Tell me about growing up. How did it influence your decision to become a fashion designer? Was there any turning point that you can remember where you knew you were going to design?
I grew up in a few different places, so when people ask me where I’m from, it always gets a bit confusing. The fact is I am New Zealander Chinese, or Kiwi Banana, if you will. But, I grew up in Singapore, New Zealand, went to university in Beijing, then got my MFA in New York.
As for choosing fashion design, I guess I’ve always known that I wanted to pursue a career in art. My family is in the art business, so I think it’s just a very natural and instinctive thing for me to have a career in art. My background is actually painting, but I had felt that I wanted to express myself more than just through painting. I wasn’t the traditional fashion design student, so I was barely passing during my BFA in Beijing. I guess my brain didn’t function the way my teachers wanted it to. But, between 2009-2010, I went to study at Central Saint Martins in London, and I guess that was when I found out that my “brain that didn’t function the right way” actually was very much appreciated there. Surprisingly, I finished top of my class, and I think that was the moment.
You studied with Shelley Fox [Director of Parsons MFA Program and prestigious knitwear designer] at Parsons for the duration of your MA program. How was this experience, and what were the most valuable lessons she taught you about design and knitwear, specifically?
It was an amazing experience; very tough, but amazing. For me, personally, it was the process from taking me apart to my very core, rediscovering myself, then slowly rebuilding a stronger and better me as a designer.
The move from the Far East to the East Coast is quite the journey and a big step itself but, as you mentioned, you made many stops all over the world before studying in New York, including London and Singapore. How did these places influence you as a designer and person?
I’m kind of like a gypsy. (laughs) I’ve been moving every few years my whole life, so I think I’m quite used to it. I think this definitely has had an impact on me as a designer and person. I’m not very sure how to express this, but I’ve always embraced change. I get bored of things quite quickly, so I guess that’s good for a designer, but I think deep inside I also long for a base. Like a home, if you will.
You spent time at J.W. Andersen in their knitwear department. What did you learn from this experience?
I was a womenswear designer there. I learned a lot, but the best and most important thing I got out of the experience was that I made the decision to finally start my own label. I delayed starting my own label for a few years, and it took a lot of courage in me. I think the experience really made me stronger and much braver of a person.
There are several countries slowly getting more and more attention for their fashion, but still quite a few who are disregarded. What country, or designer, would you like to see receive more recognition from the industry?
There are not many New Zealander designers who get noticed, even nowadays. In the entertainment industry, there have been quite a few, but in fashion, there are just not many. Of course, there’s Karen Walker. It would be really great to change that, I think.
Lady Gaga was seen wearing one of your pieces. In your opinion, how much influence do celebrities have on fashion labels, especially emerging ones?
Definitely a lot of influence. That picture of [Lady] Gaga wearing my pieces is still one of the reasons why some of my interns come to me. And it has been more than two years!
With your latest Fall/Winter 2015 [FW15] collection, you showed us a new take on how to make the traditional silhouettes. What inspired you to reinvent the staples?
I think it was, in a way, a closure and a beginning; a closure for my MFA graduation collection, and a new beginning for me as an individual designer. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the collection for my MFA graduation, and I love it still very much. But, I’ve grown in the three years since I left school, and I think the core of who I am will stay the same, but I’ve definitely grown.
For FW15, I also wanted to make a statement about who I am now, what Claudia Li is about today. I love putting a sense of casualness into luxury. I’ve always been extremely attached to the craft of making things, and a lot of handwork and intricacy and many, many hours, but I don’t like it when it becomes so serious that it almost instantly becomes another red carpet thing.
In terms of silhouette, I love 3D designing on a stand. To me, it’s like painting and sculpting but much more fun. I absolutely have an extreme urge to create shapes. We actually made our own pinstripes, you can’t see it from pictures. But, if you look closely, the pinstripes are all flocked, so they’re 3D and quite fluffy.
I don’t want to make objects that people can’t wear. I think conceptual and innovative doesn’t mean that it has to be made out of strange materials or has a computer connected to it. It’s cool and innovative, yes, but in my opinion, the brilliance in fashion is to be able to be conceptual and innovative with fabric and threads and yarns. It is more difficult to make a change and a statement with fabric and thread than with a 3D printer.
Who exactly is the “Claudia Li” woman? Do you have a muse?
I think every season there’s a different woman. I don’t get stuck on one, but there’s always a type, and every season it’s different.
Knitwear is steadily gaining more awareness and is being used to create garments that most would not consider. How has technology helped push this part of the industry forward, and what is the future for knitwear?
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding on me being a knitwear designer because I love using yarns, I guess. But, the truth is, I would love to be able to excel in knitwear. It’s actually quite a difficult skill to learn. Knitwear designers are super smart people, in my opinion.
What is your deepest fear?
Not to be able to do what I do now.