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Designer Jason Li went from ice to fire, making his way from Harbin to Shenzhen, two geographical extremes in China. His story reflects a changing Chinese fashion scene which blends North and South, West and East, youth and experience.
We chatted with the creative director of Xin Interest Studio in the midst of Shenzhen Fashion Week 2018, where his designs were being shown. Recounting his past 17 years in the creative industry, Li shared style inspirations as well as difficulties encountered at a time when China’s fashion industry was still in limbo.
Fu: Tell me about your designs. Who or what inspires you?
Li: Design pieces that converse with both West and East make me think. A Shanghainese designer who also happens to be my mentor, Yi Hui, inspired me. His persistence in pursuing good quality – his studio focuses on entirely handmade Chinese menswear – gave me courage. Especially when he told me, “Xin, keep on making your Chinese-style fashion.”
Yi Hui does not open stores everywhere: quality over quantity. Although he does haute-couture luxury clothing, which give him money, I don’t. My pieces are for the younger generation, who do not have excessive purchasing power; even if they do, they won’t buy ultra-luxe.
For example, the T-shirt I am wearing is a gift at [our] events. Even if some people want to buy it, I don’t sell it. I want to influence people with my idea of ‘New Life’ instead of just selling clothes.
What is ‘New Life’?
First, it comes from my first decade of experience working at first-rate international luxury brands. As I went, I found out that the customers did not know what they were actually buying – they were not aware of what styles to pursue in life.
So I wanted to do clothes that are appropriate to wear according to the occasion, and to add a ceremonial feeling to everyday life for my customers. Appropriateness is the first element: [customers should] buy things that suit their income level instead of saving three months for an expensive bag.
Second, New Life is also tailored for people that are already materially fulfilled. Those people also need a harmonious, healthy and unrestricted life. I want my customers to be open to try alternative colors, for example, to allow a customer that always says “I can only wear black” to wear something else.
In particular, many of my Harbin customers tend to spend a large amount on styling, yet the look in the end is not aesthetically appealing. My team and I are here to teach them how to balance their garments with accessories, bags, and proper perfumes.
What distinguishes you from other designers?
Interaction. Most Chinese designers authoritatively decide on the themes they want to create, but my studio promotes a culture. For example, the Chinese dragon T-shirt I am wearing right now is a very normal T-shirt. But with the ‘New Life’ [philosophy] and my design, this T-shirt has meaning.
Inside my collar, I embroidered, ‘don’t forget the beginning,’ which encourages people to protect the purity of their initial feelings. It is a new year’s resolution, too. At the back is a demon. Everybody has a bad side, which I think should be hidden. We need to show our positive side to people. This is also a part of ‘New Life.’
These meanings endow my customers with a mission. I also try to use environmentally-friendly traditional Chinese zharan [coloring techniques] in the new piece too, which is special as well.
When you just started, I am sure it wasn’t easy, especially two decades ago.
It was really difficult. I started in Harbin with two floors for my brand. At first, nobody bought my clothes – people didn’t understand. They were into international brands. We lost money for many years; only recently did we start to see profits.
But I stayed and insisted on what I wanted to do. My sister is also a designer. In our early years, she was in Shenzhen, so I actually came to Shenhen to work with her. We did brands like Chanel, Gucci, etc.
It was good money, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. So I went back to Harbin to stay with my local crowd. At first, I sold what other designers had given to me. As I gradually tapped the pulse of fashion sales, I could foresee the next best-selling types of clothes and I often bounced back details back to the designers to modify.
In the end, my co-workers said, “Xin, you are so good at designing, why don’t you start creating a brand yourself?”
So I started. Before fashion design, I did hair styling. Then makeup. Then garments. Then a positive outlook. I think elegance comes from the heart, so I started to promote [certain] thoughts and states of mind. My clothes are accoutrements of the culture.
What’s next for you?
I never thought about selling over the whole country or expanding overseas. I just want to do it well and do it locally. Maybe there are chances to go big, but I’d rather use my [time] to influence my local community. Friends from Shenzhen always say, “[Jason], Harbin does not have a fashion scene. Come to Shenzhen.”
I know that, but I’m persevering in what I want to do. The taste in garments of many Chinese people, especially those in Harbin, are still undeveloped. I have much to work on.
Follow Li on Weibo here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Images via Jason Li]