Mr.Li Ning, The art of Movement

September 1, 2020

F*ING Young – Interview Questions for Mr.Li Ning

In 1984, perhaps you didn’t imagine building a strong athleisure wear company, tell us about the will and determination it took to get on the winning podium and how it felt?
One of our guiding principles at Li-Ning is the thought that ‘Anything is Possible’. This is a testament to my career as a professional gymnast and now a CEO of a professional sportswear brand – I can say that anything truly is possible. Of course, how I got here, and specifically to the Olympic medal podium, took years of rigorous, disciplined training and mastering of technique. It was not overnight nor was without its challenges . . . but it was also not without its rewards. As far as the will and determination to succeed later with my own brand Li-Ning, we’ve achieved strong recognition in both domestic and international markets but still have much to do in terms of becoming the world’s leading professional sportswear brand.

How did gymnastics enter your life and what does it mean to be a gymnast in China?
Having been involved in sports and passionate about it since I was very young, I first began to practice gymnastics at the age of six. In 1971, I became a member of my hometown’s team in Guangxi, and I was later selected by the national gymnastics team in 1980.

You have successfully made the transition from Olympian to entrepreneur, legendary in both fields. Take us back to 1990, what inspired you to start the brand?
I founded my namesake company in 1990. Initially, my hope was to simply provide Chinese athletes with a nationally-made, domestically-designed brand to wear on the world stage of the Olympics. That was very important to me. But the response to that first milestone was so warmly and enthusiastically received . . . it was incredibly humbling
It also showed me the great potential before us; that we could continue to grow beyond that first step and expand the brand’s vision and scope, pushing into other categories and directions that originally I’m not sure I even considered. To that point, we designed our first sneaker, the 001, the following year in 1991.
And now, here we are, 30 years later . . .
To this day, everything we do at Li-Ning is informed by that first ambition of both crafting and creating product domestically in China. Building on this, we also aim to authentically showcase different aspects of Chinese culture and heritage through our work.
Because of this, I’d like to think that throughout our first three decades, we have helped pioneer a shift in perception that superior goods are not only ‘Made-in-China’ but are also ‘Designed-in-China’, establishing the country as not only a manufacturing leader—but also a design and innovation one as well.

You had no prior background in design nor business, how did you face those challenges and were they as difficult as preparing for something like the Olympics? How do they compare?
You are correct in saying I had no formal training in either business nor design when I decided to start my company. This is true. But, as I mentioned previously, my original vision for Li-Ning was to simply offer Chinese athletes nationally-made, domestically-designed apparel items to wear on the world stage of theOlympics. So although, at the time, I was less familiar with many aspects of the apparel industry, I was, however, fully immersed in the world of sport, having trained and competed professionally—including at the Olympic level—for years.
Along with that experience came years of first-hand, athletic knowledge and insights—my own! This included experience with different types of gear and uniforms. . . and through that, different apparel silhouettes and even fabrics . . . which textiles provided superior comfort and freedom to move, which offered optimal performance attributes and so on. Because of this, I didn’t have to work to get inside the mind of an athlete – I was that athlete. All of which fueled my entrepreneurial spirit and, I’d like to think, helped make me a more informed designer . . . one equipped with a more considered approach to product development that is rooted in actual, on-court experience.
As for challenges early on . . . let’s just say teamwork is as important in business as it is in sport. And although there was much I was able to bring to the table in those first years, I quickly learned how important it was to find the right talent to not only complement my own skills but to also help provide expertise in other areas where my experience was still so new and growing. As with training for the Olympics—or any sport milestone—running a business, especially when first starting out, requires a lot of hard work, determination, passion and discipline. Coupled with this, business and sport are both extremely competitive pursuits . . . so I suppose they share that in common as well!

