That was the case when we stumbled upon the Instagram of Michelle Li, a 24-year-old fashion design graduate from RMIT. Michelle’s conceptual collection, felt, dress, is an intriguing series of sculpture-like, felt-wrapped dresses that hug the human body. But it was the innovation behind her design process that really got us talking.
Like so many designers (particularly students) during the lockdown, Li was cut off from all of her usual resources (like fabric rolls). So, while working on her graduate collection she had to look a little closer to home for materials. This led to her mother’s wardrobe.
Li has always gravitated to working with natural fibres. She specifically wanted to use wool felt for the collection due to it being durable, malleable and biodegradable. So when she approached her mothers wardrobe she sought out specific ready-made items to re-contextualise into her garment-wrapped dresses.
Although not ideal, working with limited existing materials ultimately had a transformative influence on the final work and process. Being forced to give up a sense of control and planning, Li instead designed “through intuition”. The result was a thoroughly original approach where she experimented with shape, angle and her understanding of body symmetry.
For what it’s worth, we’re hardly the only ones to take notice. Li is one of two recipients of this year’s Australian Fashion Foundation and American Australian Association scholarship awards and has earned a spot among the top 10 designers at the 2022 National Graduate Showcase at PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival.
Ahead of her debut, we called her up in Amsterdam (where she’s on holiday) to talk about her collection and where her career is heading next.
Hali Christou @helen_retouch
Congrats on being a finalist for this year’s PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival graduate showcase. What are you looking forward to most from the experience?
I was very excited when I heard the news – my first response was “oh my God, I can’t believe it’s me.” [The showcase is online this year], so I was lucky to assist on the day of the shoot. I was backstage with the photographer and videographers and able to see the whole process. Seeing the dancers moving in my collection and all of the other designers’ work was what I enjoyed most about the whole experience. I actually think being in this showcase gave me the confidence and courage to put my work forward for the Australian Fashion Foundation competition [more on that later].
As well as winning you awards, your graduate collection felt, dress has got a lot of attention online and in fashion publications. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind it?
As a starting point, I was looking at capturing the “in-between space” and looking at duality – the contrast between asymmetry and symmetry and grey being the meeting point between black and white. It captures a sense of ambiguity. A lot of this project was actually inspired by conceptual art and the different ideas that can be translated.
Who were the particular artists or designers that inspired you?
At the time I was reading Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramović. She shared this idea of leaving space for imagination. She’s about letting the audience participate within the performance itself and I think the book had a big impact on me and my collection.
Artist Juan Gris’s paintings – from his purism movement, where he translated daily objects into geometric shapes – also fascinated me. I was thinking “wow, this feels so perfect”, but I couldn’t tell why until I looked into the composition. It’s all perfectly calculated. It inspired me during the design process to try different combinations of joining pattern blocks in mirror symmetry.
Hali Christou @helen_retouch
Due to Covid you had to refine and change your project as you couldn’t get your hands on material. You instead turned to upcycling, reusing and re-contextualising materials from your own home (including your mother’s wardrobe). Can you tell us more about that?
I think I would have looked to pre-existing materials anyway, but Covid made it even more restrictive so I had to take it one step further and look at what I, or my mum, already owned. It was kind of good in a way; it keeps things very simple. I thought, “OK, this is what’s available so I can only choose from this”.
Coming from a design student’s perspective, using existing materials makes sense. We’re able to be really creative with what we make, we’re able to create one-offs and we’re not mass-producing anything. It also gives you a lot of unexpected coincidences when you’re playing with it as well. There’s already so much that exists in the world – if we can reuse, let’s do it.
Whether it’s upcycling or working with natural fibres, you clearly keep sustainability front of mind – which we love. But can you tell us the challenges you navigated?
While there were challenges, I think [sustainable practices] have become a guide for me rather than something I have to solve. I’m always thinking “how can I fit my design under certain criteria”. My connection with sustainability is making clothing that will last a very long time and is well-designed and considered. Looking at it as artwork.
Congrats again on winning the Australian Fashion Foundation and American Australian Association scholarship award. It’s landed you a significant internship and cash prize. What does it mean for what’s next?
I’m actually still deciding which designer I would like to work with. At the moment I’m fortunate enough to be sharing a studio space with Naarm-based labels TOILÉ STUDIOS and Wackie Ju, where I’m surrounded by creative people. I came out [of RMIT] with a list of things I still don’t know how to work with properly – like stretch materials. I want to feel confident and build on myself a little more before I go overseas. I don’t want to have too much pride: I always say I’m so lucky to have won this, but I don’t want to fake it until I make it. I want to be confident before I go in.
On the subject of what’s next, what would you like to see change in the Australian fashion industry as you pursue it?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I would love to see a lot more independent and creative runways. There are so many cool artists here but we seem to have a lot of the fashion shows that are very systematic. We also need to see a lot more normal body types, as well as more inclusion of POC.
Another big thing for me is packaging. I get overwhelmed by it; there’s plastic everywhere. I worked in retail for a long time, and every single garment we received came in a plastic bag. Every single one. I think we need to switch to biodegradable alternatives – there are a lot of alternatives on the market like the dirt bag – and there needs to be more exposure on this topic. We need to put pressure on brands to change.
The above answers have been edited for length and clarity.