Invitations are signifiers of mood. Even before attending a soiree, by opening the invitation, there’s a subliminal message to the recipient. Sometimes an invitation can sway an attendance. That’s when you know its done its job. Patrick Li is pretty brilliant at this. Of course, he is not just an invitation designer, a great graphic designer encompasses his job title sometimes. He’s the guy behind the shadows, the one one who designs what we see.
Frankly, I want this guy’s job 🙂
Tailoring the Image to Fit the Clothes
LOTS of people in fashion are better at communicating their ideas with needle and thread than with nouns and verbs.
But it is Patrick Li’s peculiar job, as an art director and graphic designer for some of the hottest new clothing designers in the business, to articulate their vision in the single nanosecond it takes to look at the name on the label of a dress or a T-shirt. His medium, if you could describe it as such, is logos, hangtags and shopping bags, the kind of things that subtly, but instantly, tell you if a designer brand is modern, fastidious, industrial, urban, preppy or just plain out of your league.
How, for instance, do you explain Rodarte to the layman who, with no prior knowledge of the two self-trained sisters from Pasadena, Calif., who take inspiration from Japanese horror films and unattractive birds, encounters one of their ragamuffin sweaters with a four-figure price tag?
“What is the word that I’m looking for?” Mr. Li asked as he described how he tries to distill the spirit of a particularly challenging Rodarte collection, designed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, which has captivated the fashion world by seeking beauty in dark places. There is something refined about their clothes, certainly in the lush fabrics and detail of construction, but there is also something else that creates a sort of tension. Mr. Li toyed with the idea of calling that something “roughness,” and then “masculinity,” before dismissing both words as incomplete and deciding the one he really wanted was “grotesque.”
“They are interested in this collision between refined and grotesque, and how something unexpected or new can come from that combination,” he said.
As the gestation of a designer label, from birth to media sensation, has shortened to a time frame that would make overnight seem like an eternity, the role of behind-the-scenes image makers like Mr. Li has become increasingly important. The designers have to be noticed or they’re gone. In addition to the Mulleavys, Mr. Li works with Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim and Jason Wu, each a recent phenomenon, by crafting the visual cues that will help make customers recognize their work.
Mr. Wu, who shot to international stardom when Michelle Obama selected his one-shouldered white gown for the inaugural galas, described Mr. Li as “the best-kept secret in fashion.” He has also worked with bigger companies like Chanel and Bottega Veneta, and Nordstrom just hired him to refresh its image.
Mr. Li, who is 41, often works with an invisible hand, though you will recognize his work if you have seen “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” for which he designed the movie titles; or shopped in a Barneys Co-Op, for which he designed the clover-shaped logo; or read Louis Vuitton’s new coffee-table book, for which he also served as art director. He began working directly with designers eight years ago after starting out in magazines (Emigre, Interview and Colors). For another eight years, he assisted Fabien Baron, who is probably the most successful art director in fashion, the man who helped shape the images of Calvin Klein and Burberry and whose clean and elegant style has had a clear impact on that of Mr. Li.
“I would describe Patrick’s work as like distilling something to the purest form,” said Kate Mulleavy. “Laura and I are so quiet about how we communicate with people. We like to work in isolation when we are working on the collection. So the first person we talk to about what we are doing is Patrick.”
Mr. Li designs the fashion show invitations that are mailed to hundreds of editors and store buyers each season, enticing them to see a collection and sometimes giving them a hint of what is to come. Ms. Mulleavy said that she and her sister typically fire off a mountain of inspirations. The spring collection, for example, was based on transformation myths involving a person who is burned alive and reborn as a condor or a vulture. There was talk of California condors, burnt sand and the wildfires that were spreading around Los Angeles while the Mulleavys were at work.
“Their references each season are totally off the wall, and sometimes I think they are meant to confuse,” Mr. Li said. “You can leave the discussion thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t really know what it means for a California condor to intersect with a Robert Smithson earthwork,’ but each of those things imparts a certain feeling.”
Mr. Li described several failed attempts to actually burn the heavy stock used for the Rodarte invitations, ultimately giving up when a printer refused to take the insurance risk. Instead, he used a silk-screened adhesive that was coated with burned sand. The Mulleavys liked the idea so much they decided to put sand on the runway as well. Mr. Li also helped the designers adjust their logo, from a basic all-caps style produced on a typewriter to one that looks slightly more ominous, using a bolded version of a Times font that has been condensed so severely that the letters start to vanish.
“It is meant to be invisible,” Mr. Li said. “We were searching for something unique, but also not too showy, because the clothes do enough of that.”
It turns out you can say a lot with fonts. For Mr. Wu, whose clothes are conventionally pretty, Mr. Li wanted to suggest a tinge of decadence, and youthfulness, to show that these were not the clothes ofOscar de la Renta. Using a combination of very thin, sans-serif typefaces, he printed the name in a taupe-y gray, making it seem a little blurry.
“There is a little bit of an unrefined look that harkens back to a different era, which I think helps provide a bit of context to Jason’s clothes,” Mr. Li said. “To me, it’s very Studio 54 or Mr. Chow’s, that late ’70s decadent era.”
When Mr. Wu showed his collection at the St. Regis in September, Mr. Li redesigned his invitations to reflect the traditional décor of the hotel, using heavy stock trimmed with gold. But he added a schematic drawing of Mr. Wu’s new logo to represent a modern touch.
“I know what my brand is about,” Mr. Wu said, “but I want someone to know it just by looking at my Web site or my packaging for five minutes.”
Mr. Wang’s look is tougher, more street — the stuff models wear on their day off. So the typeface is solidly grounded, a play on Helvetica in thick bold strokes. “Delicate was not a word for him,” Mr. Li said. “He’s not a pretty satin bow.”
Working with the designer this summer, Mr. Li tossed around ideas for how to convey that sensibility in shopping bags and gift boxes, since Mr. Wang was about to start selling his collection online. They came up with black boxes that are wrapped not with a ribbon, but with a wide, chalky gray industrial rubber band. Zipper pulls are next on the drawing board.
“Designers have a certain viewpoint on the world and how it should look as an ideal place,” Mr. Li said. “I think everything that their name or logo goes on to needs to reflect that spirit.”
It can be as simple as adding a stitch. Before Mr. Li started working with Phillip Lim, the designer had already created his own logo using his signature as a way to make it seem more personable. His peppy clothes have a broader commercial appeal than those of Mr. Li’s other clients, so it was important that the packaging not feel esoteric or too narrowly focused. Mr. Li introduced a signature element of adding stitched threads to packaging and invitations.
So, in a neat trick of the eye, it seems as if even the gift boxes have been touched by the designer’s hand.
Alexander Wang’s InvitePhilip Lim's Invite
Article by Eric Wilson. Read it in The New York Times, here.