A good yarn

A good yarn

From rubber-moulded knitwear to sparkly woollen jumpers, Xiao Li’s innovative textile creations have earned the Chinese fashion designer a cluster of awards and a well-earned slot at LFW

‘I liked shopping too much in high school. I loved walking around the stores and looking at beautiful dresses,’ confides Xiao Li of her formative years in the Chinese seaside city of Qingdao. ‘It’s a peaceful place and not super exciting, but interestingly enough a lot of designers and artists are from there.’ And from an early age she was destined to be one too. Today Li is a rising star of London Fashion Week, with a string of impressive global accolades to her name thanks to her experimental volumes and quirky materials. But this quietly confident designer has earned every bit of her success along the way.

Growing up the only child of a ‘traditional Chinese family’, her aunt – a fine art painter – introduced her to drawing as a child and she got hooked. ‘My mum wouldn’t let me use social media or read books that weren’t for school, so I spent half my time studying and half my time drawing.’ Her heart set on fashion, Li relocated to London to do the Womenswear BA at the London College of Fashion. ‘It was difficult at first, because I realised the English I’d learnt at home wasn’t practical, and being a fashion student takes up all of your time,’ she recalls. She found her fashion voice by experimenting with textiles. ‘I’ve always appreciated the best-quality fabrics, but to stand out you have to find your own way to make them. So for my final collection, I embroidered onto tailoring fabric and started hand knitting.’

‘The good thing about London is if you work and have talent, there are many platforms to support you’ Xiao Li

She was selected for the BA show and went on to the Womenswear Knitwear MA at the Royal College of Art. Despite not knowing how to machine knit – a prerequisite of the course – she caught up fast. ‘I worked hard. I couldn’t have worked harder. The earliest I’d leave college was 11pm. There was no time for boyfriends.’ Her dedication paid off in 2012 when she won the Pitti Filati Feel the Yarn competition for innovations in knitwear, with a collection of architectural, candy-hued pieces made from dip-dyed recycled denim.

Next she started playing with rubber as a means of adding further dimensions and strangeness to her knitwear. ‘I liked the feeling of the material, so I started making moulds of my jewellery and filling them with silicone, like baking a cake. And then I made moulds of my knitwear.’ This technique made her 2013 graduate collection stand out in more ways than one, securing her the Loro Piana Award for best knitwear collection and the International Talent Support Diesel Award. The latter also entailed a six-month internship at Diesel’s Italian HQ, where she created a capsule collection for Milan concept store 10 Corso Como. She followed this with a short stint at J.W.Anderson before launching her eponymous label.

Li received early support at London Fashion Week from talent incubator and off-schedule platform Fashion Scout, which has helped to launch the career of such luminaries as David Koma, Eudon Choi and William Tempest. ‘The good thing about London is that if you work and have talent, there are many platforms to support you.’ After winning the Merit Award in 2014, she showed for three seasons under Fashion Scout’s umbrella and forged her now-firm relationship with Toni&Guy, whose session teams cover most Fashion Scout shows. ‘I was lucky, because for my first show I wanted to do powder-pink hair, and it turned out that Efi Davies, Toni&Guy International Artistic Director, always has pink hair! I thought I’d have to find fake hair and dye it, but she introduced me to the label.m Colour Powder Sprays.’

‘My shoes are fun, so when I saw a lady of 60 or 70 wearing them it was amazing – someone that age liking my work’ Xiao Li

In 2015 Li was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH Prize and won the Mercedes-Benz China Designer Award, which allowed her to move to an on-schedule show at London Fashion Week for AW16. The concise collection continued her love affair with large proportions in the form of sweeping wrap wool coats, flouncy tunics and large sparkly jumpers enveloping bellbottom trousers in delicious shades of lavender, cherry, violet and putty. Ruffles, wraps, oversized lace and velvet created luxurious, tactile combinations. The Toni&Guy team kept hair clean and simple, and accessories resembling melted clocks raised the charm factor.

‘The collection is about time. Fashion has become too fast. Everyone complains, but no one can change it. It’s hard to develop a new collection in a hurry, but harder still to do production,’ Li bemoans. Creating four collections a year, plus shoes and accessories, sourcing yarns from Italy and using both British and Chinese manufacturers, hosting showrooms in Paris and Shanghai, and supplying stores such as Dover Street Market and Joyce HK, she admits it’s a challenge to keep up with the ever-increasing and much-debated ravenousness of the industry. ‘Big and small brands are challenged. Everyone appreciates fresh ideas and hand craftsmanship, but the demands are making everyone more commercial.’

It’s good to hear then that her Resort 2017 collection – a range of crisp, cotton shirts, tweedy knitwear and denim – was inspired by a long weekend in Greece. ‘I saw signs outside a school that said ‘No photos’ and ‘Private area’. Today we see and take photos so much that we think we know a place or a celebrity, when we don’t. This wasn’t the tourist place I was expecting.’

More inspiration comes from Instagram. ‘I love it when real customers take photos of themselves wearing my brand and tag me. My shoes are quite fun, so when I saw a lady of 60 or 70 wearing them it was amazing. I’d never imagine someone of that age would appreciate my work. My stuff is always young, but as I build as a brand it becomes more mature. I try to push it in a surreal way, but also what I believe is realistic.’

The future holds hopes of becoming a fully fledged lifestyle brand. Although it would make more business sense to base herself in Shanghai or New York, Li prefers to call London home. Her simple, white studio-cum-home is tucked away on a side street in north London and has a quiet, Zen-like quality to it. ‘I can focus on my designs here; it’s calm,’ she says. ‘When I have free time, I don’t go shopping any more. I go upstairs to sleep.’

  • Words: Helen Jennings

  • Photography: Mike Blackett

  • Hair & Makeup: Anna Gibson