Joy Li is one of the Valley’s most prominent fashionistas. From being a fit model at Liz Claiborne, to designing for big brands such as Skechers, to owning her own Old Town Scottsdale studio and boutique for the past seven years, Li is on a mission to make functional, stylish clothes women will love wearing. Li, a 53-year-old Scottsdale resident, is the perfect model for her clothes, as her perfect-for-layering, classic-yet-edgy pieces make them ideal for on-the-go lifestyles such as hers.
Li recently released her fall line, with pieces starting at less than $70. She talked about where her love of fashion came from, and what her design process is like. You can also watch a video of Li talk about her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came by accident from California, from the Redondo Beach area. I was in a relationship that brought me out here, and when I came, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found in Arizona.
I was born in Austin, Texas and grew up in New Jersey. I went to high school in upstate New York, then studied design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. My dad wouldn’t put me through fashion school, so that’s what I studied.
What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be a designer?
I’ve wanted to be a designer since I was really young. I used to make my own paper dolls and outfits for them.
What’s your design process like now?
I’ve learned if you have an idea, you just put it down, whether it’s a napkin or scratch piece of paper. A vision board is really important because you tack different ideas onto it, and it evolves into something real, and then someone’s wearing it, looking great and feeling happy, strong, confident.
Sometimes inspiration comes from walking on the beach, and you see this really cool shell with a great balance of color and lots of textures, which might spark a color story or a print. You start with a blank piece of paper or blank boards on the wall and just collect what’s happening in the world, here in town, hanging out with your peers, and in film and television. You also follow trend companies. You think about budget and what your niche really is. Lifestyle is also a huge consideration.
How would you describe the lifestyle of someone who wears your clothes?
They’re very active. Fashion is not all what they live for, there’s a balance in their life of what’s important. Fitness is really important, nutrition is important. The clients travel, go to school, have families.
I want the fashion part to accommodate her lifestyle, versus her having to work around this “trend,” or budget $25 a week for dry cleaning for this piece. That’s not my girl. We’re running around, we’re traveling. We’re getting clothes out of the suitcase and hanging them up in the shower.
The clothes are practical, timeless and versatile. We still have money for other things. If you’re going to spend $800 on a coat, that coat has to go a lot of different places. Maybe you want to spend $500 on a coat and spend the extra going away on vacation.
How would you describe the look of your fashions?
I’ve been told it’s classy with a modern, sexy edge. I’m not a slave to trends. If skulls are happening, it’s for a short window of time. I’m about designing pieces that are timeless and flattering for women.
What are the styles that most flatter women that you incorporate into your lines?
I think the concept of layering, which includes fundamentals that create a slimming effect. They’re machine-washable and comfortable. If you start with those and start layering on, it’s much easier to have versatility in your wardrobe. Proportions and style lines are really key.
I use a lot of stretch materials, anything that has spandex. We’re not flat, two-dimensional things. We’re three-dimensional, and we’re moving all the time. I think stretch is important if we’re going to do body-conscious pieces, and if you’re going to do easy, flowing pieces, they should be comfortable and breathable so you can layer.
Do you use Pinterest for design inspiration?
Yes. I like to go old-school where I rip things out and tack them on a board, but I love having any type of vision board.
How has your career evolved?
After an unfulfilling job in graphic design, I started looking for a job in the fashion industry. Because I didn’t have any fashion design experience, I started off as a fit model in New York City.
I would stand next to Liz Claiborne, who was the missy model, and I was the petite model. We would try things on and tell the designers, “It doesn’t fit right,” “It doesn’t feel right,” “I can’t lift my arm.” With that, you really learn about fabrics and fit. I’ll never forget, I was with Liz Claiborne while we were fitting a jacket, and it was the ratio of the lapel to the collar that really elongated the jacket and gave it style.
During my employment at Liz Claiborne, the assistant I was working for asked me to give a reference for a job she was applying for with (designer) Carole Little on the West Coast. The recruiter ended up calling me and asked if I would be interested in the job. As it turned out, my friend wasn’t going to leave New York for L.A., so I got the job to work as a petite designer in California.
