Fashion Week

Auckland designer Claudia Li was behind one of the most inclusive runways at New York Fashion Week

Article by Fashion Quarterly

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An inclusive cast of models walked the runway for Claudia Li at New York Fashion Week, in pieces that drew on memories of the designer’s New Zealand childhood. Their creator lets us in on her dream world.

In Claudia Li’s childhood Auckland home, a secret garden could be accessed through a door in her bedroom. Wandering outside, the young fashion-designer-to-be would look
up to see a vibrant mix of colourful petals under the bright blue sky.

“We had a very long, narrow driveway leading to the house from the street, and as a child with a very active imagination, it seemed like it led me into a hidden world,” she recalls.

“Even now, I still have vivid, colourful memories of walking out [into the garden] from the vantage point of a small child, experiencing all the flowers and blooms from close to the ground.”

Photos: Julian Ungano & Tommy Agriodimas

These memories recently made it down the runway, for Claudia’s show at New York Fashion Week in September. Transported to her new US hometown, her mother’s flowers and iconic New Zealand flora came to life. A canopy of scaled-up Mount Cook lilies, a signature oversized print, unfurled over cotton tunic dresses, strong collared shirts and elevated parkers in nostalgic buttercup and sky blue.

There’s a reason Claudia’s hedonistic, hazy prints are softened with long clouds of white – until recently, the 30-year-old hadn’t returned to New Zealand for 14 years. Her childhood home recedes into the background of a standout screen print, a distant memory overgrown with lilies and tucked back into golden hills.

Model Jiya Kwon backstage at Claudia Li’s New York Fashion Week show, wearing a print inspired by Mount Cook lilies.

“Growing up in New Zealand, some of the natural elements that you can enjoy here haven’t left me – the flowers, the skies, the waters that are truly unlike anywhere else in the world,” she says. “Now that I live in New York, I have much more perspective on how special that is, and it often comes out in the patterns and colour palettes I use.”

The Spring 2019 collection is a chronicle of a New Zealand Narnia, but with one vital twist – it’s not what’s beyond the wardrobe, but what’s in it that tells the most interesting story. Combining an artistic aesthetic with fashion looks, including wide shirt sleeves, oversized trouser legs and asymmetrical seams, the Claudia Li closet is full of finer details as well as personal sentiments.

Claudia designs for confident women who appreciate global design and true self-expression. The multi-hyphenate Busy Philipps (actor, writer, producer and director), Karlie Kloss (model and entrepreneur) and Awkwafina (actor and rapper) are among those who have embraced the outdoors-inspired brand for women on the move, which officially launched in 2015.

Photos: Julian Ungano & Tommy Agriodimas

“They’re real women who have lives and careers and, yes, while they’re in the spotlight, they also have things to do,” says Claudia. “I love that our clothing speaks to that mindset.”

Other pinch-me moments include Bella Hadid being seen in two different Claudia Li coats in 2017, the same year Claudia was a finalist for the prestigious International Woolmark Prize and landed a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Art & Style list. “At unexpected times like that, there’s always such a validating rush when you see someone you respect select a garment you’ve designed.”

“Growing up in New Zealand, some of the natural elements that you can enjoy here haven’t left me – the flowers, the skies, the waters that are truly unlike anywhere else in the world.”

Born in China and raised in Singapore and New Zealand by an art dealer father and opera singer mother, Claudia’s world view came into focus through artists’ eyes. “Creativity wasn’t something they taught me, it was how they lived their lives,” she says of her parents. “I wasn’t raised in the type of household where I had to rebel against my parents because I wanted to be a painter or in a rock band. They really were my champions without hesitation, and I feel quite lucky for that.”

Photos: Julian Ungano & Tommy Agriodimas

At 18, Claudia studied painting in Beijing before moving onto fashion design at London’s Central Saint Martins and New York’s Parsons School of Design. Internships with designer Brandon Maxwell, when he was the stylist for Haus of Gaga (the Lady’s creative team) and tenure as womenswear designer at JW Anderson further entwined her interest in art and fashion. (The electrifying magenta she used in her Spring collection is a homage to a painting of her mother.)

“Fashion design felt like a more satisfying medium for me, because the output is a commercial garment that gets worn every day worldwide, and over time you can establish a singular point of view and proposition,” she says. “Craft tradition, art and modern design are where a lot of my inspiration comes from and I believe there’s a very smart customer who responds to this.”

Claudia’s using her position to make a positive impact. Together with casting director Edward Kim, she made headlines for booking an all-Asian cast for her 35-model-strong runway show, a move they made to highlight the diversity among Asian women.

Photos: Julian Ungano & Tommy Agriodimas

“It was a point of view on beauty that I inherently understand, that I grew up with, and that looked like me,” says Claudia. “It absolutely helped that this choice tied into a larger cultural conversation about how Asian women are represented in media and society.”

With seven employees and a network of 30-plus suppliers creating garments in New York, Claudia is future-focused – she’s aiming to grow her relationship with customers and stockists worldwide, including Moda Operandi, and her own e-store.

Living in midtown Manhattan, when Claudia walks out the door these days she’s greeted with the intense current of the city streets, global commerce, tourism, art and architecture. Will she ever return to fantastical New Zealand? “It’s too far down the road to tell, but I can imagine that any child of mine would need to spend at least part of their childhood in New Zealand.”

Words: Jessica-Belle Greer
Photos: Julian Ungano & Tommy Agriodimas

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