Li on T: The New Creative Director Speaks
The goings and comings at T were covered with the obsessive tabloid attention usually reserved for politicians’ love affairs and Real Housewives. But the dust has settled and a new team is in place at the magazine: editor in chief Deborah Needleman and creative director Patrick Li, who helmed WSJ. magazine together before making the leap to the Times. Their debut issue of the magazine is on stands this Sunday. Before the launch, Li—who has also worked with Jason Wu, Rodarte, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Alexander Wang through his own firm, Li Inc.—sat down with Style.com to talk logos, photos, and what’s to come.
Congratulations on the launch issue. Obviously it’s the product of an enormous amount of work.
And this doesn’t represent the complete—Deborah’s complete—vision. I mean, there’s much more to come. We wanted a very pointed reset, in a way. [Now] it’s a very elegant and restrained look at the system and look at the fashion world.
Starting with the “T” itself. What’s the response been to that?
The response has been generally favorable. I’ve been talking to a lot of people in my immediate design world, and, honestly, there it’s been slightly mixed. You know, “Why did you change?” And then after I explain why, it’s like it becomes clearer.
Part of that must be that it’s a sacred cow.
Well, it’s a sacred cow that’s, you know, seven years old, right? But after the success of launching T as a magazine…the newspaper has really adopted the gothic “T” as a symbol of the paper. It’s not the same logo as the old “T,” but no one else is really going to notice that. So there was confusion out there in the world—like, What’s the paper and what’s the magazine? And there are very strategic plans for the magazine to grow into a fuller, bigger, self-sustaining initiative. It, of course, gets its power from the Times, but it needs its own identity, so Deborah was very adamant about having the logo represent something more forward-looking. It’s very sans serif—a more streamlined look—and then we brought over certain aspects…[that are like] the old “T.” So there are similarities, or shared common points, but obviously it’s manifested itself in a totally different way, which we’re thrilled with. And it’s evolving and changing as we speak. It’s a slow reveal, but you’ll see different iterations of the logo going forward.
So you’re starting on the most minute level. How does that kind of ground-up redesign express itself throughout the magazine?
The content is imbued with the same qualities, and the look, I guess, comes from a response to the content. And like this issue, it’s very restrained. [But] I have this expression that I’m trying to fight the tyranny of good taste. I feel like we need to have some sort of transgressive moments to make it more relevant or have this, like, vibration between something very understandably beautiful and something a bit more uncomfortable.
One of my favorite things [was] developing a typeface, and actually, first of all, being at a place where they understand the importance of that. When I first got here, I was like, “Can we do a font that’s unique to T?” And they said yes and didn’t have any resistance to it at all—which I was surprised about.
That’s not a given, I take it, in magazines.
I guess sometimes money people are like, “There are so many fonts. Just pick one.” But we really wanted to have one that was definitely ours, and this one has qualities that I don’t think…I mean, I haven’t seen. This is called Schnyder. It was inspired by this announcement that I got. And it’s basically a painting for a painter’s show announcement by Jean-Frédéric Schnyder. If you look here, the type is super-elegant, but it’s completely wonky and weird. There are different widths and different thicknesses, and there’s different treatments. I really wanted to see if we could take that idea and push it. We’re working with this really amazing type designer, Christian [Schwartz], from Commercial Type, and he does a lot of magazine typefaces, and he was really excited about this idea of building dysfunction into the type itself.
It’s a little bit of entropy and anarchy in a very stable place. Feels kind of right for a year obsessed by punk.
Yeah. It builds in this transgression, somehow, that I think I always aspire to. Yet it stays sort of within, like, this elegant frame, which I think Deborah’s T wants to represent.
And is that a good tagline for the whole magazine—transgression in an elegant frame?
I think it helps to push culture forward a little bit, so it’s not all just pretty and nice.
How does that relate to, or how is that different from, what you’ve done at past places, such as WSJ.? What differentiates a magazine like WSJ. from one like T?
I guess one could confuse the two, in terms of what they’re meant to be [which is] advertising vehicles for the paper. But I do feel like The New York Times has a broader reach. We never really focused on business when we were at WSJ. [despite its business focus], although that sort of umbrella certainly informed some decisions, like the idea of getting behind the business of fashion—and that’s sort of an area that I’m personally interested in, and Deborah is, too. But journalistically and ethically, I think that there’s a common shared hope somehow. I just feel like T is able to bring it to more people, a slightly wider audience.
That’s an interesting question, too, the one of reach. T and WSJ. have been accepted into the fashion fold as real fashion magazines, but they also have a responsibility to a wider readership that’s not necessarily a fashion readership. Is that something you need to be conscious of, in terms of the design and the photographer selection—how to be a servant of two masters?
