’t fully there. So that’s how I got into fashion," she said.
Having checked off a master's at Parsons School of Design, Li interned with Brandon Maxwell, Lady Gaga's stylist and himself an emerging designer, albeit one with a much higher profile. And eventually, someone else who decided she was ready for something more: Jonathan Anderson.
“He found my Parsons graduation collection online, and I freelanced for him for two seasons," Li said. “And then he offered me a job as womenswear designer, so I basically packed up everything and went to London.”
After a year working with Anderson at his namesake label, and harboring her own ambitions to start a label, she took a risk: "I just thought, I want to do this. I’m ready.” So, she quit, flew to New York, and with the support of her father, an art dealer, she designed three collections, showing a presentation last season in New York, at the much smaller Pop14 space in the Meatpacking District.
Even in her student work, Li has always been interested in elaborate fabric work by hand. “Crafts are dying, and they’re very close to my heart,” she explained. Case in point: last season, she spent five to six days weaving each piece on a “tiny little wooden loom” less than two feet wide. The collection before that featured yarn embroidery, which Li stitched with oversized needles.
In her latest, handwoven panels feature prominently, and Li enlisted a weaver to help her design team with all of the paneling, layering, and wrapping to communicate a theme of self-preservation.
"This collection is a reflection of when I was going through a really difficult time last year, so I felt I had to protect myself," she said. "When everything is falling apart in your life, the only thing you can do is save yourself."
At least for Li, that seems to have worked. And while she’s eager to grow her label, she prefers to approach it like a marathon not a sprint.
“I definitely do have ambitions, but I want to take it slow,” she said. “I’m very chill,” she added, laughing. That's another thing that experience's taught her.
Hair and makeup: Hiro Yonemoto for Oribe and Chanel Rouge Coco at Atelier Management. Model: Valerija Sestic at Elite NYC. Sittings editor: Sarah Zendejas. Produced by Biel Parklee.