Zang Toi’s career is a rags to runway story.
The youngest of seven children, Toi left his native Malaysia when he was 20 years old with only $300 in his pocket and the fierce ambition to succeed. “I was one of those boys who always could draw,” he said. “My sister suggested fashion.”
Toi applied to the Parsons School of Design, fulfilling the collage requirement with a pastiche of images culled from a copy of Vogue he tore apart, and was accepted. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the House of Zang Toi, which represents for the designer, the fulfillment of his personal American Dream.
The designer, who often wears kilts embroidered with the House of Toi crest, and two barrettes in his hair, is as colorful as his collections. “I grew up in Malaysia, and they love bright colors,” he said. “I also love Rajasthan and Udaipur in India. I love the Diana Vreeland quote, ‘Hot pink is the navy blue of India.'”
Toi two years ago unveiled an 800-square-foot flagship at 1046 Lexington Avenue and 75th Street in Manhattan, and has built a loyal following with longtime retailer partner Saks Fifth Avenue, holding some 20 trunk shows across the U.S., including in Hawaii.
Things started somewhat inauspiciously at Parsons. “On the first day of class, the instructor was sitting by an industrial sewing machine and asked if there was anyone who didn’t know how to use one. I raised my hand, and she had me sit near her for the rest of the class. That night, I finished my homework, which was sewing a T-shirt out of muslin fabric, in 15 minutes.”
Toi thought he aced the assignment, but the next morning was called in front of the class again. “My stitches were three inches apart. I decided I’d have to work three times harder,” he said. “But I needed a part-time job, because my parents, who owned a grocery store, couldn’t afford to pay for my supplies.”
Following up on a lead, Toi interviewed with Mary Jane Marcasiano, and was offered a full-time summer job. The designer wanted Toi to stay on past the summer. “Mary Jane’s father said, ‘We know you have to finish school. We’re going to open a studio for you across the street from Mary Jane’s studio.’ I went to school full-time, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then I’d run and take the subway to SoHo and work in my studio until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.”
The schedule was grueling, with Toi doing his Parsons homework during lunch and breaks and on the subway. “I finished a four-year degree in three years,” he said. “I always credit my parents for teaching me my work ethic. Every day after school, I had to work in the grocery store.”
After five years at Marcasiano, Toi was ready to branch out. In 1989 he met his business partner, whom he refers to as Mrs. Lee, the owner of a sweater factory in Long Island City. “She said, ‘It seems like you have a little talent. Would you like to start your own business? I can put in $50,000.’ When you’re young, you’re fearless…that’s how the House of Zang Toi started.”
The young designer’s first collection consisted of 13 resort looks. “Thirteen is my parents’ lucky number,” Toi said. “It’s the address of their store. I did 12 knitwear items, and a pair of cotton shorts.”
During the early heady days of the brand, Toi’s styles landed on the cover of WWD, and also in Vogue.
The House of Toi was barely one year old when he was nominated in 1990 for the Mouton-Cadet Young Designer of the Year Award, a precursor to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards for emerging design talent. “There were seven finalists,” he recalled. “We each had to show 10 outfits to the 10 judges — five were editors, and five were retailers. I won the competition.”
When Toi’s investor wanted to exit the business in 1995, two of the designer’s brothers stepped in to negotiate with Mrs. Lee. “As an independent house, I can do what I want to do,” said Toi, who has since been the brand’s sole owner.
The designer laments the decline of manners and civility in Manhattan, and fondly recalled the days when the Ladies Who Lunch held tables at La Grenouille, and socialites shopped at Martha’s, the Park Avenue beachhead of luxury designers such as James Galanos, Norman Norell, Nolan Miller, Carolina Herrera and Arnold Scaasi.
“The first retailer that supported me was Martha,” Toi said, adding that he was discovered by Lynn Manulis, Martha Phillips’ daughter, who opened Martha International next to the flagship Martha boutique to showcase emerging designers such as Toi, Charlotte Neuville, Gemma Kahng and Christian Francis Roth.
“Miss Lynn wore a charcoal gray jacket and black and charcoal cashmere shawl with silver fox trim to a buying appointment at Christian Dior in Paris. When she arrived, they hung up her jacket and shawl. The Neiman Marcus buying team came in, and saw the pieces hanging there, and wanted to order them. Miss Lynn had to say, ‘That’s not Dior, that’s my little designer.’ She was like a proud mama.”
Toi discovered the power of trunk shows at Martha International, where his first foray rang up $100,000 in sales in two days. Phillips wanted him to repeat the success at her Palm Beach store. “We did a little over $200,000,” he said. “Miss Martha was so happy, she invited me to her house for dinner. It was just the two of us. I was so young and nervous.”
In the early Nineties, Toi and Bill Blass on the same day held trunk shows at Martha International, and Martha’s, respectively. Blass looked in on Toi’s event. “He said he loved the collection, and I thanked him,” Toi said. “On his way out, he overheard Miss Lynn’s house model say she had to leave early. He sent over one of his own models for the rest of my trunk show. I’ll never forget that man. I sent him flowers and thanked him for his kindness.
“I worked with Martha even when she went was having difficulties in her last few years in business,” he said, referring to the company’s bankruptcy filing in 1992. “She was so kind to me, that for the last two or three seasons, I gave her clothes that she loved. I knew she couldn’t afford them. She really gave me my start, and I was with her until the end.”
Toi’s philosophy is, “We never say no to a customer. Not even on a Sunday. If a client is coming to see the collection, I’m going to be there, and I make house calls. When I mentor young designers, I say, ‘Don’t get a big head. You’re not going to be a rock star or celebrity. Most clients who can afford your clothes are 1,000-times wealthier than you.'”
The designer lives by his advice, traveling to San Francisco to a client of 20 years who tries on looks in her kitchen, with the visit invariably resulting in an order for around $150,000. Toi in 1993 was sent by Saks Fifth Avenue to Saudi Arabia to pay a house call on Princess Haifa Bandar Al Saud at the royal palace. “Between her and her two daughters, the order came to almost $500,000,” Toi said. “At one point, I dressed 20 family members. Now, everything is done through e-mail. We send them the look book.”
Toi next year is looking forward to the 15th anniversary of the Nashville Symphony, presented by retailer Gus Mayer, and his role as official designer, featuring a runway show on April 14 of his fall 2020 collection.
“Where else can a little boy from Malaysia come here with $300?” he said. “I’m paying homage to my country. It’s only appropriate to say thank you to America.”
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