I don’t know if they’re two different masters; I think that they’re like maybe different facets of one personality, in a way. You know, Stefano [Tonchi] created T, and it’s obviously [been] a huge success. His success has allowed T to become a voice in fashion, which is, as we all know, very competitive. There are a lot of different print vehicles that have existed, and the fact that T gained entry into that world is really due to the success of his product, and that’s not a fact that’s lost on me at all. I mean, he’s a great friend, and I think what he does is fantastic, and we’re just trying to evolve that. Deborah’s voice is very different. Having some of the people that are on our team now, they’re very fashion. It’s nice to have that combine with what Deborah’s perspective on fashion is.
Which is somewhat separate? Or at least from a different angle?
There are definitely different angles. Deborah comes from this lifestyle world that she’s extremely respected in. She herself admits to being, like, new-ified in fashion. At least [she was] when she started at WSJ., and that was really an entrée. Now she’s really in it, and she’s excelling at it. I think it’s fun to be in the adventure with her. I still have my design studio, and I work with many different clients, and I’m also the art director at large at Vogue China still. So there’s like a lot of different parts of fashion that I get to operate in, but T is clearly the focus.
The credibility and authority of The New York Times is something that we want to respect and bring to what we do visually, photographically. Having Joe McKenna, for example, on our team is really a testament to the power of the Times. He’s offered everything. When Deborah and I first spoke about the possibility of T, one of her questions was like, “Should we get a fashion director?” And my first choice was Joe. I’ve worked with him extensively on advertising projects and other editorial projects, and I honestly wasn’t expecting him to be so responsive so quickly. He’s very involved.
Obviously he comes from the top of the fashion industry, but one of the things I was struck by while looking through the magazine is that in addition to heavyweights like Mario Sorrenti and Sølve Sundsbø, you’re using plenty of photographers who are lesser known. Is that a very considered decision?
I think it’s having that mix of who’s doing work that we all like. And of course we aspire to use bigger names, too, which we do. I mean, having Mario shoot for us in the first issue was fantastic. But there are a lot of new people out there, and I think as fashion becomes wider as a cultural force, we want to acknowledge that with the people and the designers that we choose to put into the magazine, and content in general—it’s not all super-famous, but we want people who represent a kind of quality. That’s a great privilege, to be able to help new voices develop, too. It’s fun.
One complaint I’ve been hearing a lot this week is that fashion design has become more corporatized and a bit stagnant. Is it a better time in the broader visual sphere than it is in fashion?
That’s a good question. I think it’s certainly a time where there are many, many more young designers than there has been. Or who now have the ability to show. I mean, before it’s like you would have a guerrilla show outside of a major show to get noticed, and now you can stage your own because the barriers to entry are sort of eroding. I feel fashion photography-wise that it’s…I get more inspiration from the art world in terms of new photographic voices. But we always review new fashion photographers, and Joe has his eye on new voices as well, so we have great dialogue about that. I would love to do more.
How will your T extend itself online?
The online initiative is really critical. We are expecting to redesign in a couple of months. The opportunities of what the online world offers are vast. But it’s funny—despite the whole migration to online, there are more print magazines now than ever. I don’t even think of it as two worlds anymore, but they both sort of inform each other. We’ll have more content that’s unique to tmagazine.com. We’re getting deep into that now. It’s not just “for more, look at this” because we couldn’t edit all of our photos to be in print so we’re putting them online.
T is a big magazine—and the Times is nearly the definition of the establishment. You came up in the world with a group of friends and classmates from the University of California, Berkeley—Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Patrik Ervell—all of whom started small and independent and are now very established. Do you feel a part of a new generation coming to prominence? And are you doing things differently from your predecessors?
That’s interesting. I don’t really think of it as…this generational way of looking at it. And of course I can’t speak for them, but we do what we do. It’s nice that maybe it’s not just more accepted, but it’s part of the dialogue or the conversation in a wider way. [But] it’s a very natural evolution. I don’t feel like an alien here, because I still do what I do, and the process is very similar. I think it’s maybe just having experience. I guess it’s more an instinctive thing than an age thing, although your instincts are certainly honed by your experience and your wisdom. But to look at Carol and Humberto, Laura and Kate, you know, it’s so inspiring. They’re leading the conversation. It is about, I guess, challenging previous establishments somehow. I’ve always felt that way, and I still feel that way here, even though I guess you could say that it’s almost part of the establishment. It’s helping push the conversation forward.