The backstage of a fashion show is notoriously chaotic — clothes flying everywhere, shoes being tossed around, hairspray filling the air.

But behind the scenes at fashion designer Claudia Li’s Spring 2019 show less than an hour before start time, people appear cool and collected, including the designer herself. Though she does fess up to feeling a few jitters.

“I’m definitely a little nervous,” Li says. “During presentations I’m usually pretty calm. But for runway, a lot of things can happen. Within those few minutes, your entire collection is presented — it’s not like I can just walk up to people and explain everything.”

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

The 30-year-old designer has presented eight collections at New York Fashion Week, but this marks her first official runway show. And while that would be anxiety-inducing enough for most, Li is taking it a step further by making a truly monumental move: featuring an all-Asian runway cast.

“It’s a question about representation,” Li says. “There’s a perception of this beautiful Asian girl, and there’s one singular vision.”

She rattles off several stereotypes that commonly plague Asian women — that we excel at math, play the violin, study science and are generally subservient. Her show, she explains, is an opportunity to highlight the models’ individualities while also shedding light on how diverse Asian women really are as a community.

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

Li, who was born in China and raised in New Zealand and Singapore, couldn’t have picked better timing. Fresh off the heels of #AsianAugust — which birthed the Hollywood success stories of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and John Cho’s “Searching” — this casting choice feels like a natural next step forward in an industry that has long struggled with diversity and inclusion. In 2017, French fashion house Kenzo cast 83 Asian models for its Spring 2018 show in Paris. But beyond that, progress has been slow-moving.

“It’s not a stunt because I am an Asian woman, and I have been assumed that I should fit into a certain image when I’m the complete opposite,” Li says. “I sang in a metal band when I was in high school. I ran away with cute boys. So it’s very personal, especially with how it’s connected to this collection.”

Li channeled her upbringing in New Zealand to inspire this season’s designs. Her childhood bedroom was next to her mother’s garden, and the bold, oversized blooms influenced the vibrant colors and contrasting textures that went down the runway. Many of the looks featured luminous prints, 3D lace floral appliqués, and embroidery.

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

“The silhouette this season is comprised of core standards that I’ve become known for: exaggerated collars and sleeves, wide-legged jeans, layered outerwear and the contrast between tailoring and fluid draping,” Li says. “But some of the new ideas we explored include multicolor woven braids that you’ll see were used in belts, straps and bag handles, and a new exploration in deliberate ruching on sleeves and along the waist, which gave outwear a new volume.”

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

The end result? A collection that’s decidedly modern: It’s daring and whimsical, but also manages to evoke a strong sense of structure and functionality.

“Fashion is definitely important because it’s how people see you,” she says. “It’s a reflection of who you are. And not only on the outside — it’s more about [what makes] you different and [expressing] your own personality.”

Soon after Li took her end-of-show bow, responses to her landmark casting decision began pouring in.

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

“It’s very touching when someone contacts you and explains how they’ve felt misunderstood, and that what you’ve done has spoke to them,” Li says. “The volume of genuinely personal reactions has been at a scale I didn’t expect.”

Of course, the road ahead remains long and challenging. One survey from 2016 found that 78.2 percent of all the models featured in fashion advertisements were white (just 4 percent were Asian). And Victoria’s Secret only recently cast the first Filipino-American to walk in its famed runway show.

(Jonas Gustavsson)
(Jonas Gustavsson)

Yet despite the odds and obstacles, Li is optimistic that the tide is turning. She says that fashion has an integral role to play in the movement toward equal representation across all mediums, and she welcomes the chance to be a trailblazer.

“One of the great things about the fashion industry is how quickly it can get behind an idea or a point of view,” she says. “But one of the downsides is that hot button topics like racial diversity can be dismissed as trendy and go away as quickly as they became popular.”

The solution, according to Li, is to “integrate shows holistically” and to ensure that designers are continually rethinking the ways in which they hire talent to showcase collections.

“Showing on the runway at fashion week is a global microphone,” she says. “Because the design of this collection started in a personal place for me — it was all tied to childhood memories — it made sense to extend that personal experience all the way to the casting and to show women like me. It’s clear we tapped into a national conversation.”

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