China’s Rising Star

Joseph Li Spring/Summer 2011 collection

I first met fashion designer Joseph Li several years ago when I was the fashion editor at the South China Morning Post. He styled some incredible fashion shoots for us and as I got to know him better, I discovered that he was also an immensley talented designer.

Since then his trajectory to success has been quick – he won numerous awards and became creative director at Shanghai Tang overseeing the women’s wear for several years. In 2010 he decided to focus on his own label and launched LiJoseph. I’ve been a loyal fan ever since.

What impresses me most about Joseph is that his work is of the same calibre as other big international designers.  He is proof that Asian designers aren’t just focused on the commercial and can create inspiring and thought provoking clothes that stand on their own.

Below is the profile I wrote about him for Surface Asia magazine. I hope you are as inspired as I was…

Designer Joseph Li’s atelier is crowded – but not with people. Located in Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, the modest sized space barely fits the workstation and small bench where a technician and pattern maker are busy at work. Instead, the rest of the room is filled top to bottom with piles of books, ranging from photography and art tomes to classics from architecture and fashion.

“I get my inspiration from everywhere, but I really love looking at books. I have a big collection covering all subjects. One consistently strong influence in my work is photography and my favourites are Mario Sorrenti and Helmut Newton,” says Li.

In a few short years, Li has grown into one of Hong Kong’s most talented designers and is currently making waves with his new label, LiJoseph. His first collection, which debuted for A/W 2010,  was immediately picked up by edgy Hong Kong boutique, JOYCE, thanks to its modern, sculpted yet imminently wearable pieces.  Li says his new line is quite a departure from his first brand, which he launched at the tender age of 23.

“I think it’s very different because it’s younger. I also decided to do this after completing a Masters – before that I never had the formal training. As such it’s more concept based and I use a very different approach,” he says.

Li started his fashion career as a stylist in his late teens working for esteemed publications such as the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong. Despite having no formal training, he launched his first brand of evening gowns in 1999 and retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in the United States immediately picked it up.

In 2002, after five seasons, Li decided it was time to learn his craft properly and moved to Paris to study design at the famed Studio Bercot. While there he was lucky enough to secure an internship with Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz for six months – an experience he calls “life changing.”

“Alber made me a better designer. It was a short period but the key thing I learnt was how to make clothes effortless. This philosophy has stayed with me throughout all my collections,” says Li.

Elbaz encouraged him to continue studying so he enrolled in a Masters programme at London’s Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. By this point his aesthetic was moving away from glamorous and refined to styles that were more focused on fabric, shape and craftsmanship.

In 2005, he relocated back to Hong Kong where he worked on various projects that won him awards such as Asian Designer of the Year at the China Fashion Awards. His big break came in 2008 when he joined international luxury label Shanghai Tang, as chief designer of women’s wear. In May last year, he left the company to pursue his own label for a second time.

“It’s more stressful for sure,” he says with a laugh. “When you’re working with a brand, you are working with what they have already established. When you start something new it’s about creating something that you need to build on. For the previous company I could play with an existing DNA whereas now I am building what I want the DNA to be. It’s more challenging.”

Li’s first collection featured rich, textured fabrics that were then moulded into pieces inspired by Spanish matadors, including high-waisted trousers and blouses with voluminous sleeves. For spring, he’s created 10 looks including and oversized white cotton shirtdress with a contrasting pleated jersey bib; oversized vest coats with exposed zippers; and colour blocked pleated bustiers with asymmetric hems that are paired with crisp cotton skirts.

“I took the colours – airy, pastel shades – from a photography book by Mark Bothwick. I also referred to one of Gavin Watson’s books so you can see punk influences and play on proportions in the oversized jackets. I always look at men’s wear as an inspiration – I like to mix and match.”

While fabric is integral to his designs, the beauty is in the details, whether that means wool tufts and mesh from his previous collection, or the Madame Gres inspired colourful micro-pleating and wraparound buckled leather belts in his current spring collection.

“It takes two to three months to design a collection and I always start with finding a few ideas that I wanted to explore for the season,” says Li of his design process.

“Then I begin researching images, which I later edit down. Fabrics come next and once they are selected I do some sketches, and then try it on the model. After that I confirm the looks what I want. The beginning is all about experimenting.”

Li is currently working on his third collection, which will explore the contrasts between uniforms and couture. His mood board features images ranging from Chairman Mao and The Pet Shop Boys to 1950s couture gowns.

“I am hoping it will be a mix of the first two seasons – the structure from the first and the looseness of the second. I want to propose something that people can mix and match it in their own way. It’s more interesting,” he says.

He is also hoping to build up his network of stockists although he wants to maintain the integrity and quality of his clothes by keeping his offerings tightly edited, much like his mentor Azzedine Alaia. Also on the cards is a potential move to China although he is hoping that his connection to Hong Kong will help inspire local talent.

“There are other talented designers in Hong Kong but the community doesn’t seem to support them here or encourage creativity. Unless that changes it will be hard to establish Hong Kong as a fashion capital.  I hope later on I can help do this,” he says.

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