Born: Malaysia, 11 June 1961. Education: Studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design, New York, 1981-83. Career: Production associate, Mary Jane Marcasiano, New York, 1982-87; freelance designer, Ronaldus Shamask, New York, 1988; opened own business, 1989, introduced diffusion line Z, 1992. Exhibitions: Fashion Institute of Technology Museum. Awards: Mouton-Cadet Young Designer
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At the house of Toi, it all starts with color. Lavish hues of chartreuse, red, and hot pink…which, theoretically, should never be seen together. Here they have been combined masterfully with a flair and wit that has won the hearts of both critics and customers alike. Breaking the rules is what I do best. I try not to limit my thinking to the way things have been done before—my customers have come to expect the unexpected. Pioneering in dressing up good old all-American denim—in splashy red and hot pink stitching—and [adding] metalic gold stitching to sexy suits and little bustier dresses is the chicest way to dress.
The Zang Toi formula is creating glamorous, tailored, classic sportswear with a dramatic twist; with a surprising mixed palette and signature design finishes. Evening at Zang Toi means haute fantasy with a dash of old Hollywood glamor.
It is always a dream of mine to merge my fashion sense with fine food…. Food is like fashion; clothes are just a piece of cloth until you add the decoration and the look, then it becomes fashion. The same with food—once you start decorating it becomes appetizing. My personal philosophy is that beautiful food and clothes should always be a part of life.
Zang Toi has the dubious distinction of being a featured designer in a Newsday article of October 1990, "Fashion's New Kids: On the Block," and of being a principal in Nina Darnton's article "The New York Brat Pack," in the April 1991 issue of Newsweek. In the Newsweek article, Zang Toi had the last word, telling Darnton, "I think women are looking for good prices and styles that are new—not just young people in the same mold as the current stars." Likewise, in the Newsday article, Toi's pragmatic and sensible remarks form the article's conclusion when he says, "There are so many young designers who are eager to be stars right away. But ego can be the worst killer to any young designer. You can't let the press and the hype go to your head. If the work doesn't meet the demand and the quality, it doesn't mean anything."
Toi's work resoundingly meets demand and determined desires and styles in the early 1990s. The gifted young designer has demonstrated a color sensibility related not only to Asian textiles (the collection that earned him the Mouton-Cadet Young Designer award was inspired by Southeast Asian textiles, with rich batiks and embroideries) but perhaps equally to Matisse in his vibrant palette. Toi's color is often and aptly compared to Christian Lacroix's, but Toi has brought his tinted exuberance to serviceable sportswear separates while Lacroix tends toward almost baroque forms of highly elaborated couture. For Lacroix, the pleasure is in the whole and design by ensemble; in Toi's work, the delights are in the elements. Even within, his ingenious and extravagant details give punctuation with whimsy. Well-cut jackets, saucy skirts and shorts, spunky sarong skirts with ornament, wonderful vests and trousers provide a sensible dressing from constituents rich in color and texture. As much as Toi loves glamor, he also created a diffusion line, Z, launched in 1992, that luxuriates in denim and less expensive fabrication.
Toi did not set out to be a designer. Growing up as the youngest son of seven children of a grocer in a small town in Malaysia, he loved sketching and drawing but dreamed of being an architect or interior designer. His love of fashion came later and always in conjunction with cuisine and other pleasurable arts. He admits to wanting to combine fashion and running a restaurant. Like many designers, however, a lifetime interest in classic movie glamor and stars such as Audrey Hepburn encouraged his fashion interests. The Malay tradewinds have always brought rich interactions of British colonialism (apparent in Toi's schoolboy stripes), Chinese, Indonesian, and other converging possibilities. Exoticism and pragmatic synthesis seem to come effortlessly to Toi.
In the West, we have traditionally enjoyed an adulation of the new, and Zang Toi is a new designer. But his merit and interest reside in the fact that his design is distinguished not by novelty but by his intense commitment to color. His fashion draws eclectically and with an absorbing anachronism on history and global fashion, always keeping his international eye for color. His practicality and sensitivity to the consumer are hallmarks of smart design for the 1990s and the 21st
In a fiercely competitive and fickle industry, Toi has flourished as a high society and movie star fashion designer. His commitment to luxury, beauty, and glamor continued to be evident in his designs, which made him the obvious choice to create a millennium gown for Melinda Gates (Mrs. Bill Gates). Whether the theme is the wild, wild West, inspired by a Montana trip (spring 2001), or "An Asian in Scotland" (fall 2001), his collections are executed in the finest fabrics and characterized by his signature use of color and attention to detail. His fall showing was one of the few to receive a standing ovation and praise from the New York fashion critics.
A favorite of Madonna, Sharon Stone, Ivana Trump, and Kirstie Alley, Toi is reaching out to their significant others by introducing a limited men's line for fall 2001. "This is really for the husbands and boyfriends of my private customers. They are the ones who pay for the clothes." Like his women's clothes, the new line is handmade or hand-knit and uses luxury fibers like cashmere and silk.
Zang Toi has held fast to his vision of fashion, despite an era of increasing informality and casual dress. "It is not a separate thing outside you, but something that flows out from inside you. That is why my clothes, my home, and my showroom all reflect a core that comes from the same source—a beauty that I see and feel and which takes its form in the look and feel of my creations and in the space where I live and work." No longer the new kid on the block, Zang Toi continues to inspire and delight and remind us of what fashion and glamor are really all about.