As an Asian designer, Li felt it was the right time. “People are starting to realize that there is diversity within the Asian group … not just a single … perspective [or] kind of beauty,” Li told Yahoo Lifestyle. Li grew up in New Zealand, where, she says, she was “surrounded by the mountains, fields of flowers, and low-lying clouds.” But she was a minority, and she didn’t reflect the Asian stereotype.
“I had maybe three Asian girls in my high school, and so people always thought, you’re good at math, you’re good at science, you’re smart, you don’t go out at night,” Li says. “Well, guess what, I drove without a license. … I played field hockey. … I sang in a metal band.” At one point, Li said, she ran away with a “cute surfer for a month” and her dad had to drag her home.
Clearly, she’s far from what people might expect from her as an Asian woman. “We all have different personalities,” Li said. “There are Asian girls [who] listen to punk; Asian girls who listen to hip-hop.” Li wanted to represent this diversity in her show.
This moment was also huge for Li because, though she has presented eight collections at NYFW in the past, this was her first runway show. Memories of growing up in New Zealand and her mother’s lush garden inspired this very personal collection. When the designer was a child, her room had a sliding door that opened straight into her mother’s flowers. “When I was a toddler … I would walk around in my mom’s garden, and all the flowers just seemed gigantic to me.” The flowers in Li’s collection were inspired by New Zealand’s Mount Cook lily. The soft, buttercup-yellow flower was reimagined as embroidery and 3D lace floral appliqués on dresses, blouses, and coats.
The collection felt excitingly fresh and modern, but still displayed Li’s signature touches: exaggerated sleeves, wide-legged trousers, and exquisite layering. The palette veered between rich and vibrant colors like magenta and cobalt to soft shades like pale yellow, nude, and classic white. Colorful ropes were the connective tissue tying the looks together. They were used around tops, and to cinch up blouses and belt dresses; they dangled like tassels from clutched handbags.
Claudia Li has long been known for her clothing “sets”: two- or three-piece items that pair seamlessly. Li — a busy New York City woman herself — offered these sets to help make dressing easier, with no time wasted in trying to determine what goes with what. In this collection the idea has evolved. “This season we broke it up and it’s a wardrobe,” Li said.
The push for racial diversity in fashion has made strides, but few and far between. In 2017, Kenzo’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim cast 83 Asian models to show their Spring 2018 collection. It’s the only other example of large Asian representation compared with how many shows featuring all-white model casts? Probably too many to count.
Awkwafina, star of Crazy Rich Asians, sat front row for this historic show, which was symbolic for many reasons. The film, released this summer, is a major advance for Asian representation in Hollywood. It has since shattered box-office records, becoming the most successful romantic comedy in nine years and grossing over $160 million worldwide so far.
Claudia Li is now part of a group of forward-thinkers pushing the envelope in fashion, film, and the other arts. Hopefully, her show is only the first of many more diverse moments to come.
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