Fast forward to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, how did it feel to light the cauldron and how have the games changed since winning six medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics?
My experience at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics was completely different from the 1984 games – or any other Olympics I’ve attended for that matter. The expectations and pressures I felt in 1984 helped inspire me to win, and I very much enjoyed the games and competition. By comparison, my mission in 2008 was to successfully complete the torch-lighting and help commemorate the very special moment of having the games staged in my home country for the first time, sharing this experience with a large audience of my fellow countrymen: this was not only for myself but also for my country, and I was determined to ensure it succeeded.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics created an amazing energy and sense of Chinese pride that could be felt throughout the Olympic stadium – and far, far beyond it. It spread nationwide! As massive and global as the Olympics are, because of this special energy, 2008’s Summer games felt so much more intimate to me, more so than other Olympics I’ve had the pleasure to attend or compete in.
Adding to this, I had the extraordinary opportunity to light the torch during the Opening Ceremony—an honor that was at once so exciting and incredibly humbling. It is not lost on me how few athletes get the chance to represent their country in this way and I feel a deep sense of pride in having had the chance to do so on behalf of China. Sometimes I don’t believe it actually happened! It feels all the more surreal that the pair of Torch Runner running shoes I wore while approaching and lighting the cauldron are now housed in the Olympic Museum as a celebratory milestone from these very special games.

The love affair with basketball and China goes back more than 100 years predating many European countries. China sent a full delegation to the Olympic Games when it first became a sport in 1936. People naturally associated you with gymnastics . . . at what point did you decide to play an active role in Basketball not only at home but abroad, including the NBA?
As Li-Ning has grown in size over the last 30 years, we have diversified our product offering, expanding far beyond our humble beginnings to introduce new collections, assortments and styles to suit the many needs of ever expanding consumer base. Sometimes it amazes me just how far we have come! Given China’s passion for basketball, the launch of Li-Ning Basketball was a logical and natural next step in the company’s evolution. This has lead to the signing of many professional players—both in China but also internationally—including former professional NBA player, Dwyane Wade; Portland Trailblazer, CJ McCollum; and our latest Way-of-Wade ambassador, D’Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Today, along with basketball, our core, sport performance categories include running, badminton, and training. Additionally, Li-Ning has teams dedicated to lifestyle and streetwear products; collaborative styles co-developed with outside design partners; and our recently-launched runway collection which made its global retail introduction during the Autumn / Winter 2019 season

You have forever been dubbed the “Prince of Gymnastics” but what other sports and hobbies do you enjoy in your free time?
Personally, I very much enjoy playing golf, biking, hiking, and boxing to keep myself fit and healthy.

In 2008, Li-Ning became a household name having sponsored the Chinese national Olympic teams of Gymnastics, Table Tennis, Archery, and Diving along with sponsoring the Spanish basketball team, as well as the Argentine and Swedish Olympics teams. How has the brand managed to transcend the Chinese market to abroad since then?
With our main focus on the domestic market, we aim to continue expanding our presence and enhancing the Li-Ning-style value experience in the international market step by step. To help do so, we are not only sponsoring top international teams and events, but also further exploring global markets by offering our runway collection through popular, multi-brand stockists such as Kith, SSense, and Browns; while developing cross-border collaborations with designer labels such as Soulland and Neil Barrett. This coupled with our opening of franchise locations and operating international e-commerce stores; for example, we have Amazon as a reliable partner in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and through working with the ecommerce pioneer, our online business has continued to grow rapidly. In Europe, we have 12 major sport chain channels across Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Russia, and we have entered fashion and specialty doors overseas; in the Middle East and Central Asian market, our offline retail stores are expanding steadily; in the Southeast Asian market, we have been consolidating our industry leadership by leveraging badminton products as our core competitive strength.
With the aim of becoming the world’s leading sportswear brand, we continue to improve our product offerings in order to provide professional protection to athletes in training and competition while simultaneously enhancing their performance. We have built professional sports technology platforms to fully meet such sporting needs, and these platforms reflect how deeply we care about every detail from a cutting edge, scientific perspective.

Can you tell us more about the introduction of Li-Ning’s Runway collection?

