NEW YORK, Sep 15, 2005/ FW/ – Being invited for lunch by a prominent designer of the New York fashion scene is an honor, even for two Parisian veterans, especially when this is the first time you meet this Malaysian-native 38 year old who really made it in Manhattan and who has been now for some years the owner of his brand.
Real success stories are not that numerous in the fashion world and meeting with someone who landed in America some 20 years ago from another continent but who has consistently since then pursued his goal and achieved it, inspires respect.
Two days after we had seen his splendidly dramatic Africa-themed show inside the biggest Tent at Bryant Park, that the designer had set in a completely black box to enhance the beautifully ardent color touches and mastering of fabrics in his spring 2006 collection, I was impressed to have the opportunity of interviewing the uncompromising founder of a brand that, season after season, proposes women with delightfully glamorous, stylishly sophisticated, romantically contemporaneous pieces.
I could feel butterflies in my stomach as we approached the restaurant that Zang Toi had chosen for this meeting but this impression simply melted away, the minute Julien Fournié and myself entered this very refined yet sympathetic décor where we were met so warmly by the designer. Zang immediately introduced us to his elder brother, who takes care of the brand’s development in Malaysia and to his cousin, a young designer.
This was one of the fist hints I had about his genuine personality: he is a family boy, faithful to his childhood memories and affections. In fact, to whom might think that, like many a designer, Zang follows the season’s themes, to whom could see in his African collection as prolonging, for instance, of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Haute Couture for the summer of 2005, he answers with a very convincing yet ingenuous smile that he simply wakes up “one morning, knowing what the theme for the next collection will be.”
The designer then gets to work, researches documents, thinks of how his masters (Yves Saint-Laurent or Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier) have treated the same theme in the past and takes an option in order to bring his own vision. “This season, I did not want to use animal –inspired prints, I have only put their sounds at the beginning of the soundtrack for the show,” explained Zang Toi.
After a few weeks, Zang Toi goes on a journey, this year he chose a safari in South Africa. “I always travel alone for these trips and that ‘s the time when I sketch the collection.” Solitude and concentration are the necessary tools for the emergence of a new line, which this year was like a brilliantly sober celebration of African deities for eveningwear while daywear discreetly displayed an overall scent of British colonization. “I guess I chose Africa this year also because this was the journey I had been dreaming of for a long time, since my very early days when I was in the Malaysian village where my parents were running a grocery shop.”
Successful as he is, Zang Toi remains humble when asked if he ever thinks of presenting an Haute Couture collection in Paris. “I don’t feel that I am ready for this. Not yet” he says with a smile that ends up with a burst of laughter, as he could not hide the sparkle in his eyes at this perspective.
The creative designer who is also a very professional businessman wants first to get more familiar with the Paris Haute Couture scene. Here lies his secret for success: a perfectly reasonable and well-planned growth for his company combined with a good portion of authenticity and talent. Generous and humble, down-to-earth and imaginative, curious and discreet, Zang Toi is above all an extremely genuine person, true to his family, true to his friends, eager to satisfy his clientele. The designer summed it all up in his last answer.
When asked what could make him happier now, the awardee of the 1991 Mouton-Cadet Young Designers Award and of a Prize for his artistic contribution and achievements presented by Mark Green – the Public Advocate for New York City – the designer made a knight by the sultan of Malaysia in 1997, comes with such an authentic phrase: “ To be happier, I could retire from the fashion scene and start a small flower shop or a place where I could share with others my passion for cuisine. Paris could just be the perfect place for that!”
[JEAN PAUL CAUVIN]
Illustration by JULIEN FOURNIE