(Designers)

This Whimsical Cali Designer Is For The Young At Heart

A fine balance between childlike and chic.

Often, when customers are telling the designer Leeann Huang just why they love her pieces so much, it’s because her designs remind them of childhood. Her garments, which feature striking elements such as light-reflective textiles and confectionery bright colors, immediately bring wearers back to a more carefree time, filled with toys, games, and cartoons. In Huang’s world, playful sartorial touches and the cheerful spirit they evoke are worth preserving into adulthood — why would she ever put youthful things away when she can simply grow them up a bit?

“My brand is definitely very motivated by childhood joy,” Huang says. “It’s extremely colorful, extremely textured. My inspirations come from cartoons and different materials that toys used to be made from. With a lot of my holographic clothes people are like, ‘oh my god, I used to have a backpack like this!’ I wanted to update it so people can wear it now that they’re older.”

(+)
Courtesy of Leeann Huang
(+)
Courtesy of Leeann Huang
1/2

Elevated silhouettes with a dash of campy fun is how the designer gets it done. Huang may draw upon her inner kid for inspiration, but make no mistake, she’s a highly trained professional. The Central Saint Martins grad has interned for John Galliano at Margiela, shown at London Fashion Week, and earned her Master’s degree in textiles right at the onset of early 2020. Despite an incredibly promising start to her career, graduation coinciding with what turned out to be a terrifying and bewildering spring made her feel less like the world was her oyster and more like she had just finished up with school on the eve of an apocalypse.

“Graduating during the pandemic was a very traumatic thing because the whole world felt like it was ending at the same time,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Since 2019, she had been researching different techniques that would allow her to create textiles with a lenticular effect (which creates the visual illusion of depth). While she took odd jobs over that strange, liminal stretch of time in which so many recent grads find themselves after being thrust into the “real world,” that looming feeling of doom about the state of things actually fueled her creative fire rather than dampening it.

“I felt quite nihilistic about the world,” she says. “And then I looked back to when I was a child, seeing how I envisioned the future when I was a kid and what I wanted to do. A lot of it was motivated by cartoons — cartoons always made the future seem like it was going to be amazing, like there were going to be flying cars and all these beautiful pod homes. But the future hasn’t really ended up that way, so then I wanted to infuse that childlike sense of wonder into my clothes.”

With her formal training being in textiles specifically, Huang was particularly methodical in exploring what might work best for her garments, factoring both aesthetics, wearability, and sustainability into her decision making. PVC is commonly used in crafting the kind of holographic look the designer was going for, but not only is it harmful to produce and not recyclable, it can also be highly toxic to wear as it emits fumes when heated — a hard no for both the California heat in which the designer lives and the California sustainable ethos to which she subscribes. So where to source the materials of her childhood daydreams? Fittingly, a toy factory that agreed to print her creations on a recyclable, more wearable rubber material.

The resulting pieces have the unique effect of feeling both nostalgic and futuristic at once; think The Jetsons in 2022. In her television chainlink dress, imagery like anime screencaps, strawberries, and galloping horses flash animations as the garment moves, shimmering like mini wearable IRL GIFs.

The dress is part of her most recent line, Cowboy Bleu. It’s her second collection, after Plastic Fantastic, which was born out of her Central Saint Martins graduate project. Even though she’s managed to release two lines and several capsules, Huang really only started putting her energy into her label full-time this spring.

“March 2022 is when I started really selling stuff,” she says. As she worked other jobs here and there, her clothing started picking up steam on Instagram. “It got to the point where I couldn’t keep up with doing other freelance work and my own stuff. It just blew up, in a way. I don’t have a massive following but it blew up enough that I had to quit everything else and really focus on doing this.”

Her work has struck a chord with shoppers across demographics. Parents have reached out to tell her how much both their young daughters and their sons adore her fun accessories. Recently, she was approached by a mother in her 50s with a son around Huang’s own age who are both fans of the brand, DMing her often to rave about new pieces she’s put up. Indulging one’s inner child in a fashionable manner, it seems, has a mass appeal.

(+)
Courtesy of Leeann Huang
(+)
Courtesy of Leeann Huang
1/2

For now, Huang is meeting the needs of her growing fanbase as a team of one, working out of her family home’s pool house and garage area that she converted into a studio space. On occasion, the designer will hire two of her friends to help out, but mainly the business is just her. Until demand forces her to take on more assistance, it’s simpler this way. Full creative control means her stamp is all over all parts of the brand. In the videos for the items sold on her website, she can be heard directing the models — friends of hers — to spin around and show off the garments’ holographic effects: “Aaaand go for it!”

As a business owner and as a woman, especially one in a competitive, artistic field like fashion, talent is essential but confidence is crucial, too. The cartoons she turns to for creative design inspiration also send the kind of messaging that’s helpful to have in mind when producing very unique, often challenging work.

“If you watched Totally Spies or Powerpuff Girls, it’s very girl power-forward and I know it’s like ‘pop feminism,’ but I really liked the fact that women can be empowered by just being themselves,” she says. “What I always enjoyed about those cartoons is that they didn’t have to pretend to be like men in order to be powerful, they were themselves. Similarly, I really like cartoons where people are outcasts, but purely themselves, like Cowboy Bebop — because everyone’s an outsider but it’s such a fun thing and they embrace that and that’s what’s celebrated.”

Courtesy of Leeann Huang

She’s always admired the weird, quirky type of character who’s not afraid to be completely authentic. Those who are well-known for embodying that brand of bizarre, funny misfit spirit are the people she most wants to see wear her designs. “Genuinely, I would love Amy Sedaris to wear my clothes,” Huang says. “She’s like my favorite person in the world. She’s so funky.” Another ideal model/muse? “Tyler the Creator, that would be a dream — I’m always trying to put it out there and manifest it!”

For her relatively young brand, it’s not actually such a lofty goal — Huang’s designs have already graced magazine covers and editorials, worn by the likes of supermodel Adwoa Aboah and actor Camila Mendes. Though, for her, putting her clothes out into the world is not about achieving some level of adjacent stardom as much as it is injecting some fun and levity into life. Since graduating and building up her own brand at home, Huang has been enjoying the process of rediscovering why it is she loves doing what she does. It’s not everybody that gets to extend their childhood a bit through their work. It’s both pretty comforting as well as fertile creative ground to be thinking about some of the same things — from TV shows to toys — as she did when she was small.

“People always tell me I'm like a big little kid, but I kind of like that,” Huang says. “It’s a lot nicer than just being jaded about the world, you know?”

We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.