Claudia Li designs clothing from an emotional place. But several months into the pandemic, the designer is considering rethinking everything.
For her Fall 2020 collection, the New York-based designer was inspired by memories of her late grandfather, for an unabashedly optimistic collection that showcased bold prints and a colorful palette of blues, yellows, and red. Six months prior, for her Spring 2020 collection, Li featured a photo print of her parents on the most standout pieces from the collection.
Li told me on the phone last week that she seeks to recreate the feeling. “It’s the idea of not going back to the past, but to bring the happiest moments and the fantasy from the past to present and into reality,” she said of the Spring 2021 collection that she’s currently working on, which is inspired by her intimate wedding in Hawaii.
Like many designers, Li was in the midst of working on the forthcoming collection when New York City was put under lockdown in March as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In the beginning, I was obviously panicking and scared, I think everyone was afraid,” she said. Since then, she has packed up the office, digitized the moodboards, and has been in constant communication with her now-remote team. She is “feeling a lot better” now, having had the time to reflect on the future of her business.
“Fashion has always been, you just keep going and don’t really take the time or a moment to breathe. Since March, it has felt that someone has pushed a pause button, and then, all of a sudden, it kind of stopped, and I really had to think and be like, Hey, what are we really doing here?” she said. “Before this, design-wise, I didn’t really overthink because decisions needed to be made. You just go with it. Nowadays, I really think about what is the reason that we’re doing this: Are we wasting fabric? Are we wasting resources? Do we really need another cocktail dress? Things like that, we didn’t really think about before because you have stores or like a retailer saying, ‘Can you make this? We love to see more of this.’ [Right now] I am not making things for the sake of making.”
This is a sentiment that many designers have expressed in the last two months, while also speaking out against the long-broken fashion system that has forced them to produce out of season and discount clothing, and paid little attention to supporting emerging designers like Li. “I think even before everything happened, fashion was already a failing system. I am really not afraid to say it because, at least for smaller brands like ours, it really wasn’t working at all,” Li says. “I really hope that the people who make the rules see what they could do for the smaller brands. For me, I really wish that people who have a say in the bigger things, they can realize that something is wrong with the system and it needs to be changed.”
In the meantime to keep the business afloat and her team in place — with no guidance or knowledge of what the future of fashion will hold, or what September’s NYFW will even look like — Li has had to find alternative ways to make sales, like experimenting with digital market appointments. “I think this is a chance for us to make our own rules in some ways. I don’t want to say, ‘Screw the system’ or whatever, it’s not that, but I do feel like we need a better system and for someone who has the power to say, ‘Hey, you know what, I am going to group everyone together and make it work for everyone,’” she says.
While working apart from her team has been difficult, according to Li, the biggest challenge has been seeing the racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination toward people of Asian descent. A Kiwi-Chinese designer who was raised in New Zealand and Singapore, Li has spent the last 10 years in New York. “I’ve always been sort of the outsider in every single place I went growing up. It was fine, like there was minor discrimination here and there, but it’s not like so much that I get mentally affected by it or like scared,” she says. “New York is the first place I felt like I belonged here. I don’t feel like I need to pretend to be something I am not or try to fit in because nobody fits in here. Everybody is different. But when this thing happened, there have been so many attacks on Asians. It’s the first time I felt like people are pushing me out.”
She recalled meeting up with two of her team members, who are also Asian, to pack online orders a few weeks ago, and noticing they were all wearing hats and glasses in addition to their masks. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, we are matching today!’ And one of them said, ‘No, I just want to hide my Asian-ness because I am scared.’ I never heard that in my life before this... and I felt the same. This has been the hardest part,” she said. “I really hope that everyone sees that no one wants to go through this, and we’re all in this together. In the end, it’s about being humans.”
It’s that desire to inspire more humanity during a time like this that has made her double down on the positivity that she wants her next collection to imbue. And while it was Li’s wedding, which she described as a “dream,” that was the starting point, it has now evolved into something more universal, with people looking toward the happiest version of themselves in the future. “Claudia Li girl has always been kind of a dreamer, she is a misfit in some ways but she dares to dream,” she said. “So I want to push the idea further — which is, yeah, right now we’re in sweatpants and pajamas all the time, but that dream of when we go out finally again we could actually be wearing whatever the hell we want.”
With a sentiment like that, Claudia Li is what we’ll want to be wearing when that time finally comes.