For Yang Li, the London-based fashion designer, music has always been front and center. He has successfully united his obsession with music and his work with SAMIZDAT, a line of “merch” for a band that does not exist. And while other designers, such as Jun Takahashi of Undercover, Takahiro Miyashita of the Soloist, and Raf Simons, have referenced music in their work, Li has gone a step further by inviting musicians to perform at his shows and presentations. These have included cult figures like Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten, Michael Gira of Swans, and Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV.
For his new project, debuted at Leisure Center in Vancouver, Li’s goal was to re-contextualize a live music performance by moving away from the usual confines of a music venue, therefore taking both the artist and the audience out of their respective comfort zones. Amplifying the discomfort, the performance would be by Pharmakon, the noise artist from New York. Li is a fan of noise music, the final destination – according to him – on the aural train. “Music has always been important to my poetic universe,” said Yang Li during out interview the day before the performance. “It was always a continuing process of discovery, especially when I moved out of China. You start to consume more accessible music, discovering bigger bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and then you go further and further into the rabbit hole until you reach the darkest crevices, and noise is one of them. To me this happens with every passion, whether it’s art, film, or fashion. It’s an obsession, to say the least.”
To say that noise is a challenging form of music is an understatement. I asked what attracted Li to a genre of music listening to which, as the New Yorker music critic Kelefa Sanneh once wrote, is “exercise in endurance.” “It’s a seduction on the level that’s very physical,” said Li. “It’s not something you get into by listening on your home stereo. You have to go to a gig to get it, which is one of the main points of doing this event.”
“My fashion work is the sum of my experiences. The design has to come from something that has substance; otherwise it’s just product.”
But noise is also a quite niche scene with its own rituals. Both the artist and her audience roughly know what they are getting into, and their dynamic is codified. Staging a live performance in a boutique, and inviting an audience unfamiliar with this genre is Li’s idea of pushing the envelope. “It’s important to expose and provoke your audience,” he said. “And it’s something I wanted to share. My fashion work is the sum of my experiences. The design has to come from something that has substance; otherwise it’s just product.”
Leisure Center is a sprawling, 20,000 sq. foot space that opened in Vancouver only last year, and which combines fashion with books, art, furnishings, skincare, and a juice bar. It’s the brainchild of Mason Wu, who already runs a successful multi-brand boutique in neighboring Richmond, called Kokko. But he had a different idea for the new shop. “Today, quite a lot of shopping is done on the Internet or in department stores, and these shopping experiences are quite boring,” he told me. “Time has become such a luxury for us, and yet we spend hours each day on our phones. Our idea was that shopping should be an elevated, physical experience in itself, and not just a transactional one. That’s why we called the store ‘Leisure Center.’” To help him realize this concept, Wu hired John Skelton, the creator of LN-CC. Skelton served as the store’s creative director during the inception phase and until its opening. Wu also hired the architectural firm Casper Mueller Kneer, which has designed several Celine boutiques. “I think even with the rise of e-commerce, the human, physical element of shopping has not changed all that much,” said Wu. “We still want to feel something, to touch something, to taste something. We still want to enjoy our life in the same way.”
Wu was one of Li’s earliest supporters, and they had been wanting to collaborate for quite some time. “I was excited when Mason first told me about his idea for Leisure Center. It’s courageous to create a store like that, to take a risk on such level in order to disrupt the current retail system,” Li said. Since novelty was central to Wu, simply having a gig at the store seemed too conventional. Instead, Li came up with an idea to create an oversized trunk, based on the music instrument cases that bands use on tours. But instead of instruments, it would contain a completely integrated music system, with PA and lighting, one that could be set up in any space and operated by a single musician.
Li enlisted Olaf Kneer, from the same architecture firm that realized the store to design one. The result is an imposing structure that stands at about eight feet tall and eleven feet wide, and that can be taken apart into four sections. Li wants it travel to different cities, on a mini tour of its own. He called it YANG LI/VE HUMAN MAS/CHINE. “The machine helps contextualize this project not only on the physical level, but also as a gesture,” Li said. “And knowing that Mason was on board helped us guide the process, so in a way he is directly responsible.” One major point is that Wu is the first person whom Li is taking out of his comfort zone. “He’s very courageous to let me do this,” said Li. “At first I was taken aback but what Yang proposed, as noise music is something very new for me,” said Wu. “My staff was questioning me as well. But at the end of the day, I have to give Yang the freedom to realize his vision. And this is also a way for us to move the needle forward. This is just the beginning, as we want the store to have a strong cultural program.”
The last thing I asked Li was how he felt about being able to go from being a music fan to someone who is able to actualize his passion. “Oh, it’s the best thing ever,” he answered. “Being able to combine fashion, music, and most importantly subculture, because in the end that’s where all my passions stem from, is the highest achievement of my career, and it’s something that I will continually pursue. If we don’t do it, who will? We have to continue flying the flag.”