We are leveraging the introduction of our premium, men’s and women’s runway collection to bring the brand’s vision—a unique perspective that unites the culture of sport and style with a traditional and authentic Chinese aesthetic—to a larger, global audience.
The runway collection was first established in 2018 and, initially, was available only in China through luxury department stores and niche, streetwear retailers. We followed this by staging runway shows during key, international fashion weeks which served—to many members of the global style community—as a true, first introduction to the Li-Ning brand.
These shows solidified Li-Ning as a premium, fashion resource in China but also drew interest and inquiry from retailers worldwide.
With these early successes, we decided to introduce Li-Ning Runway to an international retail audience, starting first with a select number of elevated accounts to emphasize the product’s premium nature. The AW 2019 assortment served as the collection’s global retail debut, with stockists including: SSENSE.com; US exclusive retail partner KITH; END Clothing.com; LN-CC; and Selfridges to name only a few.
Looking ahead, we will continue to strategically utilize the brand’s premium collection as part of our ongoing global expansion. We will also leverage our roster of global, athlete and lifestyle partners—including our latest collaborative alliances with Soulland; the Centre Pompidou museum; and menswear designer Neil Barrett—as tools for building the business in China but also far beyond, as we continue to bring the Li-Ning vision to a worldwide, international audience.

The brand is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, how have the consumers changed since the beginning?

As above, Li-Ning has evolved and expanded our product offerings throughout the past 30 years — and because of that we are addressing the needs of a much more diverse and varied audience than I could have ever predicted back in 1990. Just look at how the worlds of sport, street and style have all intersected— that has created both a new aesthetic but also a whole new level of demand that was not a factor when Li-Ning was founded.
Despite shifts in the customer—or fashion landscape—we remain committed to providing the most forward- thinking products, experiences, partnerships and services to our fans. Further to this, every Li-Ning style is designed with the genes and insights of an athlete – my own.
What makes us even more unique is how we use our first-hand knowledge of sport; pair it with the culture of the street; and combine them both with a traditional, authentic Chinese aesthetic. As a result, each Li- Ning piece unites elements of Chinese heritage with global, worldwide appeal. This is both our mission and point of distinction and an approach we have perfected throughout the past 30 years.

What does “Made in China” mean today?
As I mentioned previously, when I started Li-Ning, initially, my goal was to simply provide Chinese athletes with a nationally-made, domestically-designed brand to wear on the world stage of the Olympics. That was very important to me. This approach remains with us to this day, 30 years on. Everything we do at Li-Ning is informed by that first ambition of both crafting and creating product domestically in China. Building on this, we also aim to authentically showcase different aspects of Chinese culture and heritage through our work.
Because of this, throughout our three decades, I’d like to think we helped pioneer a shift in perception that superior, quality goods are not only ‘Made-in-China’ but are also ‘Designed-in-China’, establishing the country as not only a manufacturing leader—but also a design, and innovation one as well.
For us at Li-Ning, it is important that ‘Designed-in-China’ be as much the focus of the conversation as ‘Made-in-China’.

What challenges do you face and what are you trying to work on to lower the environmental impact with such a large commercial brand? Have certain goals been set up?
We believe industry development must be environmentally friendly and sustainable to ultimately benefit people. In 2011, Li-Ning cooperated with five brands including adidas, C&A, H&M, Nike, and Puma to establish the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) initiative. Through ZDHC, we have been working with 30 contracted brands and 153 alliance members to achieve the ultimate goal of zero discharge of the industry’s hazardous chemicals.
As the only Chinese brand which is part of the ZDHC, Li-Ning participated in the formulation of the first manufacturing restricted substance list (MRSL) for the clothing and footwear industries – published by the ZDHC – to control hazardous chemicals released into the environment in manufacturing or other related processes, making a positive contribution to achieving the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.
We have also been promoting the importance of protecting the environment through our product. Last year, we launched a cross-border sportswear collaboration together with Upanda. From design, to materials to marketing, we aim to make the best possible use of leading sustainable development ideas and actions in the hope that our consumers will be influenced to care even more about our environment.

Tell us about the Li-Ning headquarters in Beijing, I heard that everyone is encouraged to do sports. What can we find?
The company’s HQ campus first opened in 2007. We aimed to foster and create a strong sports environment throughout the entire campus, since athletics are at the heart of our brand. As such, sporting elements have been integrated throughout; for example, we provide venues for playing various professional sports, including basketball, badminton, swimming, football, volleyball, and tennis, among others. This allows our employees to enjoy their favorite athletic pursuits during their free time. We strongly believe that providing such a relaxing and enjoyable working environment plays an important role in inspiring everyone in the company to further explore and develop their potential and diverse skillsets.

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