This year has seen a huge rise in the acknowledgment and awareness of sustainable fashion and the negative impacts of fast fashion on the environment. We’ve seen an increase in resale culture, reusing and reselling old garments on platforms such as Depop as well as a number of smaller creators reworking and designing old garments into fresh and exciting creations and building budding brands of the back of this.
One such brand that recently caught my attention through social media is Ai Mei Li. when scrolling through her Instagram it’s hard to not get lost in the chaotic beauty of her shredded, braided and colourful garments.
With her first post only dating back to September 13th, Emily Macfie – the 23 year old behind every piece – has managed to garner major support from the likes of Mowalola as well as grow a beautiful and supportive community online.
In this interview we talked with the young designer about it all. How her heritage influences her style, why she does what she does & more.
So first of all, tell us a little bit about who you are – who is the person behind Ai Mei Li?
My name is Emily, I’m 23 and I’m a Gemini! I’m half Korean and half English. I’ve been living in London for the last 5 years but I was born and raised in Asia.
You started your brand fairly recently – what prompted you to finally make your designs public or show people what you were creating?
I started making clothes in the beginning of the first lockdown back in March for fun. At first I was just showing my mom but I started posting the process, progress and final products on my personal instagram. The reception from my friends and followers was super sweet but I thought of it as a hobby and not as a possible serious career for myself.
A couple months later, I saw that someone was ripping off my designs and realised I needed to pick up the pace if I wanted to be serious with this. If I didn’t try and establish myself and my specific styles & designs, I knew someone else would take it and run with it. DA GAME IS DA GAME !
Your pieces are all one of one reworked from other garments. How do you decide what you’re going to rework and where do these pieces come from?
At the start I was just pulling old clothes from my closet since I wasn’t able to go fabric shopping or charity shopping and couldn’t afford yards of new material. I started running out of tops and pieces I already owned that I wouldn’t mind compromising, so I started buying secondhand pieces on eBay & depop to bring back to life. My mom also donated me so many of her old clothes, which I’m super grateful for, and some are currently on their way around the world from my first drop!
I’m super resourceful with using every inch of material available to me, all the braids I make that hang off my tops are made from every tie dye top I ever owned which I cut up and stretch into ribbons. The shredded tops are made from old scarves and material my mom collected over the years. I always gravitate towards colour and patterns so luckily my mom and I have closets full of colourful items- it gets me excited to create and keeps me inspired to continue. The only problem is, I’m super sentimental so certain pieces from me or my mom’s past I have a super hard time letting go of!
So how does the process work behind every garment? Do you know how you’re going to rework something beforehand or do you just jump in and see where it takes you?
I freestyle every piece I make. I’m the type of person that even if I plan something, I’m due to switch it up halfway and the product ends up looking completely different so it’s a bit of a waste of time to me. Also I don’t draw because it’s impossible for me to put what I have in my brain onto paper and do it justice. I’ve reworked around 60+ tops now, so I know what techniques work best on different materials & how to create different shapes and silhouettes with my braiding and I’ll apply these depending on the patterns and prints on the top I’m working on.
The colours of braids and ribbons I add also depend on the colours of the top itself. It’s a really enjoyable process, I like the freedom of it! The first top I ever reworked I thought to myself: “if I mess it up it doesn’t matter because I never wear this anyways”, and it turned out!!!! I’m sure that if I took it too seriously from the start & applied pressure on myself, none of what I made would have existed like this. It’s helped me gain confidence in trusting my gut with everything, once I start cutting and shredding up a top there really is no going back!
What do you want Ai mei Li as a brand to communicate to others?
Besides the obvious recycling & sustainable nature of my designs and promoting dismantling fast fashion, to me it’s really as simple as- I like making beautiful things and I make them for beautiful people, ai mei li is 4 EVERY1. Even from the way I construct each item, it has no boundaries and I don’t follow any rules. I want to translate that into my clothes and to the people who want to wear them. NO RULES!!! JUST PLAY TIME. I think it is translating well to people so far because from what I can tell from the reception and feedback, they are all accepting, supporting and loving people.
I always liked the idea of a brand being larger than just clothes or aesthetics, and actually incorporating lifestyle, identity and creating a community, so that has been really surreal and beautiful for me to witness. 20% of the profits from my first drop were dedicated to one of the models from my first ever shoot, Moses, to fund his top surgery. Even the support towards that has been really heart-warming and inspiring. Every single piece I make out of so much love and care, and as I said already, I find it hard to part with every item because I am so sentimental but knowing they are all going to good people makes me feel very reassured and content.