How did you open your own studio?
When I got to Arizona, I was doing freelance design consulting for Wimbledon and Skechers. The Joy Li brand started because my husband said to me, “You say ‘wish’ a lot. Stop wishing. Just do it.” I started sketching and drawing. He suggested someone he thought would be the perfect business partner for me, Jean Bartolomei. My husband and her husband practiced martial arts together, and she had owned her own business for several years. She had no fashion experience, which, in a way, is kind of what I wanted and a good thing.
When the opportunity came up to open a boutique, we turned it down twice. It was a teeny space close to where I am now, 470 square feet where we had to hang hangers around the water heater. Finally, it was the last space left because no one wanted it, and they gave us a great deal. We decided to go for it and try it.
It was a month before the recession hit, which is crazy, but we got through it. Here we are seven years later.
What’s your typical week like?
I try to balance design, production, working in the studio, social media, customer and client services, and working with other vendors. We’re constantly discovering new lines and new fabrications.
Is any of your fabric sourcing or manufacturing done locally?
Yes. As far as sourcing production, we want to keep it as close to home as possible so we can ensure great quality. A big part of what we’ve been doing is finding local resources, so you’re not using gas resources to ship things back and forth, and we’re using local talent to support our community, which is what we’ve been doing since day one. My right-hand patternmaker/samplemaker lives here.
As far as sourcing fabrics, it’s difficult, because here, we don’t have the novelty fabrics, and environmentally, we don’t produce some of the fabrics. I tend to look at Japan, Italy and Paris for novelty fabrications.
How would you describe your fall line?
My fall line consists of items that will work with existing wardrobes, but everything has a bit of edge, whether it’s mesh or metallic or texture.
I was inspired by the movement of sustainability, authenticity with a more “hands-on” personal look versus a mass market look. It’s about supporting your own country and community.
Why is having a storefront important to you?
I love having a storefront. With the nature of the business we’re in, I can’t go online and touch the fabric, or see the color is truly an avocado green and not a lime green. I can’t go online and understand how something’s going to fit me. That’s what a storefront offers, as well as the one-on-one help for how to dress.
How would you describe the fashion scene in the Valley?
I don’t think there’s much of a fashion scene. I think there are many people who are interested in it, and I think that’s a great thing. We just don’t have that core industry here, but I think there are a lot of people from New York, L.A., Europe, Chicago and all over the world who make up a great clientele who love art and fashion and beautiful things.
What could improve the fashion scene here?
Schools can incorporate more fashion programs. You need to have resources for manufacturing, cutting and sewing.
What do you look for when you’re choosing lines to feature in the store, and what are some of the lines you feature?
We have Nicholas K, Maison Scotch, Transit, Isabel de Pedro. I like to look for unique lines, but ones that aren’t too out-there, because price points get prohibitive, or the line becomes more toward short-term dressing. I look for lines that have a different edge but a balance.
What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
Look for opportunities for work or internships that make sense for what you want to do and are interested in, because you never know where that’s going to lead. There’s not going to be a fashion design school that can teach you everything, and it ultimately has to come from your own heart and soul. Think about what your design sensibility is that makes it unique and fresh and gives you a reason to bring it out to the world and share it.
How would you say the fashion industry is evolving?
I think the fashion industry is going through this huge change. You don’t have certain categories of dressing levels, and retail is changing drastically. Instead of doing collections with 20 pieces, it’s better to do little core groups, so you have a new deliveries every month, or every few weeks.
I think designers will have to listen to the client more and what the consumer wants and what their needs are, versus dictating to them what they think is very exclusive and trend-driven and fashion-y. Social media is a great tool to stay connected.
Learn about other Valley fashion designers:
Learn more about Femme Athletic designer and Phoenix Fashion Week executive director Brian Hill here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about State Forty Eight designer Nicholas Polando here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about T-shirt designer Sebastien Millon here on Phoenix People.