Living the Dream: An Interview with Zang Toi

After launching his first collection in August 1989, Zang Toi sent hand-colored, photocopied sketches to every major retailer and publication. His clothes caught the eye of then-new Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and in the March 1990 issue, she declared him one of four “New Faces” to watch in the new decade. The Malaysian-born artist was one of the first Asian designers she championed, and he quickly became a favorite among the fashion elite. To this day, he has handled his own publicity and is one of the very few designers to own their businesses.

After more than 30 years, Zang shows no signs of slowing down. He travels constantly — in his free time, while working on collections and seven to eight months each year for trunk shows. That includes those held at Gus Mayer, a relationship that dates back to the mid-’90s. (He gives his “biggest thanks to all the Nashville ladies for their love and support.”)

Zang will feel that love again as the featured designer at the Symphony Fashion Show on August 26 and over the following two days at a trunk show at Gus Mayer. We caught up with the exuberant designer on his most recent visit, and he shared the inspiration for his Fall 2020 collection, advice for budding designers and his favorite places in Nashville.

Can you give us any hints about what we can expect from your collection? Well, [my Fall] 2020 runway collection is a tribute to my beloved adopted home, New York City. Most people think of New York as the concrete jungle, so we're going to start with shades of black and gray. In the middle, I bring color into the collection [inspired by] the art scene of the East Village — what I call pop art color. How can you do a New York collection without taxicab yellow, orange, hot pink and blue? And then we end the show on a dramatic note. The last six looks for the collection will be beautiful [with an] exquisitely hand-beaded New York City skyline on all the evening looks. It's going to be very, very dramatic.

What's your process when you begin working on a new collection? Usually the process starts anywhere from 10 to 12 months before the collection will show. While I was finishing up the Fall 2020 [collection], I started thinking about what I would be doing for Spring 2021, which will be held in September. So every collection is different, every season differs. Sometimes we start with a theme, or sometimes a place I want to travel to. It could be an exhibition that's taken place, or a book that I'm reading, or an old movie that I'm watching. Every collection is completely different.

You’re in a unique position as a designer because you own your business. What advice would you have for an up-and-coming or aspiring designer? My advice for all young, aspiring designers is to dream big. Don’t be afraid to dream big, and follow your own creative path. When I was one of the top five students from the class at Parsons School of Design, the chairman of the department wanted to place me with Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Perry Ellis. … And I shall never forget our parting words before I graduated. He was so mad at me when I said, "Mr. Rizzo, I already have a job waiting for me with a young designer, a small fashion house. I will be the only designer. … With Calvin, I'm going to be one of the 20 designers in a cubicle. ... Whereas with a small house, I get to do everything.” And he said, "You will never make it in this business." As I looked at it, you have to follow your own instincts. You cannot be afraid to do your own thing. I told him, "I don't want to be the next Calvin Klein, I don't want to be the next Donna Karan, I want to be Zang Toi." … Good or bad, I wanted to be Zang Toi. That's my advice for the young people. Don't copy other designers. It's good to look up to a certain designer that you love, to be inspired by that, but don't be afraid to do your own thing, to be your own person and dream big. Dream big but work hard, and work smart to turn that dream into reality.

Speaking of that, do you have an all-time favorite designer? Oh, yes! My all-time fashion hero is the late Yves Saint Laurent. He had such a big influence on what I do as a designer. Saint Laurent inspired so many. I think he is one of the very few designers in the world able to inspire and influence every generation of designer. One of the reasons why he's the most important fashion figure for my career — for me — is that the repertoire of his talent is so vast. He was the first to put women in pantsuits, the safari suits and the tuxedoes for evening. He was the first one to do the fantasy collections [inspired by] China, Russia, gypsy and India. The loveliest thing though, he was one of the first designers that incorporated paintings and turned art [into fashion]. The list goes on and on. … He made some of the most glamorous, decadent but wearable evening gowns. Some gowns, they're beautiful, but then you can become a walking costume. But Saint Laurent always managed to tread that line between very beautiful but also wearable.

After 30 years in the fashion industry, what still gets you excited? Just the process of creating collections. The trips that I'm able to take before I launch a collection, to get away for about a week to just lock myself in a beautiful hotel room or a café, restaurant, lobby of a grand hotel, sketching my collection. When I'm away from everybody, shut off my phone and no one can reach me, nothing makes me happier than when I can stay up all night till 6 a.m. sketching the collection. That is such a fun part of it.

And after 30 years, the other part that still gets me very excited is when I go and do trunk shows, whether for Gus Mayer in Nashville or Saks Fifth Avenue all across the country. Meeting my customers, working with my customers, helping them pick out a beautiful, chic wardrobe. When I see a beautiful smile on their face and see that they're happy, that gets me really excited.

You've dressed some of entertainment's most recognizable names: Sharon Stone, Patti LaBelle, Elizabeth Taylor and the late Farrah Fawcett. Is there somebody you haven't had a chance to work with yet that you'd like to dress? Yes. It would be a dream come true to dress Cate Blanchett. She has such a great sense of style. She's a natural beauty — there's no Botox, but she's beautiful. Not to mention that she’s one of the best actresses we have of this generation.

