andrea jiapei li is new york’s next big design star
How the Beijing-born Parsons grad is taking the city by storm.
Photography Franey Miller
In London, a designer's transition out of a graduate program into a full-fledged business is often aided by programs like NewGen, Fashion East, and MAN, which provide established platforms and resources for younger talents to grow. In New York, it's kind of a different story. Although it has already produced some incredible talent, Parsons' prestigious MFA program - the first graduate design course offered in America - is still only three years old. The CFDA and MADE Fashion Week have been invaluable resources for young designers struggling to show during Fashion Week, but when that last look steps off the runway, it's often right back to sink or swim. But that's all changing. Image sharing platform turned retail outlet VFiles has again reinvented itself as New York's launchpad for up-and-coming designers.
This past season, two New York-based talents have emerged as poster children of this fledgling support network: Ximon Lee and Andrea Jiapei Li. After graduating from Parsons, both designers' thesis collections went on to snag nominations for the H&M Design Award, which Ximon brought home in January. Just about a week later, Lee and Li were two of four labels who presented their autumn/winter 15 collections as part of VFiles' show at Lincoln Center. Beijing-born Andrea was one of the night's shining standouts.
After obtaining her undergraduate degree in Fashion Design and Technology, Li relocated from her native China to New York three years ago to embark on the Parsons course. Over the course of the two year program, Li held down internships at 3.1 Phillip Lim, Diane von Furstenburg and Edun before presenting her spring/summer 15 collection alongside her classmates. Dover Street Market was an early supporter, as was Katie Grand.
But like many designers, Andrea recognised the challenge in transitioning from graduation to growing a business: "Aesthetically, there are a lot of similarities between my two collections, but for autumn/winter 15, we wanted to try to make things more wearable and slightly more commercial," she said. "We want to maintain the same aesthetics, but also incorporate design elements that are more wearable so that the general market could be more receptive," Andrea's sharp as a tack business partner Weishi added.
"For my graduate collection, I wasn't really sure about the keywords for my brand at the time. But transitioning out of Parsons, it's about making those ideas more clear," the designer said. For Li, those key elements include striking a balance between sporty, functional fabrics like space mesh and neoprene and refining an elegant, cooly feminine silhouette.
Given VFiles' gruelling deadlines (all in all, designers only have about six weeks to produce the entire collection from sketch to sample), a clear vision is exactly what Andrea needed to succeed: "For my work and process, I prefer to take things slowly. I want to develop the story in my mind and take some months to make the ideas bigger and bigger," she explained. "After we got the message from VFiles, we were very excited about it, but so nervous as well. We had just done the MFA show and then to get another platform like this was an amazing opportunity to help us to grow up," she said.
"To have VFiles pay for everything, invite all the media, and just trust us with the resources and platform, that was huge," Weishi added. "Preston [Chaunsumlit] did the casting, VFiles took care of every stage of the process so that we could focus on the design itself. That took off a lot of weight from us as new designers." But the support doesn't end when the show does. In addition to providing a presentation platform, Weishi also cited the company's showroom as a huge resource in building the brand: "This is the first showroom in New York, as far as we know, that gives this kind of opportunity to new designers. The first to take the risk and dedicate the resources to helping us grow."
And growing is exactly what they're doing. After presenting at VFiles, Andrea snagged a spot on the LVMH Prize shortlist and flew to Paris to present her collection to judges J.W Anderson, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Phoebe Philo, Raf Simons, and Riccardo Tisci. "I'm a huge fan of those judges!" she said through a huge smile. "We got so starstruck! But we just learned so much; the process itself is so valuable," Weishi added. "You're put under the spotlight with so many other talented, and frankly, more mature designers and all going through the same challenge. For us, the experience of that process mattered more than the outcome."
These days, Andrea's working on the new season while simultaneously developing her accessories line. "We want to make our production line a little bigger, make something fun and playful," she said. "It's not only about the clothes."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Franey Miller
Catwalk photography Mitchell Sams