QUESTION 1 – Before joining Li-Ning in 2017, you worked at Adidas for over a decade and were instrumental to collaborations with Yohji Yamamoto, Raf Simons, and Kanye West. What attracted you to Li-Ning?
Having worked in the fashion and streetwear industries for a number of years, I was somewhat familiar with Li-Ning. I say ‘somewhat familiar’ because at the time the brand wasn’t widely available outside Asia. I saw this as an asset, giving Li-Ning an air of mystery, especially in the sneaker community where ‘limited availability’ and collectability oftentimes fuel the hype cycle. So before I even spoke to them, I was already intrigued.
Once I learned more about the brand—they’ve been perfecting their craft for the past 30 years and Mr. Li Ning has over 100 gold medals to his name!—it became clear to me there was an amazing story here that hadn’t been fully shared with the world. Then, when they told me of their plans to launch a new runway collection, which they intended to use as a means to introduce the brand to a global audience, I was hooked.
It was so much of what I had done in my career—marrying sport and style through elevated, premium products and distribution channels. Plus, having once co-owned a creative marketing agency in New York City, the opportunity sparked my entrepreneurial drive—I just wanted to own this challenge and have a hand in all of it: the marketing; the retail strategy; the creative direction.
When you paired Li-Ning’s vision with, in my opinion, a still untold brand story—or stories rather—I just saw so much potential.
QUESTION 2 – Li-Ning created street credibility among the fashion circles since introducing its premium line two years ago. What is the vision for it? And how would you describe the aesthetic of Li-Ning?
In any given Li-Ning collection, sportswear silhouettes are juxtaposed with traditional details. Classic shapes are assembled using updated, innovative fabrics. This approach and final aesthetic plays with these sometimes contrasting elements. Consequently, each piece is built with a sense of Chinese pride and authenticity yet designed for an international consumer.
QUESTION 3 – Entering new fashion stakes, tell us about the work with Neil Barrett?
It is always exciting to see design collaborations come together; to see how one partner interprets an influence or an idea and to see how the other side responds; how the union just grows from there; how the ideas keep getting bounced off one another. It truly is a fascinating dance.
In the case of our work with Neil Barrett, he and the Li-Ning design team focused on 2 silhouettes from the brand’s footwear library: the Essence 2.3 basketball shoe and the Lion Dance lifestyle model. Incorporating them into his runway collection was especially important to Neil, as he has described sneakers as being “an essential component of a new uniform” for today. The colors chosen—a bright white; classic black and a warm chocolate brown—worked nicely with the palette and themes he was exploring for his AW 2020 collection.
We will be sharing more details closer to launch but I can say the silhouettes were updated in Neil’s vision; details were tweaked; and some proportions were slightly exaggerated. An area of Neil’s influence one can see right away is the inclusion of the lightning bolt graphics—a favorite and signature design motif of his.
QUESTION 4 – Why is heritage an important theme for the brand?
It is important for any brand with a storied past to not only revisit their heritage but to also view it as an asset. This is true for a couple of reasons. As they say, we learn from the past; prior breakthroughs—but also failures—can lead to the innovations of tomorrow. And consumer behavior—especially fashion—is so cyclical. Referencing a brand’s archive can be a strategic tool in identifying what’s to come.
In today’s retail landscape, there is also an appetite—and almost an expectation—for information on product. What inspired it? How did it come about? Why is it special? People want an emotional connection but also an understanding. Leveraging an archive is one of the best ways to achieve this, to design product that is both true to a brand’s vision and simultaneously meaningful for its fans.
QUESTION 5 – Why is it important to focus on the Chinese and Asian market first especially when it offers a fresh nostalgic take on sportswear in an otherwise saturated western market?
China, and more specifically, Chinese culture will always be the first and primary source of creative design direction for Li-Ning. We filter these elements with aspects of street and sport to create a unique perspective that is truly global.
As our international, retail expansion is still so new, the Asian market—China especially—remains a key and important focus. The company was founded, and remains headquartered there, with the majority of our business still taking place across the region, at varying price points and levels of distribution.
QUESTION 6 – What do you think is the reason for Li-Ning’s success?
One reason I think Li-Ning has been so successful, particularly in China, is the brand’s origin story. He’d probably be embarrassed to hear me say it but Mr. Li Ning, who founded the brand in 1990, is a national treasure! He’s amassed over 100 gold medals during his career as a professional gymnast and competed at the Olympics representing China a number of times. So there’s this great sense of national pride that’s inherent with his name and, therefore, his company.
Originally, his aim for Li-Ning was to design Olympic uniforms for qualifying Chinese athletes to wear during competition. Of course the brand has grown exponentially since then. But initially that was his dream. And I think that really struck a chord with the sport community of China.
Outside of that, Mr. Li applied what he had learned as an athlete to his brand. He didn’t start out making denim, for example. He took what he knew and, after accomplishing his first goal, set out to improve sport apparel based on his own life and professional experience as an athlete. It made his product more authentic and equipped with, as he likes to say, “the genes of an athlete”.
In addition, the brand’s current success can also be attributed to some of my earlier comments. In China, the premium runway collection that we introduced in early 2018 woke up a great sense of national pride amongst young Chinese consumers. The brand was suddenly able to provide stylish apparel and footwear pieces. A strong aesthetic was established which was very modern and very Chinese at the same time. Outside of China, given that the brand is not that well established as of yet, we knew we had a great story to tell. We told and are still telling that story through our premium runway collections and our seasonal shows. We are slowly introducing the brand to the world by working closely with the right media and retailer partners, therefore building awareness as well as excitement.
QUESTION 7 – This year the brand had exciting collaborations from Neil Barrett to the legendary Jackie Chan. Finally, what are some exciting plans for the future?
2020 marks Li-Ning’s 30 Year Anniversary and we will be celebrating this brand milestone with a series of special moments, products and collaborations over the course of the year.
We kicked things off with the retail introduction of our footwear collaboration with Stefano Pilati and his vision for Random Identities—which he showcased as part of his show at Pitti Uomo in January. Days later, menswear designer Neil Barrett unveiled our co-designed work together during his Autumn / Winter 2020 runway show in Milan.
The following week, we presented our own AW 2020 runway collection which introduced 2 additional brand partnerships: a multi-year sponsorship of Paris’ Centre Pompidou museum—also our show venue for the season—and a capsule footwear and apparel assortment designed together with celebrated martial artist and film star, Jackie Chan.
This is only the beginning as we will have a number of other special moments to come—including at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Stay tuned for more!