Li Lin is sitting in his Renzo Piano-designed offices in Hangzhou, China, when we speak via Zoom. Dressed in a plain dark hooded top, she hardly looks like a successful fashion entrepreneur: her short hair is clipped into a neat hat, she’s relaxed and full of fun and laughter.
Yet the company she co-founded in 1994, JNBY Design group, is one of China’s best-known fashion brands, is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and has a market capitalization (at the time of writing) of 4.9 billion Hong Kong dollars (US $625 million). Today there are more than 2,000 stores worldwide, with multiple brands such as JNBYHOME, Less and Croquis.
“I’ve always been excited about art,” says Li Lin. “As a schoolgirl, we had drawing lessons, but they disappointed me, they were too traditional, they didn’t allow me to express my inner feelings. Although we didn’t have an art museum in Hangzhou, there was a foreign language bookstore that was really good. You could see the quilts through the windows – and seeing them was the seed of my interest in art.”
Then at university she met two “local, great” artists: Gen Gianni and Gian Paley, who ignited her growing love for art. She was already collecting, but in a completely different area, rocks of all kinds, both geological and archaeological specimens. “Love them!” she exclaims, and apparently the running joke is that Li has more rocks than art and the offices are in danger of collapsing under their weight.
While she initially bought Chinese art from local artists – “for my home and to support them” – Li’s tastes changed and expanded after she began visiting Europe in the 1990s. “In Paris I discovered small galleries on the Left Bank and started by buying small works on paper – for example by Kees van Dongen and Henri Matisse.”
She co-founded her company with her friend (later husband) Wu Jian, thanks to a “small amount” of financial help from her parents and a former boss. “I went to Guangzhou [her former boss’s] from the name and there I saw clothes and imported fabrics which gave me ideas. At the time, China didn’t have brands the way there were in the west – it was very hard to find good fashion. My mother made all my clothes,” says Li.
Once she began traveling, she visited all the institutions she could—she cites the Center Pompidou and La Maison Rouge, both in Paris, the latter now closed, and the Prado in Madrid as important influences on her collecting: “These great art museums are so inspiring, they change the way you think, both about art and how it is displayed,” she says.
So, from a single womenswear store in Hangzhou, the JNBY brand has grown rapidly, adding menswear, kidswear and lifestyle to the mix. Li was lucky in her choice: In the 1990s, China was easing trade restrictions and demand was high for products like hers, with little competition. In 2005, the first foreign store opened in Moscow, and a year later in Japan. In 2010, it opened its doors in the USA.
In 2016, JNBY was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. “We decided to go public because we could and because it was a challenge that my husband and I wanted to take on,” Li says. “I’m not a financial person, but my husband is; I’m the more creative and design person in the business.” Did art then influence Li’s designs for the company? “For sure. I am influenced by art in my projects, both contemporary and conceptual art. Art changes the way you think and what you look at – that’s the most important thing that art has brought me.”
There have been bumps along the way, most notably when children’s clothing line JNBY was pulled after accusations that it contained inappropriate images drawn from existing artwork. (JNBY says it now includes “more diverse groups of individuals” to review designs.)
I ask Li how big her collection is now. She thinks for a moment, then says; “About 1,000 works, but of course some of them are quite small.” Recent purchases are from Gabriel Orozco, Wang Xinwei, Milton Avery, Paul Anthony Harford and Richard Wright, and Li says she also bought a Paula Rego piece. She has holdings by Urs Fischer, Eva Hesse, Rudolf Stingel, Wolfgang Tillmans and Michael Borremans, among others.
How does she buy – is she spontaneous or more methodical in her approach? “I make decisions very quickly, but of course sometimes the works I like are not available. Still, it’s hard to say what actually provoked my decision. A gallerist friend once said that I choose a work because of its aura or its “reverse.” What does “spin” mean? “Something that’s interesting, that makes you think, that makes your brain spin a little bit.”
Li and her husband also invested in new offices for JNBY in Hangzhou, and that’s where she spoke to me. Completed in 2020 and named OōEli, which means “home” in the Hangzhou dialect, the 17-building complex is the first project in China undertaken by Piano and was built in collaboration with Hangzhou firm Group of Architects. The site includes offices, a hotel, shops and an art museum — By Art Matters, directed by Italian curator Francesco Bonami, opening in 2021. The complex features a concept store designed by artist Teaster Gates and a courtyard installation by Richard Long. The museum is not designed to display her collection – much of which is in storage – but she does borrow works for her exhibitions.
For now, Li and her husband are covering the costs of the museum, but Li says they are applying for nonprofit status and hope it will eventually become self-sustaining. For her, its creation is important: “Hangzhou has not had a museum like this before. And if the exhibitions it organizes introduce more people to contemporary art, if they make people think, that’s significant and will make the space even more significant in the years to come.”