Cover Windowsen couture collection "Barbie With the Chinese Zodiac" (Photo: Sihao Li)

Meet Sensen Lii of Windowsen, part of a new wave of couturiers debuting stunning, otherworldly designs that are available only in limited quantities

The haute couture world is shaking up. In a three-part series, Couture Youthquake, Tatler speaks to demi-couture masterminds about their journeys.


It only takes one glance to see that Windowsen is all about couture for the future. A young label founded by Chinese designer Sensen Lii in 2019, Windowsen takes its name from the Windows operating system and the founder’s name. Sci-fi, gaming, sports and couture craftsmanship clash unexpectedly in Lii’s out-of-the-world silhouettes, with cascading tulle gowns and dramatic hues that are often described as “alien couture” and “spatial fashion”. 

Couture fans may know that the concept of “alien couture” can be traced back to the late French couturier Thierry Mugler and his bizarre yet visionary creations, or André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin’s interstellar adventures with space-age fashion. While a popular approach to couture is to dig into archives and bring vintage designs to life in the present, Li, like these visionaries, prefers to rely on pure imagination and create wholly new designs. “Since building Windowsen from my studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, I’ve focused on expanding its universe; every season is a different perspective looking into it,” Lii says. 

 

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His spring-summer 2022 ready-to-wear collection, for example, is an introduction to the different species and inhabitants on planet Windowsen. Dubbed “Monster Heart” and presented at Shanghai Fashion Week last October, the collection has propelled Lii into the public eye, his avant-garde designs and imagination challenging any pre-conceieved notions or stereotypes when it comes to Chinese fashion.

The designer places a strong emphasis on personality, and has been casting “everyday” people instead of industry models for his shows and campaigns since his debut. An inclusive cast of models including musicians, drag queens and dancers walked down in motocross-inspired outerwear, chunky sandals with decorative toenail motifs; with crystal embellished makeup and even “robot” legs. One dress in particular features over 2.5 million Preciosa crystals with high double splits and chain details, staying true to the craftsmanship-heavy nature of demi-couture. 

Lii’s shows have become spaces to liberate and express, with guests showing up in their alter-ego looks. Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, who has been much more low-profile in recent years, showed up in an anime gothic look to support the designer’s second runway show. And the designer has amassed a diverse following of stars who appreciate his unique take on fashion, including singers FKA Twigs, Grimes, Katy Perry and CL, all of whom have sported Windowsen’s intergalactic fashion.

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This level of success didn’t come easy. Lii first developed a love for performative, theatrical fashion during his undergraduate studies on musical performance in China–not to mention finding inspiration in the iconic performance artist Leigh Bowery. He then enrolled in the Fashion Department of Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp to study fashion design after assisting a stylist for a year, during which he gained exposure to high fashion and experience working at clothing brand Ground Zero as assistant designer, which affirmed his passion in design and building a label. “I could start the brand on my own already, but the goal was to open my eyes”, says Lii.

During his years of study, he had the opportunity to show his second-year collection at VFiles during New York Fashion Week and while it wowed the fashion crowd, it was still a new learning experience for the young designer. “I wasn’t very used to the environment and didn’t receive enough respect,” Lii recalls. After he presented his final-yer show, he didn’t finish his final exam and instead flew to Hong Kong to work on Cantopop diva Sammi Cheng’s opening looks for her concert. “(The Antwerp) experience [prepared] me to develop my own model of fashion design, and push myself through that mental state”, Lii explains. 

In the three years since, Lii has launched both ready-to-wear and couture lines for his business, although he doesn’t necessarily pigeonhole his work by those industry terms. “I never categorize myself as a couture or RTW designer, I am just doing designs. Definition is a notion from the society, a title that people need in order to remember that you are special, so they put an adjective,” he says. Lii prefers to think of RTW as mass-produced designs created for sales, while couture represents his pursuit of art.

His last couture collection "Barbie With the Chinese Zodiac" , which was presented off-season, blends his cultural background with his futuristic aesthetic, reinforcing his concept of “Sporty-Tech Couture”. Whether they fall into the definitions of RTW, demi-couture or couture, Lii’s designs are consistently a hybrid of the sporty and classic, the strong and soft, and he also has an abiding interest in genderless sportswear and the online world. “Windowsen is never about gender,” Lii says. “The visuals and concept always come first, but they naturally come with sports elements. For example, all the waists of my gowns are tightened with drawstrings”. His latest RTW fall-winter 2022 collection, hich is due out this spring, revolves around robots–one of the many extraterrestrial residents in his world–and elements of MMA fighting.

 

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Sustainability is an obvious touchpoint when it comes to the future of fashion, and it’s certainly on Lii’s radar. The designer created a conceptual collection for Nike in 2020 as part of its Move to Zero sustainability-themed initiative. However, Lii is honest about the feasibility of eco-friendly collections as a new designer. “Undoubtedly, the world has come to this point. Yet, you can’t be ‘kidnapped’ by this phenomenon,” he says.

Lii explains that he believes the pressure of being sustainable should not stand in the way of art, and designers should aim for sustainability to the extent they can. “There are times when you need to admit the low substitutability of certain materials, [in that] they cannot hold the silhouettes [of your desin] or [they’re] more expensive or there isn’t a sufficient supply chain,” he says. “I could create a sample with eco materials, but there is not enough for mass production.”

 

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While he's still experimenting with the market’s acceptance of his designs on a commercial level, Lii is proud of the uniqueness of his brand and his community, and he’s happy to take things one step at a time. “My goal is [to focus on] how to present my next collection, how to communicate with society - the story I want the world to see,” he says. As avant-garde as Windowsen is, its ethos nevertheless aligns with couture at its core -  the ultimate provocation of experimentation, which has given designers the freedom to create, to imagine outside of trends and limitations, for more than a century. 

 

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