Andrea Jiapei Li didn't set out to launch her own label immediately after graduating from Parsons's MFA program, but, in a major vote of confidence, Rei Kawakubo bought her graduate collection to stock at the revered Dover Street Market. Around the same time, she was named a finalist for the H&M Design Award and last February made her New York Fashion Week debut with VFiles, where she is also stocked. That same month, she became a finalist for the second LVMH Prize. And on Friday, the 26-year-old will show her third-ever collection as part of IMG's Made Fashion Week.
"I was very lucky to get picked up from Dover Street Market, and I thought maybe it's the right time to start... not a brand, but try to do something for fun," Li told me earlier this week. She wisely found a business partner from NYU Stern who had worked with the CFDA Incubator. That, along with encouragement from industry veterans she met through the H&M and LVMH competitions and support from VFiles, has kept Li's brand afloat so far.
While Made has helped with sponsorships, this is essentially Li's first time showing on her own, and it's been a challenge given her limited experience and small team — it's just her, her business partner and interns. "When you graduate from school, you're not a student anymore, you have to learn a lot of things. It's not just doing sketches anymore." That's where her business partner comes in. Li, who moved to New York from China for the Parsons program, is still perfecting her English. "I'm just a designer, I don't know a lot about business, but she's really good about those things, she can communicate with others and help me figure out how to do branding and make that look more professional."
For spring 2016, Li collaborated with an artist friend to create an installation of sorts. "It's a fashion presentation, but I don't want it to be too fashion. A person going through the space, maybe they don't want to focus on garments, they can also focus on the space."
They probably won't be able to help but look at the garments, though. The collection, which she's calling "Just Kids," looks awesome. It's a bit more subtle and feminine than her past collections, but it's still distinctive, with cool details like exaggerated off-the-shoulder necklines and extremely long sleeves. She doesn't consider her aesthetic to be sporty (a word many have used to describe her clothes), but she does like to incorporate sporty elements. Her clothes are almost Céline-esque in that they're surprising, but still super appealing.
Like many young designers, Li says one of her biggest challenges has been striking the right balance between art and commerce. "We use a lot of fabric and materials that are hard to transfer to the production part. You have to make your designs wearable and that's a challenge for us." She's focused more on wearability this season, and will also make more commercial pieces for production that won't be used in the presentation.
Li says her next hire will be someone who can oversee production, and that next season she hopes to add some "playful" handbags to the collection. "We don't want to define our brand as just womenswear," she said. She and her business partner are still in the early stages of defining what the brand is, and Friday's presentation is going to be an important one in terms of delivering that to the public. But Li says she isn't feeling the pressure — her business partner is likely more stressed. "I'm the kind of person [who likes to be] in a small room and focus on just design; that's more interesting for me."