What were you doing immediately after you graduated from college? Maybe you spent some time traveling and found yourself along the way. Maybe you moved back to the house you grew up in to save money. Maybe you got an internship or an entry-level job, and tried to figure out what you really wanted to do.
Or maybe you were showing your first collection at New York Fashion Week. That would be the case if you were Zane Li. After graduating from FIT in 2023, the 23-year-old designer, who is originally from Chongqing, China, immediately launched his own brand.
His first collection, which debuted this weekend and included 23 looks, is a continuation of the ideas he explored in his undergraduate thesis. “In fashion school, they only allow you to do one or two looks,” he explained. “So this is a more fully developed idea of what I like.” What he likes: Structural, voluminous womenswear made of surprising, technical materials—clothes that are elevated, with a dreamy sense of pragmatism.
For his thesis, he designed an oversized nylon jacket, but evolved the piece for his collection by using a new neoprene-esque material. “It kind of looks like a leather jacket, but it’s actually a really chic raincoat,” determined fashion writer Laura Reilly, who was checking out the collection.
Prominent in the collection are materials like neoprene, compact nylon, and thick cotton twill—unexpected fabrics that hold their shape, with or without a form inside. That might make the pieces sound uncomfortable, but Li says he drew a lot of inspiration from the wearability he finds in his own wardrobe. “I really like classic femme, feminine shapes, but I also like the practicality, the versatility, and the ease in menswear,” Li explains. “In womenswear, there is a lot of preciousness. You can’t sit without worrying about fabrics being wrinkled. You have to stand a certain way. Menswear has so much privilege.”
Thinking about his daily uniform of oversized shirts and envisioning his customer as a woman who wants to feel good when dressed up for a chic dinner, Li dreamed up the complete collection of separates, dresses, and outerwear. The palette is refined: black and white, with pops of cherry red, navy, and pale shades of both blue and teal.
Standouts include an oversized coat with two layered of sleeves made from a doubled-up material (stylist Jason Rider described it as a marriage between an opera coat and a lab coat), a long-sleeved tie-front dress with a front-heavy hemline, and a transparent plastic tunic that could be worn over a faux-fur paneled skirt. The more everyday styles, too, were worthy of note, from a structured skirt with slits at the front, back and sides, to a voluminous dress with cape-like sleeves designed for free movement without the worry of wrinkles.
Graduating from FIT may have armed Li with the ideas and technical skills needed to create this collection, but now he faces new challenges, including figuring out how to produce it, where to source fabrics, and how to turn a dream into a business. Fortunately, Li’s hometown is also home to the largest market in China, which is where he sourced many of his materials. He now works with factories there, as well.
Born in the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious year in Chinese culture, Li had the good fortune to to launch his line during Lunar New Year, in New York's Chinatown, as a new Year of the Dragon begins. But he probably doesn't need the extra luck.
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