Do you have a favourite piece that you’ve created?
It has to be the mini green polo I reworked. It is so cute I want to wear it everywhere I go! But really and truly, I love every single piece I make, even the ones that don’t fit me – I want to keep them all.
Your recent shoot for your first drop looked amazing! Tell us a little bit about how that went for you?
Thank you so much! Where do I even begin with this one? A lot of plans had to be compromised because the UK announced lockdown 2.0. The first studio cancelled on me a week before my shoot and refused to refund me. The second one cancelled on me the day before the shoot at 5:19PM due to electricity works, not even 24 hours before. When I got the email I was on the way to meet @creaturefeatur3 to pick up the headpieces for my shoot. That walk home from the pick up to mine I was banging emotional Trippie Redd trying to think what to do.
By God’s grace, my friend Skylar, and her lovely flat mates, Jowin and Lydie came through and allowed me to use their living room. THEY SAVED THE DAY FOR REAL. Special shout out to them, and the photographers Béni & Tatyana, and all the models: Moses, Mars, Bali, Lyra, Erica, Brian, Madeleine, Lola, Owiny, Hanifa, Mags, Jessica and Beth. I cannot thank all of them enough. Each one of them taking a day out to help bring Ai Mei Li to life was actually very emotional for me. It was a hectic day but the energy was magical and it was very rewarding.
And another huge success – all of your pieces sold out on the first day of launch! That must have been amazing – how did that make you feel?
You see me and my luck. Why were there technical difficulties for the first 11 minutes? I was there, phone blowing up because people were thinking everything was already sold out when nothing had even sold yet! My sister was all trying to order items and she was telling me it wasn’t letting her add it to her basket and then I saw my first email notification talking about ‘ORDER CONFIRMATION’.
My family were all in my bedroom and we were watching live as it sold out. 18 minutes and there were only 2 items left. It was really a surreal experience for me because I realised that
1. These people actually meant it when they said they would have notifications on, ready to purchase. THAT type of dedication and feeling I know too well with drops from some of my favourite designers and brands causing me near heart attacks!
2. The thought that these clothes that have been hanging all around my room for the past god knows how long were finally going to go somewhere and be worn was spinning my whole head.
and 3. My parents were so happy and excited and I could tell they actually believed me in that moment that this was what I was put here to do! I was too ready to start working on my next drop and make more pieces for more people! It was really an invincible feeling.
It’s shocking when you realise how recently Ai Mei Li began considering where it is now – in the future who would you love to see in your pieces?
I tweeted a couple months back that I want to see Coi Leray, SZA & Lancey Foux in my designs, but I have to add Yves Tumor, Bree Runway, Mowalola & Deto Black too! Really and truly, seeing all my people and my friends in ai mei li is what I care about the most. I always thought how cool it would be to pass by a stranger on the streets and they are wearing my stuff.
I think another thing that makes the brand so special is your unique style. From the imagery, to the collage and design – where do you draw inspiration from and how do you incorporate this into your work?
I realise growing up in Asia subconsciously really set the tone for my specific style and taste when it comes to almost everything. Consuming the culture, local street style, films and art shaped my interests and what I continue to consume in my adult life. My mom used to take me and my sister with her to art university and we would just sit in the corner and watch all these cool adults paint naked people in a worn down studio. If you know about Fruits magazine, that’s what they all dressed like! I believe that’s why I make the kind of clothes I do.
I bought a book called Tokyo: A Certain Style, which is just a collection of photos of cluttered rooms around Tokyo and one section of it talks about the word “monomaniacs” – where, and I quote, “you take a liking to something, it absorbs you totally, and quite naturally it fills all your available space. Your walls get covered up”. I would describe myself as a monomaniac, from books & magazines like my Araki book and fruits magazines to films like Millennium Mambo and Ichi the Killer, my bedroom walls are covered in photos of things I like and things that make me want to create things to last. A few people on my walls that inspire me are: Asai, Nigo, Astroboy, Marilyn Manson and photos of my mom – also a lot of posters and artwork by my friends!
So finally – we all want to know .. what’s up next for Ai Mei Li and when’s the next drop for anyone who missed out!
Well before the year ends, I hope to do another drop but I have a couple of collaborations lined up and in the works! 2021 everyone should expect world domination! Hahaha I’m joking. Hopefully a lot more clothes, new designs and a lot more people in Ai Mei Li <3