Designer Zang Toi celebrates 33 years of success in the fashion capital of the Americas

The Kelantan-born talks taking New York and dressing renowned clients.

Although Zang is every inch a New Yorker now, he does admit to having a particular soft spot for Paris (Photo: Zung)

The number “3” has always been considered lucky by the Chinese, owing in part to its pronunciation being similar to the character sheng, which means “life” or “to live”. But beyond mere linguistic superstition, the positive integer has always been of especial significance to Datuk Zang Toi.

“This year marks 33 years of my journey in fashion,” says the Kelantan-born, New York-based designer, with his characteristic megawatt smile and Malaysian warmth that has not diminished a whit despite being away from home for so long. “I made my debut with 13 pieces in what I’d call my lucky resort collection in August 1989. Since then, I have never grown tired of chasing beauty wherever I go and in whatever I do.”

It may seem like a dramatic statement but Zang, as he is popularly referred to, really does live and breathe beauty. He cuts a stylish figure — sharp white shirt and trademark mini black kilt — even when he arrives out of breath and slightly behind schedule, fresh from his mandatory pre-dinner run around New York’s Central Park.

“Sorry to keep you waiting but I’ve never worn a watch my entire life,” he laughs.

Beauty also best describes his choice of restaurant tonight as Dowling’s is undoubtedly the prettiest jewel box of a dining room in New York’s plush Upper East Side. Sitting within the Rosewood-managed Carlyle Hotel, it has long been a firm favourite of Zang’s. The maître d’ always saves him the best table while the staff fuss over him the way they do an old friend — and treasured guest.

“I love it and eat a meal here whenever I can. It’s just so beautiful,” he trills. “And, oh, the bar next door — Bemelmans! I love it also. You know the walls are decorated with murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, who drew all the Madeline series of children’s books, right?”


Sitting within the Rosewood-managed Carlyle Hotel, Dowling’s has long been a firm favourite of Zang’s (Photo: Dowling's at The Carlyle)


Toast of the world

Earlier in the week, a typical day at his Manhattan atelier unfolded, with scheduled appointments with wealthy and glamorous women, some with daughters in tow, who think nothing of catching a flight from Seattle or Dallas to spend a few days in New York City, all to be measured and fitted by Zang for whatever occasion that calls for something beautiful and beautifully made. Zang is too modest to say so, but it was also another Seattle-based doyenne who had once flown him in to specially create an outfit for her. The woman in question? Melinda Gates.

When prodded, Zang finally acquiesced and shared, “Yes, it was in September 2000 … to create an outfit for her millennium party. She wore head-to-toe Zang Toi, from hand-beaded pansies in her hair to a four-piece ensemble in chocolate brown couture silk gazar and velvet with Saga Royal mink trim, more hand-beaded pansies and even mink-trimmed silk slingbacks.”

Other famous women who have been dressed by him include the late Farrah Fawcett and original Charlie’s Angel — whose iconic Stars and Stripes gown, inspired by the American flag, rocked the 2003 Vanity Fair Oscar party — Sharon Stone and Patti LaBelle.

“That’s my job as a designer,” he states matter-of-factly. “To make women feel beautiful whenever they put on their Zang Toi.”


The American dream

Even though he has achieved great fame and success in one of the world’s most challenging and competitive cities, everyone who has ever crossed paths with Zang would attest that he remains the most humble and grounded human being. Born on June 11, 1961, in Kuala Krai, Kelantan, to a Malaysian Hakka-Chinese family, Zang shares how one of his favourite childhood memories was creating and setting up a fireworks display during the Lunar New Year season right in front of his parents’ grocery store.

“It must have been beautiful enough to catch the attention of a lot of passers-by, as I sold all the fireworks and made enough money to treat my whole family to dinner, even though I was just 10 years old,” he beams.

Making people take notice would appear to be a classic Zang Toi trait, as he caught the eye of none other than powerhouse Anna Wintour of fashion bible Vogue as a budding designer. It did not take long for the rest of the fashion world to follow suit. Although he was just a fresh-faced newcomer to the cut-throat industry, spreads in top American publications followed, including Zang being the first Asian designer chosen to open US Vogue’s “New Faces of the 1990s” spread.


His French-inspired apartment remains a haven, his serene sanctuary in the heart of frenetic New York (Photo: Zung)

“I didn’t have any major ambitions as a child,” he confesses. “I just knew I wanted to be happy. Oh, but I did so love drawing for hours!”

Despite having left home at the age of 18 to study in Toronto, Canada, Zang somehow found himself in Manhattan, New York, a year later and with just US$300 in his pocket. “I always say that fashion chose me,” he laughs. “But, in fact, it was my sister Mey Mey who encouraged me to study fashion design at Parsons School of Design instead of pursuing interior design in Toronto.”

Displaying an innate gift for interpreting silhouettes using fabric, the young Zang quickly scored apprenticeships with already-established names such as Ronaldus Shamask and Mary Jane Marcasiano. In August 1989, he decided to strike out on his own, debuting 13 pieces inspired by the colours of traditional Kelantanese sarongs. Success swiftly followed suit, with spreads in Vogue (one particularly iconic image was a full-page shot of supermodel Elaine Irwin donning a green silk skirt adorned with braided raffia resembling sheaves of wheat in the important spring issue of March 1992) and Zang clinching the 1990 Mouton Cadet Young Designer Award with his 10 winning styles, which included a red denim jacket paired with a batik miniskirt and glamorous evening suits crafted from lace and faille.

The award was established by the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild to recognise and fete new talent (Mark Badgley and James Mischka of Badgley Mischka had won the previous year).


