The modern day designers who spend their energy perfecting quiet clothes with a sole purpose of making you feel and look your best are few and far between. Which is why Sisi Li, a veteran of the fashion industry, and her young line, Nells Nelson, are poised to gain quite the cult following. (Her collection has been picked up by forward thinking boutiques such as If in Soho, NYC and A’marees in Newport, CA.) There is nothing extraneous about a Nells Nelson design, but simple doesn’t denote boring. The exquisite fabrics–the finest wools, cashmeres, silks, are cut into clean, attenuated silhouettes which are light and layer-friendly, and have details, say the slit of a pant cuff on the inseam, which are subtle nuances meant solely to delight the wearer. Sisi’s signature piece–the long blazer, is a wardrobe essential stripped of everything that can make it unpleasant. There are no linings and the elongated, slim sleeves with high armholes–the kind that usually constrict your movement, work because of a knit panel under the arm allows you to wave to your Uber or drink a latte. A Nells Nelson blazer, much like everything in the collection, is the kind of piece you reach for again and again making it worth the investment. Here, the designer shares her story.
Could you talk about your path to this collection and what you did before? Why fashion? I’m from Hong Kong. I moved to New York when I was seventeen so I didn’t finish school. I was doing different jobs, I was surviving and then one day I was, like, ‘You know what? I need a career.’ Sometimes it’s the opportunity that is your destiny. My first real fashion job was at Et Vous, a French company. I learned a lot–different processes, making clothes and different parts of the business. And I worked very hard. Then I was approached by one of the vendors to have my own collection. At that stage, I didn’t really know anything about knitwear but he had a knitwear factory. I learned knitwear and we had this immense collection for knitwear and it did really well in Paris. My last job I was the designer of IISLI, Andrew Rosen [of Theory] was my partner. It was a great experience because I learned the fashion business on a much higher scale. We sold to a lot of major department stores and retailers, the distribution was worldwide. But you know, when you’re making clothes for ten, twelve deliveries a month, it’s a lot of stress.
Wow, I guess so. You keep making things and if you don’t like it, you throw it away and make another thing. There’s so much waste and there’s so much anxiety because the time is ticking. You have to develop every day. It’s not a good way of creating something and it’s not a good way of creating something of quality. I felt like I had to move on. Then [my husband and son and I] moved to Italy. There, I had an opportunity to work as a consultant for a modernist architect/interiors place. I saw a lot of beautiful art, furniture–all these beautiful modern ideas. I was inspired by the consideration and the thought process behind those pieces. During this time, I started making clothes for myself.
Really? I made the first six pieces of the collection for myself. Of course, I had the resources and the relationships so I was able to get the fabrics I wanted and to find an atelier to make them.
What did you feel like you were missing in your wardrobe? What did you want to create? I don’t like the word luxury, everybody uses luxury. I wanted the fabric to pamper me, I wanted to touch something beautiful. I wanted something that was quiet but I wanted to see a different kind of simplicity. I like the combination of something that is quiet but also dramatic. So the lines, the details, the way it makes you feel, the way it drapes on you….I took all this into consideration but I didn’t add unnecessary details that are decorative only. Every detail I put in has its function and purpose.
What do you want the woman who buys your collection to feel or when she wears your designs? When they put on my clothes, I want the silhouette to make them feel strong. I like the word powerful. I like powerful women. That’s why I like blazers, the shoulder and the silhouette. I cut my jackets so they feel like you’re wearing a cardigan. I think being comfortable is a very important element not only for your comfort but it’s the style. It’s the way we live now. We wear flats, we run around. I think women will feel strong, chic, and pampered [in my designs]. They are something they could wear everyday, something they want to live in. They’re like your best friend.
What inspires you? Form follows function. The philosophy of modernist architecture and design is not just about making something to look good–the structure, the details, the function and the aesthetic are all elements of the design. The thinking process behind each detail, ensures that none of the components can be defined as un-neccessary. This is how I see every piece that I design for Nells Nelson. What really inspires me is how can I create something that is so functional and at the same time is so comforting and so elegant, so beautiful? I want to look beautiful, polished, joyous–all this plus the comfort. And the lightness.
There is a lightness to your materials. That’s intentional? I like layering. I don’t like to commit to one big, heavy piece. Lightness that is like a great chair. My husband loves chairs and the designer, Alberto Meda made the Light Light Chair, the first carbon fiber chair. The chair looks so solid and elegant but when you pick it up, it’s like a feather. If you create something that looks solid and then it’s light, it’s unexpected.
I’m a very practical person, too. I want clothes I can wear every day, I don’t want to think about them. But it’s not just to be comfortable on the go, I want to look impeccable.
