What Designer Andrea Jiapei Li Learned From Patti Smith [Exclusive]
As soon as I walked into Andrea Jiapei Li‘s midtown studio, I was enthusiastically greeted by her new pitbull puppy, Luna, and Weishi Li, Andrea’s partner. As Weishi works to calm Luna down, she jokes about the newest addition. “Yeah, it was probably a bad idea to rescue a dog a month before fashion week. There’s just so much pee.” Once we walk into their main room, the simplistic design elements that Jiapei Li uses in her clothing are apparent in her all-white, pristine studio. The Pinterest-perfect space was lined with images and ideas, as if their wallpaper was just one big mood board.
As I sit with the two designers, their relationship perfectly embodies the look they’re aiming for with their clothing: playful. On the table is a small-scale model of the space they will be showing in for MADE Fashion Week. As we talk, the Chinese natives tell me all about their abstract design inspirations, how China isn’t that much different from New York, and some ‘cool lobster claws.’
How has your pre Fashion Week work load been?
ANDREA: We’re pretty good for now. We’re just working on the layout of the show right now.
WEISHI: Actually we had one of our architecture friends help us create a small model of the space. She even made little minis of the models. We were trying to think of a different way to use the space. Usually the models just stand against the wall for two hours and they get cranky and tired and sad. So we decided we didn’t want to do that. Plus, the space is so big. I think we might set it up more like a gallery and give it a bit more of an exploratory feel, rather than a two dimensional thing. It’s a lot of extra work but it should be worth it.
Are you excited to be showing for MADE?
ANDREA: Definitely! It’s a pretty big stepping stone for us right now.
WEISHI: I think we’re also a brand that MADE stands for though. They’ve always supported emerging designers, so I think that’s a great platform to be added to. There’s so many resources and sponsors that are under that umbrella. It’s really great to be a part of it.
What got you started in fashion?
ANDREA: It’s a long story. I’m from China, so before we go to college we have to take a huge exam to see if we get in. The exam is based on what career you’re trying to do. So if you’re trying to be an artist, your exam will have a lot to do with drawings . You have to choose your career very early in life.
WEISHI: It’s a huge commitment. Here you can go to college and have probably about two years to figure out your major. You can switch or double major. In China it’s totally different. By the time you’re taking what’s basically your SAT, you have to put down on paper, ‘This is what school I want. This is what major I want.’ If you don’t pass with a grade good enough for the school you put down, you don’t get admitted into any school.
Wow. Well you ended up at Parsons, which isn’t too bad at all. A lot of really talented designers have come out of there. How do you feel that they helped you to understand fashion?
ANDREA: For my MFA program, they gave me a lot of support. We don’t have a lot of professors in our program. There’s really only one professor. She didn’t just teach us how to design though. She also gave us direction for the future after graduation. She helped me figure out what my best route is in design. She never really limited us either, just gave us a direction.
I noticed that little ‘Just Kids’ logo back there. Most designers have more of a concrete inspiration for their collections. Yours is a little more introspective and abstract. What informed that decision?
ANDREA: I’ve never wanted to just design clothing. I want to share my story with everyone. We both want to share our view from our life through clothing. We want there to be communication with our customers, not just sell merchandise.
WEISHI: Everything really goes back to the first collection. I think it’s part of how the Parsons MFA program actually works. I never went but I hung out there a lot [laughs]. It’s all about understanding your own identity, less about the end result and more about the process. They’re always asking, ‘What’s important to you as a person?’ It’s a lot about personal identity, as well as identity as a designer.
ANDREA: ‘Just Kids’ is like that too. It’s about a girl who is young and always has happiness in her heart. Sometimes life is hard but you don’t give up and you work harder. That’s the kind of girl I want to identify for our brand.
“Everyone’s talking about this 70s revival coming back, but I never want to make anything too feminine like that.”
So when you’re imaging who you’re designing for, who do you see? Is it that same girl?
ANDREA: Yeah. She’s optimistic and cool. She loves life. She’s always having fun and always being cool.
WEISHI: I think the key word for our brand is playful. We use a lot of sporty fabrics with very feminine silhouettes.
ANDREA: Everyone’s talking about this 70s revival coming back, but I never want to make anything too feminine like that. I want to incorporate elements of femininity, but never strictly feminine. Does that make sense?
Totally. This whole year has been very much about agendered fashion. Do you feel like you’re a part of that?
WEISHI: The people we design for usually don’t feel confined to the traditional sense of gender. It would work for men to wear our clothing, for women and whoever else. We don’t really make ‘womenswear,’ we make ‘feminine wear.’
If you could describe your collection in three words, what would you say?
ANDREA: Cool lobster claws [laughs]?
WEISHI: [laughs] Don’t be mean! She’s talking about one of our designs that’s this really bright red thing. It has long sleeves and for the shoot the model kept putting her arms up like they were cute claws. It was really funny.
ANDREA: Actually, I would say ingenuous, playful, and elegant.
Is there anything from China that you feel like New York is missing?
WEISHI: It’s hard because there’s so many Chinese things here. I mean, Chinatown is right there [laughs].
ANDREA: It’s hard to say because the world is getting so much smaller. Information travels so much faster. It’s hard to define what’s just Chinese at a certain point. I studied here, but my life in China was very similar to here because I’m from Beijing.
WEISHI: China is also very subcultural though, so depending on where you’re from that question gets a very different answer. It’s hard to pinpoint because where you’re from can dictate your vocation, your social life, and a lot of other things. I feel like your [Andrea’s] designs are more influenced by Parsons than by China.
Do you ever see yourself leaving New York?
ANDREA: I’ve been here for three years now and it can get pretty crazy, but I love it. You hate it, but you love it forever. Everyone here works really hard and plays even harder.
If you didn’t do fashion, what would you be doing?
ANDREA: Probably cooking.
WEISHI: Cooking? You’re not good at cooking [laughs].
ANDREA: It’s very similar to design though! Some plates are pretty, some aren’t. They’re like little outfits.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
ANDREA: Japanese. I like sushi. Those plates are very elegant.
If you could get brass knuckles that say anything, what would yours say?
ANDREA: ‘Be cool forever!’ Or maybe, ‘Cool as a cucumber!’
WEISHI: I thought you would say, ‘You never know’ [laughs].
ANDREA: [laughs] Oh shit! I change my answer! I meant that.
WEISHI: Mine is a little cheesy. It would say, ‘If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.’
ANDREA: So commercial [laughs].
Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
ANDREA: I’m really thankful for everyone that’s helped me. It’s hard to be a designer by yourself. For collections, for shows, for everything. This season I got so much help from so many people from the beginning to here. It’s an amazing experience and I’m so thankful for everyone that helped me out.
Check out Andrea’s website here!