Photographs courtesy Zang Toi.
Zang Toi and Mary Jane Denzer are showing off one of his designs in her eponymous store near The Ritz-Carlton Westchester in White Plains. It’s a black evening dress with ropes of pearls built into the front of the gown. Clever enough but then he lifts a slit to reveal the inside — which is embellished with hand-beaded flowers. Now that’s a wow.
“You know what? It makes it special,” he says. “It’s like it’s a secret. You don’t have to flaunt everything that’s beautiful.”
But it’s one thing to design something that’s beautiful, another to create something that’s truly imaginative. Toi’s attention to detail — the hand-beading on an opera cape with a landscape of Venice alone took eight people seven weeks — and his unusual perspective have made believers of everyone from Melinda Gates to Patti LaBelle to Saudi Arabia’s Princess Haifa Al Saud.
Even the way he himself is dressed is special — crisp white shirt and mini kilt, black socks and shoes. The kilt has a story, one that Toi — who has an impish, joyful personality — is only too happy to share.
His two older brothers were educated in Scotland and to honor them he created his “An Asian in Scotland” collection in 2001. Toi wore a kilt to the Council of Fashion Designers of America gala, and The New York Times ran the biggest picture of him in fashion photographer Bill Cunningham’s coverage.
“It was such a big hit, and it’s so comfortable,” Toi says of the kilt.
Ever since then, the kilt has been a signature — so much so that even in conservative places like the American South or Saudi Arabia, patrons say, “Where’s the kilt?” (In Saudi Arabia, they also say he can wear whatever he likes.)
His kilts are made by Kinloch Anderson, which designs Prince Charles’. On a trip to Scotland to see his brothers, he visited the venerable company to have a kilt made of tartan plaid in gray, white and baby blue. Because he’s compact, knee-length would not do, so Toi asked to have it shortened — by 13 inches.
“I thought the tailor would fall off the chair,” he says, laughing.
That trip to Scotland was a gift from his father, who always believed in his son’s aesthetic ability despite his conservative Chinese ancestry. Toi grew up in Kuala Krai, “a two-street village” in Kelantan, Malaysia. His parents ran the local grocery and the family — including seven kids, of which Toi was the youngest — lived over the store.
“I always loved to draw and sketch, but I wasn’t one of the boys who wanted to grow up to be a fashion designer. I was always fascinated, though, with beauty. Later on I realized it’s all related.”
From a young age, Toi was put in charge of creating Christmas cards for the family’s British customers. When it came time for his schooling abroad, however, the family budget was such that Great Britain was no longer an option. Toi spent a year studying in Toronto before coming to New York to attend the Parsons School of Design. After apprenticing with Mary Jane Marcasiano and Ronaldus Shamask, he opened his own atelier in 1989 and soon was one of the first Asian designers to be championed by Vogue’s Anna Wintour.
Today that atelier occupies the 20th floor in a building on 48th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues that overlooks Rockefeller Center. There he and his staff create women’s day, evening and sportswear from start to finish, along with a few made-to-order men’s articles. The fabrics — from silk gazar to Loro Piana cashmere — are unbelievably luxurious to the touch. The designs — including one that reproduces a painting of Turner’s Venice, a place close to Toi’s heart, in woven silk jacquard — are ingenious.
“My philosophy is always quality over quantity. My job is to make women feel and look beautiful.”
For more, visit zangtoi.com.