* This article first appeared on i-D as part of our collaborative series
“Everything happens so fast.” The upbeat voice of Andrea Jiapei Li falters for the first time in the forty-five minutes we’ve spent speaking over Skype. It’s a Saturday afternoon in grey London where I sit; mid-morning in New York, from where Andrea, 26, and her business partner Weishi, 30, are calling. The past year has been tremendously busy for the young designer, and as she sits in her Hell’s Kitchen studio on a weekend, you sense cracks beginning to show. “I’m so crazy every day. It’s difficult to even find a couple of hours each week to skype my parents and just say hi. Things are little bit hard right now.”
So goes the routine of a rising fashion darling. Just two years have passed since the Parsons graduate debuted at New York Fashion Week, a collection so well received that Dover Street Market co-founder Rei Kawakubo immediately bought the lot. Two collections have followed since then, alongside two award nominations from H&M and LVMH respectively. Revered consultant, Julie Gilhart, is a fan and mentor – so is LOVE editor, Katie Grand – and stockists continue to grow on an international stage. All this, before her fourth collection has even launched. She’s right; things really do happen fast.
“We’ve named the new collection Back In the Day,” Li explains, carefully. Having joined Parsons from China, her English is still being perfected. “We’ve carried on themes from last season, as we wanted AW16 to have the same mood. There’s new inspiration from 90’s hip-hop culture, but the aim was to connect two stories together.”
“Sometimes there is a story that you feel needs more than one collection to tell,” Weishi expands. The NYU Stern graduate is on hand throughout our conversation, but never in a heavy-handed way. “For us it isn’t all about design references. We want each of our collections to reflect a certain spirit,” she continues. “It’s more about an attitude.” In this case, that spirit is an opportunistic one. “We were thinking about kids, and childhood, and wanted to capture that feeling of being young and very comfortable,” says Andrea. “It’s that feeling of trying to bring back yourself, and the happiness that comes with that.”
Nostalgia plays a key role then, despite Li’s creations having a distinctly modern feel. From day one, technical fabrics have been a mainstay, out of a desire from Andrea to constantly create something new. Urban influences are synonymous too, and a subconscious result of the designer’s time in New York. Architecture is plentiful – neoprene in particular often creates satisfying volume – but those shapes have become cleaner and more refined over time. The development of Li as a designer outside the walls of Parsons is clear, with the ambitious, sometimes challenging details of her graduate show giving way to a more commercial style. “It’s no longer student work,” she asserts. “We’re not students anymore.”
The collection itself is full of expression, with broad silhouettes, oversized sleeves, and floor-skimming trouser hems. Colours are primary, but details are playful, with knee patches cut out and slogans, “SO WHAT” and, “BACK IN THE DAY” emblazoning a top and jacket. One model sports patent, elbow length yellow gloves, reminiscent of a housewife. Though Li might insist that influences are subtle (the duo prefers inspiration to be inconspicuous) the effect of kids playing grown-up permeates. Andrea’s career is moving forward at lightning speed, but she looks to be seeking the comfort and certainty of a childhood she had to leave behind prematurely.
This begins to make sense when you learn that it was never Li’s plan to start her label immediately after graduating. Though she expresses tenfold how grateful and humbled she is by her success, the fact it was thrust upon her is evident. “I really appreciate the opportunities,” she begins, “but I am also slightly nervous. I just graduated from school. Right now, I think we need… to just calm down a little bit, because we still have a lot to learn, to be honest.”
The pace at which a star can rise is not the sole pressure on young designers; though success can bring sponsorship, financials remain pivotal, and there are only so many platforms from which to jump. “I’m personally very envious of the resources young designers have in London,” Weishi tells me. “The Centre for Fashion Enterprise, the British Fashion Council… for a super young brand, there are a lot of options. In New York, we only really have CFDA, and that’s really for brands that are a few years old. The challenge for most, is actually surviving those first few years, before you can take advantage of that.”
The brand has so far been able make use of MADE, an IMG owned platform for fledgling designers which offers venue sponsorship on the New York Fashion Week schedule. Though they are modest about this, it’s quite a feat; only a dozen or so designers are offered a space. Still, despite being approached by the group for a second time, this season they have chosen not to show at all. “There were reasons to focus on other things right now,” explains Andrea. “We don’t have a large budget, so we need to focus on the fashion.” Her partner agrees: “even though MADE has been very generous, we’ve realised that there are so many additional costs. Plus, there are so many brands skipping presentations these days – it makes you think about other ways to get your collection out there.”
Is the fashion show dead? “As it’s traditionally defined, it may be,” Weishi retorts. “I think in a broader sense, people are rethinking what, ‘fashion show’ means. Big name retailers are now selling direct to consumers from the catwalk. I think shows will become more sales driven, rather than targeted at the press. We’ve decided to create a video. It’s just another way of providing a context and telling our story.”
“Every brand has a different situation,” Andrea interjects, “not everyone has to be on the same page. Fashion is an unlimited industry, and we don’t need to follow anyone.” Are they worried that less tech-savvy editors or buyers might miss the traditional physical presentation? No, is the short answer. “Some people might prefer a lookbook,” muses Weishi, “but I know there are also people who want to take things a step further, and really learn what we were thinking about for the collection. Each to their own.”
This choice feels as another marker of what Andrea Jiapei Li is as a brand, something the pair is constantly developing. The word, ‘process’ is raised numerous times through our conversation, whether in relation to Andrea completing the MFA, or presenting her collection to idols J.W. Anderson and Phoebe Philo at LVMH. In either case, learning remains high on the agenda. “Finding a balance between the art and the business remains the biggest challenge,” Andrea admits. “We like to spend more time focusing on the concept.”
“You would think having a design person and a business-minded person would make it easier,” Weishi agrees. “But I think what we’ve learned is that arts vs. business isn’t a black or white choice. There is a wide spectrum, and you have to work out where on that spectrum fits you. Trial and error is the only way to do that.”
Words by Hannah Rogers