Expect the Unexpected with This Editor's Take on Colourful Outfits
NYC-based editor Michelle Li pushes the limits with her looks, whether incorporating abstract prints, structures or brights, a confidence she found growing up in Indiana.
"Beyond the Fit" is a series that explores how emerging creatives weave together personal style and identity.
Michelle Li loves to play with colour—whether through clothes, make-up or hair. It's not just an affinity; it's something she first learnt to master in a colour theory course she took in design school. "That really helped me hone in on how colours work together", she explains. "I go through colour phases now, where I really sit with [a colour] and experiment with all the different shades and how they work together".
Growing up in Indiana, Michelle wanted to stand out from her modest Midwestern surroundings. Fashion became her outlet. "I was so hungry for stimulation and fashion inspiration", she recalls. "We didn't have as much access, so it made us more resourceful".
Now, based in New York City, the fashion editor says she's constantly inspired by the style and fashion of her downtown neighbours. Her own style is whimsical. Patterns and prints clash with layers of texture and volume, and each look is grounded in sneakers, a trend she was admittedly late adopting.
The kicks aren't just for optics, though. There's nothing she values more than function when it comes to fashion, says Michelle. Plus, she is an avid athlete, rotating between tennis, running and cycling when her schedule allows. Here, she talks about her style journey, and how comfort as well as colour have become key.
Let's start at the beginning. How has your hometown shaped your identity?
I spent my early childhood in Greenwood, Indiana, which was predominantly white. My parents emigrated from China, and we were kind of the only Asian family. I always felt like an outsider. Then we moved to Carmel and there were a lot more Asian people, which was nice, but then I was like, "I want to stand out". I started to get into fashion more and using it as my way to feel special and different. My friends and I loved getting dressed up. We'd wear a sports bra over a t-shirt, and we thought it was so crazy and funky. It really made me appreciate styling and piling things on.
How did you ultimately find inspiration or begin to define your style being in the Midwest?
I love watching high school movies and kind of looking at the costume design and how the different outfits help communicate the characters. I would just constantly rewatch the same movie over and over again and take notice. Like 13 Going on 30, I loved the fashion in that, and I think those outfits defined how I tried to dress all of high school.
[Growing up in the] suburbs, it was very much like whatever was at the mall and then if you found something else outside of that, you thought you were like, really special, you know? So yeah, it's just such an interesting time where everything is kind of just like all coming together, and it doesn't really matter where you're going or what you're wearing, but how you're wearing it, which is really cool.
Now that you live in New York, what have you learnt about fashion in the city?
There's something to be learnt from everyone's style. I always see this older lady who rides her bike on Spring Street. She's, like, 60 or something, and she has amazing style, and it gives me this jolt of energy and inspiration. I know myself enough to know what works for me, so I feel really blessed to be able to see all of these people's outfits and pick out what aspects I like and want to try to copy.
In what ways has your style been impacted by your Chinese heritage?
For me, it's more of a mentality than the aesthetic. I take a lot of pride in my work, the outfits I put together, my own personal style and really owning it. When I think about why I'm drawn to so many interesting floral patterns that have fine lines and bright colours, it makes me think about how my mum used to dress when she came to America. She reinterpreted American dressing, but also tried to stay true to herself by wearing different Chinese prints.
"When I think about why I'm drawn to so many interesting floral patterns that have fine lines and bright colours, it makes me think about how my mum used to dress when she came to America".
Colour is such a defining aspect of your style. How do you approach it?
What's always been really fun for me is changing the amount of colour that gets put into the outfit and seeing how the other colours react to it and their relationship to it. I definitely have some colours that feel off-limits for me, though. For some reason, I will never wear yellow. I feel like it makes me look like a banana. Colour is so dangerous because it can really give off such a specific mood. I've definitely made a lot of mistakes with my outfits where I'm just like, "Oh man, I went way too Halloween-y with this".
Why did you start integrating the sporty look into your style?
I've worn so many uncomfortable outfits in the past that now comfort is my number one priority. I pretty much only wear sneakers. I love to mix the streamlined, utilitarian feel of lifestyle clothing with more feminine pieces. Bringing in colours is always a fun challenge.
Speaking of lifestyle clothing, what are your thoughts on sneaker culture?
I was at a bookstore in Japan when it really hit me that sneaker culture was a thing that's been happening for so long. I found these Nike catalogue books detailing the history and evolution of the Air Max, Air Force 1 and Nike Shox. That was a moment for me when I thought, I want to learn more about this and figure out what my signature sneaker is. I'm currently in love with the Nike VaporMax Plus. I always wanted Nike Shox in middle school, but we couldn't afford it, so this was my way of giving a little back to mini Michelle.
With such a busy schedule, how do you stay active? What works best for you?
Well, I grew up playing tennis, and I really love that, but moving to New York, I realised tennis courts are so rare. I used to play tennis for three hours a day, so I really struggled my first few years here trying to figure out my workout routine. I would take random classes, but it was never sustainable. Now I'm starting to run a lot. I hated running, like, I feel like I've been trying my whole life to get into running. I've tried to change the perspective from "I need to run five miles every day" to "I want to run for my mental health to clear my mind". That really helped me. It makes you feel good even if you didn't run very far. After a long day, even if I'm really tired, I'll tell myself to go on a run. You can always make 30 minutes for it, like, are you kidding me? I spent like 30 minutes on Instagram in the morning.
Words: Sydney Gore
Photography: Elizabeth Wirija
Reported: September 2020