What was the easiest thing about launching Nells Nelson? What was the hardest? The easiest thing was making the clothes. I can make decisions for myself, you can make decisions for yourself. That is the easiest part to launching a brand. The hardest part is staying true to yourself and not to let people shape you. Everybody has different taste, different views, opinions. They might not like what you do and that’s okay. Somebody will like what you do.
What motivates you? What makes you want to be an entrepreneur and have your own brand? I like challenge. Everybody is talking about technology and how it has changed the world. Yes, of course, technology has changed the world. A lot times you hear, ‘Oh, people don’t care about clothes anymore.’ And ‘ People don’t shop like the way they used to shop.’ I feel like, ‘Okay but I don’t see anybody walking around naked,’ right? When people started saying that nobody cared about clothes, I thought ‘This is a good time for me to make clothes.’
The best career advice you’ve received and what you would tell other people starting out in your field: I think you should be open minded. It takes time to find what you do best. Everybody has some strengths and some weaknesses. I think it takes time to learn that and being open minded, you can find your strength and your weakness. Then you can balance it and do the best that you can. It’s fun to do what you love. When you can do that and pay your bills, that’s great. That’s the best thing.
To date, what has been your biggest success? Being able to stand in front of what I make and be really proud of it. Staying true to what I love to do.
What has been your biggest failure? What did you learn from it? I think my biggest failure was when I was listening to other people too much. You lose your own focus and you start doubting who you are. I think that’s very bad and very unhealthy.
How hard would you say you work? Not that hard physically, but my mind is always working. I’m always inspired by the surroundings, the conversations, and thinking how to make something I already have even better.
What’s next? I stopped planning. You don’t have a crystal ball. The more you think, the harder it is. I have to have some sort of projection and plan to see a season or two ahead, but I try to live every day happily.
Life goals: I’m very happy right now. I’m happy in terms of what I am doing for my career. I have a wonderful son. I learn a lot from my husband. I’m very lucky. I don’t have really big goals. I don’t need to win a big award, or something.
Daily goals: I love to cook because I love to eat, so sometimes I will wake up and say, ‘I really want a good clam chowder.’ I will go crazy searching out the ingredients, the chopped clams….. That can be a goal. When I lived in Italy, I cooked many kinds of cuisines because I missed them. One day, I said, ‘I’m going to make Moroccan. I miss Moroccan,’ and that wasn’t good. I can make French. I can make Italian. But Moroccan? The food didn’t taste anything like it.
Daily rituals: Not daily but a few days a week, I look forward to a drink at the end of the day–a glass of wine.
How do you unplug? It used to be very hard when I worked at stressful jobs. Now I don’t have to unplug. I try to remind myself when certain things happen not to go crazy, or not to be so stressed out. It’s not easy but, at least now I take steps to remind myself. It’s also when you have a healthy family, that is what’s important. I always remind myself, I’m actually the richest person now because my son is here, my husband is here….
Hidden talents/hobbies: I play piano. After my first marriage, I didn’t want to go out and have drinks with my girlfriends, it’s boring. So I bought a piano and fell in love with classical music. I started playing and it was like a video game, I became really obsessed. Every weekend, I would make myself a pot of soup and some food and then sit at the piano for hours and work on a certain piece and tell myself, ‘I need to at least play this page by Sunday.’ I love to play Mozart. Of course, Mozart is hard to play well. My fingers are not as soft, as fast, as bouncy as a real pianist but I love how he composed music. It’s a lot of notes, but it’s the emotion. It’s happy.
Do you collect anything? Not really. When I moved to New York by myself at 17, I moved from place to place and tried to be a survivor, a New Yorker. So I don’t attach with things.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: My piano.
Favorite small indulgence: I love massages. I’m addicted. I don’t like sweets so much and I’m not addicted to any kind of food but I love massages.
Album currently on repeat: I always love classical. I like orchestral music, I like opera. I’m not into music that has words. I like melodies.
Scent that brings back memories: When I was little and growing up in Hong Kong, there was a soap that has a jasmine smell. Sometimes when I see it in Chinatown in the super market, it brings back memories.
Lucky charm: A carved Buddha pendant. My friend gave it to me because I broke my toe the day before my birthday. I said, ‘Oh, that must be really bad luck for me.’ She said, ‘Wear this. I got it from the temple.’
Favorite hour of the day: Six to seven thirty p.m. That is the time I like to have my wine and cook.
Three words that describe Nells Nelson: Sophisticated, strong, and elegant.
Three words that describe you: Passionate, truthful, thinker.
Follow Nells Nelson: Instagram.