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Li Lin Portrait By Shen Ruilan

Now among China’s most respected fashion designers, Li Lin had a background in chemistry and no fashion experience when she founded her brand, JNBY (Just Naturally Be Yourself), with her future husband Wu Jian, in 1994. From a single store in Hangzhou, JNBY has ballooned into one of China’s most respected fashion brands, with nearly 2,000 stores worldwide and a market value of over $500 million on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Its headquarters in Hangzhou are spread across 17 buildings and include an art gallery and a hotel. Lin is also an avid collector, from the stones she keeps in her office to her expansive art collection, which includes pieces by Bruce Nauman, Henri Matisse and Geng Jianyi.

Portrait by Shen Ruilan

THEASTER GATES Why did you start a fashion brand? You must have been crazy.

LI LIN I studied chemistry at university and when we graduated, most of my classmates went to the US to study or went to work in factories. I found it quite difficult to find a job I liked in the chemistry field, and I had always liked art and design. I started in a small shop, and at the beginning it was a very simple idea and quite easy. I thought I’d have lots of free time – that when I closed the shop I would be able to travel. Very quickly I was proved wrong because it was super busy. You’re working every day from morning to night, but this job is good for me. You are always starting from nothing.

TG Every season it changes.

LL Yes. That forces me to learn more, to look more. But at the beginning, I started going to museums and galleries to see how artists were thinking and expressing themselves. That was the real motivation.

TG Do you often find inspiration from visual artists?

LL Yes, of course. At the very beginning, I didn’t have a background in art, so I didn’t know how to do colour composition. When I’d see something from a painting, I’d analyse its colours, choose the colour I liked and dye the fabric. Yesterday I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They have a great show, Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, which had beautiful colours.

TG When I was in Hangzhou, you also had a very impressive collection of rocks and stones. Where do you find them?

LL I’m a born collector and have a huge collection of stones. When you see a stone, you can discern its location, the climate, you know that it has been around for thousands of years. You can get a lot of information. Stones also come in so many different colours, and many paintings use pigments from stone. Some colours look the same, but because they are different stones, you get a different feeling. It’s a lot of fun. Stones also have so many shapes – they’re like natural sculptures.

TG You started with one small shop.

LL Yes. In my last “real” job I worked with a chemistry production company. It had one underground space on the street, and I started from there.

TG How many retail spaces are there now?

LL Almost 2,000 stores. One-third are self-operating. Two-thirds are more like franchises and distributors.

TG That’s crazy. I don’t know how you deal with almost 2,000 distributors.

LL It’s a massive production, but I have a great team. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in this business for 29 years because every day feels so fast.

TG I came to know you and your work because you also love art and working with artists. I remember we met in Basel and you said, “You must come to Hangzhou – I have some buildings and I’m working on a retail space, I want you to be involved.” I get there and I look at the building and I say to the driver, “Is that the building?” It’s a whole neighbourhood; it’s like a little city. Who was the architect of your spaces?

LL It was Renzo Piano. You should come back to see it now.

TG I can’t wait. Li Lin, I think of you as an artist who happens to be in fashion. Talk to me about collaboration. Who were some of your earliest collaborators?

LL One big reason I started an art collection was because I had very close friends from Hangzhou who were great artists, Geng Jianyi and Zhang Peili. From the early 2000s, Geng Jianyi curated exhibitions with local artists and some of his students and sometimes we went to the studio to buy some works. In 2006, Geng Jianyi first talked to me about his idea we called the “imagination laboratory” and we started to do some small projects in 2008. For the first exhibition, a collector was given fabric cuttings, scrap metal, many other kinds of material. They invited artists to choose what they liked, then everybody made something for the next exhibition. It was before I knew you, but it’s kind of the same philosophy as yours. Every time I talk with artists, it blows my mind – like in the morning when you open the curtains and the light is so strong.

Please upload an image.

Interior of B1OCK Concept Store within the JNBY headquarters, Hangzhou. Space planning and props design by Theaster Gates, 2020 

TG You’ve been supporting artists for a very long time and supporting their ideas, but it’s always been a dialogue. Artists give you inspiration, you give them support. I feel like I experienced that first-hand when you asked me to design your retail space, because it was the first time that I had ever done a project like that. It was so ambitious, and really complicated. You made a jumpsuit for me, a beautiful jumpsuit that I still wear all the time. One of the best memories I have when I was visiting you was going to a city called Suzhou to get materials.

LL Oh yes, the old furniture market.

TG We spent all day at the furniture market. It was the furniture of an old China in a historic district for architectural elements that people no longer wanted because they were building new houses or because the government was tearing down houses. Demolition people come and remove the material and bring it to Suzhou. So many screens and doors! I’d never seen anything like it. It made me think that for a country that is so old, it seems to have a real preoccupation with the new. In some places, there’s not a deep value given to the antique home.

LL In China now, especially in the big cities, houses that aren’t super fancy are very difficult to find in good condition. In Beijing or Shanghai, you can perhaps find something in an old factory for you to make into a studio, but it doesn’t last long and you don’t know when they will kick you out. Now some young people have small, old apartments, but they do super nice things to them. Simple, but great. There aren’t many though. It’s changing fast. When I was in my twenties, we were short of so many things, so if you had a chance to have new space, most people just threw away the oldest things and bought newer things. Some people with a good eye kept some things. But large pieces of furniture are very difficult to keep if you don’t have space.

TG Part of the reason that I’ve stayed in Chicago so long through my art career is because I could find affordable industrial warehouses. The houses were also really affordable. So in that sense, Chicago was a great place for artists to live and work versus New York and LA, which were a lot more expensive.

LL We have started to think about changing our old factory. We want to upgrade it as a campus.

TG When I’m in Tokoname, the town where I studied ceramics, I feel like I’m a 20-year-old again. I always feel like I’m a student there because there’s such a rich tradition of learning. People work hard, but they don’t talk a lot; they just work. One time I asked you, why don’t you bring JNBY to the US or Europe?

LL We tried before! Now we have our online shop. We’re still learning how to do the US. Next time, we can do a pop-up shop together. You’d design a great one in your jumpsuit.

TG Only jumpsuits. I would love that.

LL We can use 3,000 different fabrics to make a jumpsuit. ◉