Taottao makes a statement without saying a single word. This New York based brand from emerging designer Yitao Li encapsulates all of the sensuality and boldness of fashion, embracing the unique individuality of the IT girl. Curated between the glittering cultural hubs of Jersey City in the US and Shenzhen in China, their debut collection, RTW, is full of enticing denims and plaids. Also inspired by the imagery of vintage cartoons, the collection fuses playfulness with the rebellion of non-conformity. Li talks with us about being an independent designer and her own rebellious spirit.
Hi Yitao, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. How are you feeling today, and where do you answer us from?
I’m feeling a final ease but excited for more adventures to come. I’m in Jersey City now.
Congratulations on the release of your first collection! Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you became a designer?
Thank you! I’m from Taiyuan, China and I came to the US when I was 14 years old. I’ve always loved art making and designing starting from when I was little. I remember drawing dresses and cutting them out to make paper fashion figures to line up and play dolls as a kid. But I have a very traditional Chinese dad that tried everything to stop me from going into fashion instead of finance. I think a big part of me being a rebel shaped me into becoming a designer.
What was the process like of starting Taottao? Being an independent designer comes with its struggles and challenges, but also the reward of doing what you like and being your own boss. Tell us more about this experience.
It has been very challenging. The process almost feels like me being an octopus and being 8 people at the same time and designing is actually a small part of my job. There is a long distance from an art piece and a product but I have to find a balance between them. Anything can quickly go wrong at any time, don't be surprised. However, seeing my ideas come to life is incredibly rewarding, and I'm grateful for the support of my family and friends during this challenging but exciting time.
Since the brand was founded in 2022, what has it taken to get to this point?
It's been a mix of learning old and new ways of doing things, facing ups and downs, and adapting to the business side of fashion.
The brand is also being developed between Jersey City in the US and Shenzhen in China, which both have completely different cultures and even different fashion worlds. The contrast must be so enriching! How do these different places inspire you, and what do you think results from bridging the two?
I am inspired and motivated by the people and culture of where I am from and where I grew up. So I want to have my in-house small production there. I also love the people and culture of New York being the place I can truly be whoever I want and wear whatever I want. Life is always unexpected here. And the world is no longer happening around just where we live. I feel like I am always under the influence of everything going on globally.
The debut collection features a lot of different mixed patterns, textures, and shapes that are described to be inspired by vintage cartoons. What brought you to that specific inspiration, and how did that manifest into your designs?
I wanted to make clothing that is not so serious and make people feel playful and fun wearing them, like the feeling of simple pleasure from watching cartoons and playing games as kids. So the collection has a lot of combinations of very different and contrasting materials as well as colours.
Out of curiosity, what cartoons did you watch as a child? Any particular character that stuck with you until now?
I am very inspired by Neighbourhood Story (1995-1996) for this year’s colour palette, the main character Mikako is also a fashion designer. The Little Mole from 1957 has also left a lasting impression on me, emphasising the beauty of simplicity and visual storytelling.
The aim of this new collection is to celebrate individuality and nonconformity, how do you see yourself fitting into that? Would you say you're also bold with your personal style?
Celebrating individuality is integral to both my personal ethos and design philosophy, as I strive to create pieces that empower self-expression. I want the clothes to do the talking for me so I don’t have to initiate conversations, because I can be quite introverted at times. I love to celebrate dressing up, and to wear something fun and out of the ordinary.
Speaking of the collection, I see the colour palette is sort of muted and very cohesive, nothing seems out of place. And something strikes me: there are no black or white pieces, which are colours that are usually mandatory in ready-to-wear. Can you talk to us more about how you came to work with these hues and not include others?
I took pixels of scenes of cartoons and acted as a brush that paints the patterns for me. Like dipping a brush directly into a scene, pull out and make a stroke. I think fashion never needs to have any colour or shape, it is what’s fun at the moment that is captured and stays that way. I never go into development with a fixed plan. The process gives me unexpected beautiful things.
You’ve worked under a number of different designers like Monse and Kim Shui, what were those experiences like? Would you say that these designers have helped to form your design style today?
Working with those amazing designers was incredibly valuable. I learned a great deal about the inner workings of the industry and gained valuable insights that have shaped my approach to design. I do see a piece of them in me now.
Finally, what do you want people to know about you and your brand from this inaugural collection?
I want people to know that Taottao is a labor of love, driven by my passion for creating beautiful, fun garments. With each piece, I aim to inspire joy and creativity in those who appreciate the art of dressing up.