Blending style and sustainability has long been a fashion conundrum.Ong Li Hui, founder of local label Li’s Atelier concurs, saying: “Sustainable fashion is not easy to support. I want to make it easier for people to endorse this cause”.
The fashion industry is responsible for environmental pollution, releasing toxic waters from textile factories and producing an estimated 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. By establishing Li’s Atelier in 2019, Ong was hoping to reduce the negative impacts of fashion and create a path for consumers to make more environmentally conscious decisions when shopping.
It is one of the reasons she chose linen, which is made from the flax plant, as the brand’s signature fabric. “Although I have always loved fashion, I wasn’t really exposed to the issues of sustainability and pollution associated with fashion. It was when I wanted to start the brand that I made an effort to learn more about this matter.
“I thought using linen would be a good first step. It’s very hard to do sustainable fashion because it can never be 100% clean and green, but this is a big move to contribute to eco-friendly fashion.”
A renewable resource, flax has many benefits, including using five to 20 times less water and energy than man-made fibres during production.
Ong was also trying to fill a gap she noticed in the market at that time. “I have always loved linen. But there weren’t many options back in the day, especially for younger people.”
She recalls BritishIndia being the only brand specialising in the material and producing a variety of choices, but “the designs were more for the older demographic”.
Do you have to compromise your style in order to be kind to the environment? “I don’t think so. When you wear a pure linen piece, it can be stylish, comfortable and sustainable at the same time,” Ong says.
Apart from quality and choice of fabric, the label takes pride in creating authentic designs that “you don’t get elsewhere. I insist on making my clothes different from that of other brands”.
Whenever inspiration strikes, she will jot down her thoughts so she can go back to them when designing a new collection. “Inspiration comes from everywhere. It can be a piece of furniture, a building, or an item of clothing my grandma used to wear.” It is undoubtedly easier to envision a drawing with colours using a digital medium like an iPad app, but she prefers to illustrate sketches on paper.
Browsing through Li’s Atelier website, customers may get the impression that it is a women’s clothing brand, but it does offer a range of selections for men as well. “We launched with outfits for both genders, but I found that menswear was not moving as fast. That’s why we focus more on women instead.” Menswear is usually rolled out during major festive seasons such as Chinese New Year or Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
As her goal is to produce timeless and versatile pieces that can easily mix and match with other clothes, Ong is more inclined to neutral shades for her creations. “But we also try to provide more variations because not everybody likes earthy colours. And it can get boring if everything is in a similar tone. But for every collection, there will definitely be some light and earthy colours.”
Making classic garments means steering clear of popular trends. Is that the case for Li’s Atelier? “I wouldn’t say we avoid trendy pieces altogether because inspiration is everywhere. Sometimes, when you look at some things too much — on social media for example — you cannot help but be influenced by them. When I design, I always put thoughts into how long can a piece last? Will it be wearable and relevant 10 years down the road?”
Launching its first collection in late 2019 posed a challenge as the brand did not foresee how soon the Covid-19 outbreak reached its peak. Business moved at a slower pace as factories could not operate, production was on hold and there were issues with courier services worldwide.
Things started picking up again as restrictions were gradually lifted, more so after the label was offered the opportunity to show its collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week KL last year alongside local brands such as Fondest, Kanoe, LTTL and Xue_S. “It was surprising and exciting to be able to showcase my creations on such a platform. It definitely helped get our name out there.”
Ong does not exactly come from a fashion design background — she graduated with an accounting and finance degree — but she has had a deep interest in fashion since young.
“I read a lot of fashion magazines when I was a kid. And whenever I watched television, I always looked at people’s clothes. I was determined to pursue this field and had asked my parents to enrol me in a design course at Raffles Kuala Lumpur after the SPM examinations for five months,” says the 32-year-old, whose parents convinced her to follow a more promising path at the time.
She pursued a career in fashion retail after graduating to gain experience in the industry, knowing she would one day chase her dreams. Although she had wished she could study fashion more deeply, she did not regret learning accounting and finance as it helps her navigate the business side of things.
A year ago, Li’s Atelier set up a physical studio in Petaling Jaya, after two years of operating online. “We used to participate in a lot of pop-up markets, but we are more focused on our store now, where customers can come over by appointment to try on and feel the clothes.”
The label’s current offerings include various tops and bottoms, fashioned with contemporary touches to make them more appealing to the younger crowd. Apart from expanding her collections and injecting more fresh designs, she is also looking to grow the business outside of Malaysia.
This article first appeared on Apr 24, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.