The gala palaver

In May this year, Zang made global headlines again when social media onlookers began calling out celebrated American designer Ralph Lauren for copying an old design of his for Alicia Keys’ 2022 Met Gala outfit, which featured a New York skyscraper-adorned caped gown.

“Ironically, I opened my Fall-Winter 2020 ‘New York, New York’ runway show with Keys’ song, Empire State of Mind. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani had attended the show as well. But I designed that cape to show my love and appreciation for the city that embraced me and allowed me to live the American Dream. It was inspired by my love for my adopted home. Besides, I see it as a compliment. If a giant brand like Ralph Lauren would copy the design of a small-town boy from Malaysia, it’s the highest form of flattery. It is proof you are good at your craft when someone else copies your work!” He later cheekily adds: “I am glad media like the New York Post, Yahoo and others called him out, though.”


​​The designer had just concluded his triumphant Spring 2023 fashion show at the 170-year-old Harmonie Club (Photo: Diana Khoo/ The Edge Malaysia)

Art imitates life

Although almost no one would think of addressing Zang as “Datuk” in egalitarian America, the designer cherishes the title. “I received the datukship in June 2013. What made the occasion extra special was that it happened just five months before my beloved father passed away. I know the day was extremely special, as we all got to celebrate together as a family.”

It is perhaps only at the mention of family that Zang’s exuberant smile suddenly fades slightly, turning wistful.

“I hope to go home to Malaysia at the end of the year to give my beautiful mother huge, huge hugs,” he sighs. “The last time I was home in Kelantan was in July 2018, although I did make a trip to KL in December 2019 to attend my nephew’s wedding. Besides spending quality time with family, I also must visit my great friend, HRH [Raja Perempuan] Tengku Anis [former Queen Consort of Kelantan], who was so gracious to host my family and me at her beautiful palace that last trip. She had also arranged private tours of museums and cultural centres that served as the inspiration for my 30th anniversary Home Sweet Home Spring 2020 collection.

“But a visit to Kuala Krai is definitely on the cards. I simply must visit my relatives and childhood friends this time … Oh, and I also plan to binge-eat,” he grins. “Kelantan has the most delicious Malay food ever and I can’t get enough of nasi dagang with chicken wings and intestine and gizzard curry!”

As year-end is still months away, Zang, for now, contents himself with his fabulous New York life and equally fabulous home, which so clearly echoes his l’art de vivre. Just a short stroll from The Carlyle and sharing the same street with a string of illustrious neighbours, including famed art dealer and gallery owner Larry Gagosian, Zang’s home could well be described as minimalist, with maximalist accents.

The doomed French queen Marie Antoinette is a favourite muse, with Zang even commissioning larger-than-life-sized murals of her to adorn his walls. His home is fragrant with the scent of gardenia, courtesy of his favourite Rigaud candles, while the bedroom is anchored by an antique François Linke bed, which the designer refinished in black lacquer and silver ormolu before dressing it in custom Leron white on white double-scalloped bedsheets emblazoned with an embroidered Zang Toi logo.

Although Zang is every inch a New Yorker now, he does admit to having a particular soft spot for Paris — a sentiment his home so clearly evokes.


The entire collection seemed a perfect tribute to the return of dressing up and celebrating the pleasures of life en masse once more (Photo: Diana Khoo/ The Edge Malaysia)

“If I didn’t live in New York, I am sure I could have certainly cultivated an equally wonderful life in other fashionable cities, especially Paris! Somehow, even the people I am inspired by or wish to dress most are French,” he laughs. The people in question? “Oh, Yves Saint Laurent, of course. He had such a great influence on me as a young designer. And to dress, definitely Catherine Deneuve. She is the epitome of French chic!”

It is also to Paris that Zang says he would most likely escape, should he feel the need for a pick-me-up or shot of inspiration.

“I am truly blessed that I love creating and the process flows somewhat naturally by itself. Life in New York is great — I mean, there’s this crazy energy here that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. But should I feel I need a little recharge, I always escape to The Ritz in Paris.”

For now, his French-inspired apartment remains a haven, his serene sanctuary in the heart of frenetic New York.

“My home is my happy place, a space I am so grateful to be able to return to each day for much-needed alone time. Most people are afraid of being alone but I cherish it.”



At press time, the designer had just concluded his triumphant Spring 2023 fashion show at the 170-year-old Harmonie Club, located around the corner from The Pierre hotel and designed by Stanford White, the legendary Beaux-Arts exponent of what has been termed the “American Renaissance” style.

Here, the city’s gilded and glamorous — from Park Avenue princesses to the Upper East Side upper class — congregated on Sept 13 for an afternoon showing of purely black-and-white looks, all inspired by butterflies and peonies.

“I imagined a scene whereby a gorgeous young woman newly discovers and appreciates the beauty of haute couture,” Zang muses. “She borrows her grandmother’s ballroom in a château to host a black-and-white soirée for her gorgeous young friends.”

The entire collection seemed a perfect tribute to the return of dressing up and celebrating the pleasures of life en masse once more. After all the world has been through, perhaps it is finally safe to shed our protective casings and emerge as the butterflies Zang and his artisans have so painstakingly embroidered on the dreamy dresses. Oh, and in case you’re wondering just how many looks were presented in-between the opening outfit, which comprised a white Swiss cotton organdy floor-length off-shoulder dress bordered with pleated ruffles, and the grand finale of a show-stopping white tulle grand opera coat with puffed sleeves worn over a hand-beaded black medallion lace silk satin strapless minidress, Zang answers without missing a beat: “33, of course!”


This article first appeared on Sept 26, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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