INTERVIEW BY KOURA ROSY
IMAGES BY WAN HUA LI & WILLIAM TETREAULT
Fashion is personal but it is also about community and connection - both an object of intellectual study and an expression of visual beauty, where a vivid duality is shared and expressed amongst its creatives. And, in recent years, the use of social commentary through design has become a prominent tool in which emotions and soul-searching find their relevance. This more private use of fashion enables Wan Hua Li to engage in an inner conversation aimed to connect with external parties. In her case, introspection will always be at the core of her approach. “We start from ourselves and spread from the inside out,” says Li. To exclude the role of introspection from her vision only prevents us from seeing the meaning and depth that lies within.
From a young age, the Chinese native and Montreal-based fashion design graduate was exposed to the duality of two contrasting cultures. And, throughout her life, this complex adaptation has been ever-present. The essence of her work is shared between her native heritage and her second socialization within the western world. “It’s omnipresent, that’s all I’ve ever known,” she affirms. Although this topic has become more widely discussed within the public sphere, back in Li’s childhood this notion had a more isolating factor - seemingly stuck between two identities, and at times, feeling an urge to defy. “The beautiful flower of my cultural plurality that I have been using as a scapegoat for years just started opening now that I [have] stopped yelling at her for no reason,” says Li. For the young creative, fashion plays a powerful role in her self-acceptance. It has been a long journey, but going back to her roots is what cultivates this new perception, transcending her designs. Li says, “more precisely it is about the seduction and velocity in it.” By considering the broader societal contexts in her design, she hopes to use the garments’ beauty as a force to accelerate the implementation of social and cultural transformations. “I’m pretty sure that changes and technologies will be implemented quicker. It’s called the Power of beauty,” explains Li.
Li’s approach to design - specifically her first collection Nancy - was inspired through the lens of her upbringing: “Nancy was a persona through which I’d design menswear,” says Li. The initial thesis was surrounding the act of challenging masculinity. “This project, that anthropomorphized as Nancy- the muse, was seeping through everyone and everything around and was supposed to be a pretext to study masculinity in a changing menswear context,” but in retrospect, “I ended up realizing the hypocrisy of the original thesis and how I got carried away from the initial point. We don’t make collections to understand anyone other than ourselves. This collection turned out extremely personal,” says Li. By doing this first project, she ended up learning more about herself while creating Nancy than about the former topic she wanted to explore. “All this to realize through the ashes, that this lesbian boy that was Nancy, was me,” adds Li. Intimacy through design is vital in the eyes of Li, “the truth is that we need these hyper-introspective collections to move forward because through them we learn to speak to others, refine our communication to others and with ourselves.” These special moments are the ones that cultivate a sense of identity and a strong sensibility between the creatives and their work. It starts from an inner conversation and spreads within the external world. According to her, the act of designing is in constant evolution. “We then acquire some understanding of the world and the mechanics of the industry. In parallel, you meet beautiful and horrible people,” adds Li.
Interactions can shape visions and the industry itself. Now, her perception has progressed and when she’s reflecting on her first collection, she feels it was a much-needed step to go through - making it inevitable for the evolution of her practice. “But meanwhile no one gives a shit about your teenage crisis.” The most important thing is to keep moving forward.
In Li’s most recent project, she explores the current role of the industry and is developing a playful allegory based on the insights of a schoolyard. “That’s the beauty of it. Fashion is an industry of eternal youth,” she states. In this playground, you have different options. “If you want to hop in or hop out and hop back in, you definitely can, as long as you make it at the jump over the barbed wire fences. Then you can join the girls at the corner taking bathroom pics, but you require a flip phone to do so. You could also hopscotch with the analogue kids, sell TicTacs with the bastards, whatever whenever.” It is all about experimenting and finding what fits best with one’s vision. Every clique has its code that enables one to evaluate who is part of it or not. However, “something interesting is happening in the backyard. A disruptive group is spreading a breath of reform.
“We don’t make collections to understand anyone other than ourselves.”
It feels like there’s a general consent that something is odd,” says Li. The industry is ever-changing and the pandemic has accelerated the process of challenging the existing norms.
For years, these cliques have been limiting access within the industry - acting as gatekeepers, these cohorts were regulating the imagery and aesthetic into this world. Li poses an ever-turning question, “is fashion segmenting into two schools of thoughts?” A distinct rapture in terms of perceptions and practices is certainly happening, “new rooms are created for different types of creativity,” says Li. This one-dimensional representation of the fashion industry is no longer finding its relevance in this emerging psyche where the rules are actively changing. The pandemic’s current state is opening the gates to new visions - a space with less judgment is growing. In line with this approach, Li’s latest capsule collection is re-enforcing a strong and intimate message that people with non-western heritage can resonate with. This capsule - which is metaphorically presented as a four-track EP - is “about taking back what’s ours while conceding inevitably to reality.” Going deeper, she explains that the collection is “somewhere between a mix of Chinese traditional opera mixed with a darkwave and maybe a little bit of happy hardcore,” adds Li. Here again, we are confronted with a duality that is very much at her core.
Through Li’s recent collections, she has had the opportunity to better define herself both personally and creatively. Her journey of self-exploration, reflection, and creation has allowed for a pursuit within the realm of Computer Arts. “I am to remain a fashion creative regardless of the chosen medium,” she claims. Because fashion has always been about surviving through time, she is deeply attached to it. Although the mechanisms and techniques of survival might change, this idea remains vivid. It is through fashion that she was able to fantasize about the idea of performance and truth. In continuing her research and creative exploration, Li hopes that her processes “will be explored with less naivety and more love, more listening and less speaking,” but always to build a greater connection.
INTERVIEW BY KOURA ROSY
IMAGES BY WAN HUA LI & WILLIAM TETREAULT