And then, almost as quickly as it opened, Li shuttered the shop in 2001. The decision wasn't too difficult. Bebe had offered her a penthouse corner office and a substantial salary as their head designer.
Given mounting pressures — balancing an 8-year-old daughter, financial challenges, the shop, manufacturing company, and a demanding relationship with a Hollywood writer — the offer was perfect for the Vienna-born designer. Although she had gained ample attention for creating an artfully designed wedding dress for Alyssa Milano, everything behind the scenes was unraveling.
"It got to be too much for me ... and I felt like I was being saved from my daily worries and hassles," says Li, who just recently returned to the runway for a charity event hosted by the Women’s Twentieth Century Club of Eagle Rock. "I always wanted to work for a big company with all those resources. And after I finally had a green card, their offer was too sweet to reject."
Her position with Bebe only lasted a year (she still freelances for them), but it was long enough for Li to begin what she calls a reawakening. Li, who was struggling with her own serious eating disorder, was becoming disenchanted with the unrealistic world portrayed by magazines and her own expectations.
It is something she is trying not to do today. Nowadays, she only asks real women to model her clothes.
"I really want to show that all women are beautiful and I can help make this happen by creating clothes that bring out the individual beauty of a woman at any age and weight," she said. "This has really helped my business, creating a level of trust and interest that has set me apart from the standard."
The transition is especially noticeable on her site Monah Li. While some of her striking past collections were fitted to fashion models, her newest 2011 runway creations were modeled by friends and members of the Eagle Rock club. In fact, the lack of professional models reveals how unique her pieces really are.
There is a reason her work looks like one-of-a- kind designs. In truth, most of them begin that way. She designs an outfit that she would want to wear and then, only after she has created something unique, does she review which pieces have the potential to be mass produced. Those are the ones she eventually incorporates into her wholesale collection and are seen in fashion boutiques, clothing lines, and magazines.
Very little of it begins as a sketch. And even if it does, the work always ends up completely different from what Li sets out to create. She says the best ideas always come while sewing and cutting, even if it means making a mistake that eventually becomes an entirely new component. In some ways, this approach isn't all that different from where she started.
"I've created my own designs since I was about 10 years old," says Li. "I did not have the resources to buy the clothes I wanted to wear so I started making them myself. By the time I had enough money to buy clothes, I realized nothing was better than what I wanted to create. Except Rick Owens's designs. I always changed his work the least."
It wasn't long before her clothing was noticed. And other women would ask to wear or purchase her clothes until, eventually, they easily found it in stores like Fred Segal and Traffic. And, along with those fashion retailers, celebrities would call her direct.
"One of my favorite customers was Stevie Nicks," remembers Li. "She is kind, lovely, and so vulnerable. I drove back and forth between my studio in Frog Town and her mansion in Pacific Palisades until her outfit for the Grammy Awards was perfect. She was graceful and grateful and I loved working for her."
Nicks isn't the only story Li can call upon fondly. Emmylou Harris fell in love with Li's reworked, reconstructed slips. Madonna used to by 30 or more dresses in New York. And Johnny Depp even sent her a lovely and funny thank you note through her then-boyfriend and now ex-husband, Jerry Stahl.
Appreciating the transparency of Monah Li.
Not all of her customers have earned Li's admiration, however. Priscilla Presley, Barbara Streisand, and Courtney Love all nearly stiffed her. Mariah Carey insisted on being squeezed into a dress two sizes too small. And Martina McBride not only haggled over prices, but demanded a free dress for her daughter.
Li's transparency in the telling isn't surprising. She lives her life as an open book. Her blog — Fashions, Addictions and Love and column at The Huffington Post are largely sharp, uncensored, and straightforward (with the HP slightly more reserved). They have to be. She wants to help women appreciate they are not alone and how to turn bitter and difficult experiences into something productive and fulfilling.
Although she is a solid writer with a book deal and screenplay recently purchased by an independent production company, her real dream is to bring manufacturing back to Los Angeles by helping battered women transition into the garment industry. She even has a name for the business concept, Monah Li — Made by Angels in Distress, which would compete directly with what she calls cheap labor companies like Forever 21 and H&M.
Monah Li Designs Rock The Boat At 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Monah Li designs frequently set the tone for sexy, Bohemian, and neo-romantics. But perhaps what's even more striking than Li's designs is her reawakening. The clothing collection seems to capture it at times too. She is more focused on designs that glide; and she loves how natural materials like silk, rayon, wool, and cotton can hold dyes.
You can sometimes find Monah Li designs with major labels, but she also maintains her own Etsy shop too. You can find it at Monah Li. The only thing remotely close are a few designs at Free People. But even then, there isn't anything like the one-of-a-kind real deal.