Fashion is a language all its own, used to convey ideas and traditions in a manner other media cannot. SHUXUAN LI, the label helmed by its titular designer, takes this idea to its extreme, telling stories through pieces that transcend culture and space. Using influences spanning from the designer’s time across several countries, this latest series explores modernity’s plethora of communication channels and how they interact with tradition. Schön! spoke with the designer to hear more.
Introduce us to your history. What can you tell us about your personal and professional experience with design?
My name is Shuxuan Li. I came from China; my father is an amateur Chinese ink painter, so I grew up surrounded by all these paintings and calligraphies. Today, all of these traditional art forms are a big part of my design language. Another thing that inspires me a lot is my experience studying in different countries, from Beijing to London to New York. My surroundings were and are always moving and changing, which allows me to meet new people and experience different cultures. This inspired me greatly to discover who I am and to where I belong.
I’m now working as a womenswear designer in NYC after graduating from the Parsons MFA Fashion Design & Society program in 2020. My thesis collection was collected in the Parsons Generation 9 documentary as well as the 1 Granary online showcase. I achieved my BA in Fashion Knitwear design from BIFT in 2018 and exchange experience in Textile Design from CSM in 2016.
As a designer, what motivates your work? Do you have a specific design philosophy?
I see fashion as a unique means of self-expression, a powerful force that unites cultures and revives consciousness about preserving and redefining the beauty of traditional heritage. Rather than emotionless commodities, fashion for me is a unique art practise. By exploring the balance between rationality and sensibility, I’m trying to merge traditional aesthetics and philosophy with a modern vision, and capture the sensitive connection between the wearer and the garment with an original voice.
For example, my thesis collection explores the mixed feelings I experienced during my time living abroad and reflecting upon my own cultural identity. Spatially distanced from my family back in China, it was the way I communicated with my father and family that inspired the designs. Using WeChat, me and my father would exchange images of our paintings and art. These artforms are more than Chinese calligraphy and paintings; to us, they’re their own kind of language.
The traditional artistic heritage of China, in particular the calligraphy of the characters of the Chinese language, has experienced a kind of displacement for a long time. Used in a superficial way as decoration on a graphic level, the true and deeply cultural meaning has been lost. With this collection, I’m expressing my feelings by using the written form of the mother tongue as the central force behind my designs. Through a process of construction and deconstruction, I explored the meaning of every letter and translated it into my own ‘fashion language’.
You mentioned the importance of culture and tradition. How do you think those elements play into your work today?
I would love to see traditional culture as a special means of self-expression toward modernity. I don’t think traditional culture should just be limited to certain symbols, or just used as a printed character on a T-shirt. I think when transforming the traditional elements into design, it needs a deeper understanding of culture itself and why we want to use it. I prefer using it as a metaphor, to merge all those techniques, aesthetics and meanings into different aspects of my design. It could inspire the silhouette, the textiles, the details or just the thoughts behind the pieces.
As you mentioned, you have experience across several countries. How do you think that influences your work?
From Beijing to London to New York, all the surrounding spaces are always changing. Sometimes I feel I’m only living on the surface of each city — I’ll never be able to settle down, and I don’t belong to any of this place. This sense of loneliness and separation inspired me to rethink the sense of intimacy. Where do I belong? I started to do some art practise; I juxtaposed different places, daily surroundings, the home in my memory and the utopian surroundings of Chinese ink painting together to question what belonging and connection means within modernity. I’ve started to rethink what the special connection is between me and my family… All of these personal emotions are part of my design language; instead of emotionless commodities, I do want to keep this kind of “emotion” in my design. I wish the garment could build up a “space” for the wearer like me to find a sense of familiarity, comfort and intimacy within it.
What can you tell us about the pieces we see in this piece?
The looks here are inspired by traditional Chinese handwriting, starting from the first stroke, followed by the second and the third. The meaning of the character is then completed through this stroke by stroke process. I was trying to use the writing discipline to build up the clothes. By capturing the tension between fitted and loose, stability and fragility, restraint and rebellion, solid and soft… It was like a self-conversation about questioning and finding the answer.
What emotions were you looking to capture with the accompanying photos?
I want to use the language of fashion to question where I belong, what the connection is between me and my cultural roots; what my identity is within modern society. Each look was like an attempt to find an answer by capturing the tension between fitted and loose, stability and fragility, restraint and rebellion, solid and soft… It was like a self-conversation, about questioning and finding the answer.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
The surroundings, the people in the city, different ideas from new friends.
What’s next for you as a designer?
I really want to build up my brand later on and continue to practise my identity in my design. I want to explore something more fun and unique in the design instead of producing commercial pieces season by season. All the pieces here will be project-oriented. With my brand, the stories are going to continue.