Interview: Liad Krispin
Founded in 1990, Li-Ning is the second biggest domestic Chinese sports brand and one you’ve possibly never even heard of. A few decades deep in the athletics game and the brand hit speed-bumps in the 2010s, losing sales and prestige as creative apathy stymied progression. In 2017, Li-Ning relaunched with acclaimed runway shows at Paris and New York Fashion Week. The sci-fi footwear vibes might be inspired by a galaxy far, far away from the sporting field, but the resulting noise radically repositioned Li-Ning as a trailblazer in ‘anything goes’ ultra-modernism. Fashion might be the tiny tip of the product pyramid, but there’s no arguing with Li-Ning’s profit, which has surged 187 per cent in the first half of 2021! One of the architects of the repositioning is Liad Krispin, whose resume includes a well-timed stint at adidas Y3. Time to find out if all roads do lead to China as we take a closer look at Li-Ning’s highlights reel.
I’m curious how Li-Ning heritage is perceived in China compared to the West. Is it almost like two separate brands?
Li-Ning is definitely a heritage brand after 30 years. It was founded by Mr Li Ning, the Olympic gymnast, to create athletic products for Chinese athletes. The brand grew very quickly but after many years, things became quite stagnant and it became the brand that your mom and dad wore.
I came on board at the end of 2017 and it was very clear that we needed to reposition Li-Ning with elevated products. By presenting on a global stage at New York and Paris Fashion Weeks, that somehow created noise in China itself. Of course, some people know Li-Ning due to the Dwyane Wade partnership, but in the West, the brand is pretty much unknown, so this was a new discovery. That meant we had to tell the story in a very slow and strategic manner, because it takes time to reposition an entire brand. You only get one chance and if you don’t do it the right way, you can really screw things up.
The timing was perfect and that first runway show definitely made some noise. Was the original brief as simple as imagining what ‘super futuristic science fiction’ shoes would look like?
We made so much noise it affected the entire brand. Sales went up, the share price started going up as well and that momentum is still strong. In my previous job I saw how when you present top products to a very targeted consumer, it actually affects the entire brand. The original brief you mentioned was more ‘We’re going to show at Fashion Week and do crazy things, so don’t be afraid!’ But to be honest, before I started, the brand was already going in that direction.
There was never any fear of business obstacles or questioning how we go about it. It’s really based on the hunger, especially from the Chinese side, for newness. You’re right, the shoes are completely sci-fi, but from a designer’s perspective, they still have a sense of archive that comes from sports, and they just take those ideas and go for it. There’s also a form of Chinese cultural inspiration where they try to mesh all these worlds together to create something totally new, which they somehow have done.Liad Krispin
I agree. It’s easy enough to design outlandish shoes, but I do see aesthetic continuity in the design details. They all look like Li-Ning shoes, even though the branding is almost non-existent.
Yeah, exactly. Go nuts, but you have to be considerate. So the logo, of course, they put it on some of the shoes but in a lot of cases they keep it off. But there is, like you said, an aesthetic where you can recognise the shoe is Li-Ning. The biggest compliment to the local team is the fact that their shoes are being knocked-off in China. There are cheap versions everywhere, which they laugh about.
You really have to embrace the look head-to-toe for it to work. The Arc Ace and the 2020 Ace are more like sculptures. Is that a good way to think about them?
It’s a strong look, that’s for sure. We developed the Arc Ace outsole to provide a bounce function and it actually does work. But of course, it can be considered a sculpture in some ways. It’s not a professional running shoe, but you can work out and you can run in them. The positive feedback was really good on that model.
The 2020 Ace was also linked to the inspiration for that season, which was all about extreme sports. The designers took a basketball shoe and mashed it up with outdoor elements so it became like a sculpture of ideas, with different textures and fabrics. They are definitely very wearable and we want people to use them as shoes. They are not display items.Liad Krispin
Instagram kids like Kah-Bane are creating cut-and-paste Photoshop shoes, which is a totally limitless artform because functionality is not a requirement. I see that same digital freedom of expression in some of the Li-Ning models.
Yeah, I guess so. Li-Ning designers are all young kids and they’re really excited by the future, grabbing bits of inspiration from trends, Instagram, WeChat, Weibo, whatever it may be. They mash all these things together and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We work very closely with them by putting things together, then stripping it right back in order to make sure the shoes still feel new and creative.
Was it a conscious decision to not do so many collaborations?
We’re open to them, but we just want to do the right ones in the right way. We did Stefano Pilati’s Random Identities line, which was very nice and created a lot of attention. The Soulland colab was focused on running and it went extremely well. We have a second release with them coming, which will also include apparel.
We also just entered the skate world with Erik Ellington, so there’s a whole other area for Li-Ning to explore.
We want to stay focused and make sure we do that totally authentically. Erik is amazing, all the content that he’s been creating for us around the launch looks really good. Aside from that, we are in conversations with different partners, so we’ll see what happens. I’m definitely not in favour of doing a colab just for the sake of it.Liad Krispin
The list of retailers is pretty impressive. It’s not easy getting into Kith.
The reality is that it’s harder to get into sneaker stores than it is to get into fashion accounts. The fact that we created these elevated products and showed them on runways made those retailers take notice, but we waited two or three seasons before we presented to them, so we created some demand first. The sell-through has been really good. They see the potential in a sports brand that has a new story to tell and a fresh aesthetic. The strategy was always to start with the ‘forward-thinking’ range and then open the brand up more down the line.
Is there one Li-Ning shoe that you think has the potential to become a mainstream success?
Yes. One thing we realised early on was that the Furious Rider was a franchise we needed to develop, so there are now many iterations, some of which are quite wearable. That’s definitely one shoe I would say has long-term appeal. In China, they’re constantly moving it forward but in the West, we’re constantly trying to pull it back a bit to embed the shoes into people’s brains. The sense of balance is the key. We try to teeter between the two, depending on the trends, so we can test what is working and what isn’t. I think the brand will continue to evolve with what consumers want. I don’t think we will just become crazier and crazier, because at some point, the trends will move towards something simpler.
You’ve made enormous progress but sometimes the biggest challenge is to push up into another level. What does the future look like at Li-Ning?
We wanted to establish the brand on a high level, which is where we are at the moment, but in a way that is totally stable and strong. Li-Ning is a sports brand at the end of the day, so while it’s nice to focus on the top end of fashion, we want the sports side recognised as well. I have my own ideas and things I would like to do, but it’s step-by-step. At some point, we’ll open our own stores as well.
China is still the most important market and Li-Ning is conquering it extremely well, but more needs to be done. There’s a sense of pride in the heritage and they want to bring that out in the products. In the past we would have expected a Chinese brand to just copy things, so Li-Ning’s goal has always been to create a new aesthetic that is obviously very Chinese, but also contemporary. So far, I think that we’ve accomplished this, but let’s see. We really just want to keep surprising people!