Claudia Li grew up far from her studio on 39th Street in Manhattan’s fading garment district. She lived in New Zealand and Singapore before moving to London to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins. After graduation, she moved to New York. Then back to London. Then back to New York. Her accent might be described as “continental Kiwi”: difficult to pinpoint, diluted a long way from home.
An only child, Li, 32, visited her mother in New Zealand last year, her first trip back in more than a decade. Even since founding her womenswear line in 2015, she’s rarely encountered anyone in fashion from her part of the world. “We had a model this season from New Zealand,” Li says. “She was like, ‘I hear a little bit of Kiwi in you.’ She was a mix, too: half Chinese, half Caucasian New Zealand.”
She describes her aesthetic as “comfortable,” but it’s an eccentric mix of loud prints, street and athletic influences, and distinctive shapes, like a slouchy drop-shoulder coat with a slightly nipped waist. She geeks out over technical fabrics, grabbing a UV flashlight to demonstrate how a logo knit changes color in the sun. Last spring, her collection included a solid-colored raincoat that, when wet, revealed an umbrella motif and logo. “I like technical, funky, hidden things,” she says.
Li’s studio consists of four employees, including herself. Together, they handle design, production, and business, the last of which, Li admits, gets more challenging every day. For a while, she felt engaged in a tug-of-war between commercial pressures and her creative instincts. “In the beginning,” she says, “I was expressing myself and telling a story,” until stores, buyers, and showrooms started telling her she had to do things a certain way. “Then I went a little off the rails.”
For spring 2020, Li committed to her own vision. She cut down from four yearly collections to two and designed exactly what she wanted. Going rogue brought back some of the stores that originally stocked Li’s garments but took a pass after her more commercial seasons. Now, Li handles sales herself.
In the five years since launching her collection, Li has made a name for herself as one of the brightest young designers in New York. Being 9,000 miles away from her hometown hasn’t fazed her. She laces her work with references to her family members, all of whom are connected to the arts. Her mother sings opera, her dad is an art dealer, and her grandfather was a musician who played eight different instruments.
After her grandfather passed away last year, Li channeled her grief into inspiration for her fall 2020 ready-to-wear collection. One graphic print she created illustrates the sounds made by an ehru, the instrument she remembers him playing most. Goldfish, which she saw at the pet store he often took her to, appear as a print on fluid dresses and crystal embroidery on a denim jacket. There are lots of colorful plaids. “In almost every photo I have of him, he’s wearing some sort of plaid,” Li says. “He had a quirky sense of humor, a bit sarcastic and playful. I want people to feel happy when they see the collection, just like he was.”
After Saint Martins, she earned her M.F.A. at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In 2013, she interned for Brandon Maxwell at Haus of Gaga, a starkly different experience from her subsequent gig, with Jonathan Anderson at JW Anderson in London. “Brandon is very chill and everyone is very loving. At JW, it was tough,” she says. “I don’t want to spend every day like that. In my studio, everyone’s laughing all the time. We’re having fun.”
She’s still thriving. “I sent 200 emails yesterday,” she says. “I’ve been sort of timid. I think it’s an Asian thing. Your family always says, ‘Oh, you need to be respectful and polite.’ After a few years in this industry, I don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Photographs by Ryan Plett.
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.