When you're not designing gorgeous clothes and traveling for trunk shows, what do you like to do? Traveling around the world. That's one of my favorite things. Traveling around the world, eating really great, delicious food from each country. I just love it. If I go to Africa, I want to eat the local cuisine; I want to hang out with the local people. If I go to Argentina, I want to dive into the authentic Argentina cuisine. If I go to Morocco, I want to go dive into the couscous. I think if you go with an open mind, travel can be a beautiful life lesson.

When you're in Nashville, is there a place you like to go or something you like to do or see? Yes, my great friend Janice [Elliott Morgan] likes to tease me all the time. I'm more of a traditionalist. I'm not into trendy places and I don't party, but I like good food. There are two places I love to go to. Janice, of course, always tries to drag me into all the trendy restaurants. … I tell her, "Janice, I'm fortunate enough to travel all over the world to eat, [so] just take me to good traditional cooking." And my two favorite places in Nashville are Jimmy Kelly's, the steakhouse. … The way they will bring a double portion of cornbread — the cornbread is to die for. And, of course, the steak is delicious. … And another place, I always have Janice take me to is Pancake Pantry. I love the pancakes. They’re so delicious.

You were a young designer and had just opened your atelier when you were featured in Vogue. How did that come about? I still give all the credit to Anna Wintour for featuring me in Vogue magazine. It was unheard of back then: I was the first Asian designer that she championed in her career. I was launching my very first collection, a tiny capsule collection of 13 pieces — my lucky 13 pieces — in August 1989. We didn't have any money, but my ex-business partner owned a sweater factory. To save money, 12 of the 13 pieces were knits, and one shirt was black cotton poplin. Also to save money, I sketched out all the pieces and sent them to get xeroxed. When copies came back, I colored in the sketches and sent them to all the major retailers and publications.

I remember it vividly. In less than a week, I got a phone call from Vogue’s market editor, Susi Billingsley, who said, “Anna Wintour loves what she's seeing, and she wants me to come look at the collection tomorrow at 8 a.m." [The next morning,] she looked at the collection and took Polaroid pictures of all 13 pieces. At 5 o'clock that day, we got a phone call saying, "Anna loved the collection. She would like to see it. We need to pick it up by 8 o'clock tomorrow, and we'll return it by 5 o'clock."  After they returned it, we noticed that three items were missing. And then the phone rang. Susi said, "Congratulations. Anna really loved the pieces. We've got three of them that she wants for a photo shoot." I was so young and so tired that I didn't even know how to respond. Ten days later, they returned the samples, and a week later, I got a phone call from Susi again saying, "Congratulations. We shot it.” That dress got into the February 1990 issue of Vogue magazine. I think my story was so unusual because designers have to work for two, three years [for this], and I have never had a publicist. To this day, 30 years later, I’ve never used a publicist. It's all by word of mouth.

Then in November [1989], we showed our first Spring 1990 collection, and it's also very small, only 20 pieces. Susi called again. Same story. "We love it, we want to take the entire collection back." The day after they took it, we got a phone call. She said, "Hello, congratulations. I didn't want to get your hopes up [earlier]. Anna is planning the March issue. She's doing a big story called the new faces of the '90s with her four favorite American designers." The thing is, the story was already done back in July — the photographs, interviews, everything. She went on, "We have to rush. Tomorrow morning we have to interview you and then immediately have your photo taken. And, we’ll need full page sketches for the article, and we're going to hold two or three looks to photograph right away."

It all happened so quickly. In February, I received an advance copy. Not only did I make it as one of the new faces of the '90s, the outfit they photographed made it on the opening page of the story. So basically, Anna put me on the fashion map.

The Symphony Fashion Show obviously benefits the Nashville Symphony. I understand you're quite philanthropic. What causes are important to you? There are so many. In three years, I — me and my team — raised over $750,000 for Lance Armstrong's foundation for cancer survivors. … It's one of the great foundations. I also support the Human Rights Foundation. The founder, Thor Halvorssen, is a great friend, and I think human rights are important. I also support my great friend who was a model, Georgie Badiel, who has [the Georgie Badiel Foundation]. She comes from Burkina Faso. She told me as a kid growing up she had to walk two, three hours in the mud to go to get clean water. Her mission is to bring basic clean water to her home country. … But the most important charity for me, someday when I semi-retire or retire, what I would like to do is to use myself as a platform … that says “say no to drugs.” You see, from my background, being a designer, people always look at you as being a glamorous figure. I'm one of the few in our industry that doesn't do drugs, and I completely don't believe in the myth that you have to use drugs to be creative. I've never used them. I've never even tried marijuana. I guess my career proves that [theory] could be wrong. I've done quite well with myself and my career. I want to tell kids, "Don't be afraid to say no to drugs, it is not hip to do drugs. It doesn't make you any cooler or any more creative to do drugs." … When I come to that point where I have more time to do it, I would like to do that for the younger generation.