Li Yang had no interest in being a fashion designer when he was growing up in the industrial city of Changchun, China. He liked science best at school — and though he would play after class in his mother’s clothing factory, where she manufactured mass-market apparel, he read Japanese manga, never fashion magazines. The feminine figures he sketched resembled Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Nausicaä, heroine of the post-apocalyptic tale “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” — not the typical elongated croquis of fashion illustrations.
This boyhood fascination with fantasy and science fiction continues to drive the 29-year-old designer today at his Paris-based brand Quetsche. For his recent fall/winter 2016 collection, his third collection to date, Li imagined a world where giants discover naked humans living under their floorboards. Touched by their frailty, the giants refashion their own clothes to cover the humans’ nudity. In Li’s hands, the unisex collection features winter coats with comically oversize pockets that appear to be cut from giant wool trousers, and tube-like silk dresses look as though they have been crafted from enormous shirt sleeves. Elsewhere, an apron dress appears to be fashioned from the fly of jumbo-sized pants.
“I like creating a character, and that’s why I like fashion — because I can create a particular woman,” Li says of his work. “She’s always a strong woman, who has a certain idea about fragility, and wears an armor to hide her femininity — she reminds me of my mother.” As well as running the factory, Li’s mother raised him for the most part on her own — his father, who held a post in the Chinese military, was rarely home. “I would only see my father once a year,” he says now, “I hated the military for that reason.” Still, his father made a mark as well: a military influence is ever-present in Li’s designs, but is always kept in balance with femininity. For spring/summer 2016, this translated into a collection of bomber jackets, trench coats and baggy utilitarian pants overlaid with delicate silk organza, while fall/winter 2016 featured a map motif that resembles a camo print.
A certain reluctance marked Li’s start in fashion. In 2008, he came to Paris to study purely on the recommendation of a family friend. “She suggested fashion because she imagined I might be able to help with my mother’s business in the future,” he says. With no prior fashion experience, he presented a portfolio to the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne filled with drawings of manga-like characters, and explained in his interview with then-President Didier Grumbach that he actually wanted to work in animation — not fashion. Grumbach, he says, just laughed and said, “O.K., why not?”
After four years of study at la Chambre Syndicale, Li found his way into internships at Christian Dior, Lanvin and Martin Margiela (before John Galliano’s arrival). Despite his relative inexperience, the new graduate assisted in pattern making, toiles and samples of several final show looks for both Christian Dior couture and ready-to-wear runway collections at Margiela. “At Dior I had to learn how to do embroidery; at Lanvin, I worked with silk satin, and at Margiela I worked with suiting,” he says — “I worked with all fabrics and then I found my own technique.” It was his time spent at Margiela, however, that resonated the most. “I fell in love with this brand,” says Li, who since his student days has entertained a Margiela-like preoccupation with deconstruction. “It was my spirit, it gave me a lot of ideas and influenced me a lot.”
Eschewing a permanent post in one of the big houses, Li instead launched Quetsche — which means “prune” in French but was derived from the phonetic misunderstanding of the Chinese word for science. He debuted his 20-piece collection last year in a small art gallery near the Centre Pompidou and managed to secure only two appointments over an entire week. “I was quite naïve, I guess,” he says. “I just emailed stores through the general contact email on their websites and hoped they would show.”
As luck would have it, one of his appointments happened to be Dover Street Market, who picked up the label the following season. Now Quetsche is sold in several boutiques worldwide and his mother has shifted her mass-market business to luxury-ready-to-wear for his benefit alone. “She just does all of my sampling and my production,” Li says, adding, “She’s very proud.”