The babes in Toi-land

Zang Toi hugs former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett after one of his shows in New York.eva-n-melissa.jpgmelindagates.jpg

Sunday January 7, 2007 from thestartonline

How many Malaysian fashion designers can claim the distinction of dressing some of the most famous women in the world? Zang Toi can, writes CHIN MUI YOON.

 Yet Malaysian fashion designer Zang Toi nearly forgets to talk about this fascinating experience when being interviewed on his success as designer to stars and celebrities.  If he is a little nonchalant, it is perhaps because Melinda Gates is one of his many Very Important Clients whom he has garnered over 18 years of being in the business in New York.  When he finally gets round to telling the story, Zang (as he is popularly known) reveals that he only found out in 1999 that Melinda Gates had been regularly buying his clothes from Nordstrom, the upmarket multi-brand New York department store.  Melinda was planning a millennium party at her home and had contacted Nordstrom to enquire if Zang would be willing to go to her house to specially design her party dress. She had just had her second baby and didn’t want to venture outside.  “I agreed and she flew me to her home the next day. Her assistant waited for me at the airport. When we arrived, Melinda herself opened the door for us,” recalls Zang.  “We only had 45 minutes! I sketched two designs for her and she immediately liked the one with pansies. I made matching shoes and silk pansies for her hair. She later said she wished all her meetings could go as smoothly as ours had.”  

Zang’s ability to make women feel completely elegant and feminine – New York Mag says Zang can be counted on for pure, unadulterated glamour, where “women, old and young, are made to feel like the only women in the room with his dramatic, finely embellished gowns” – is key to his success. 

 Star appeal  Zang’s illustrious clients also include Hollywood actresses Eva Longoria, Sharon Stone, former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett; singer Patti La Belle and socialite Ivana Trump.  Stone has been a Zang Toi fan for 10 years after noticing the clothes a friend was wearing at a charity fundraiser.   “Sharon thought the clothes were from a European couture designer and was surprised when she discovered it was actually a New York-based Malaysian designer!” says Zang.  In 1997, Stone dropped by at Zang’s boutique on 57th Street after giving a speech at the United Nations building.  “The first thing she said was, ‘What a beautiful showroom this is!’ Then, my boutique was decorated in oriental gold and red,” recalls Zang.  “Sharon said she only had 30 minutes. Then she spotted my blue opera coat and the next thing we knew, she had stayed three hours and the floor was strewn with garments!  “She asked if I could rush two gowns for her and her sister Kelly for an event in Paris the next day. They were supposed to be wearing Valentino, but Sharon decided to switch to my gowns instead! Of course you don’t say no to Sharon Stone!   “The next day, she sent over a gigantic bouquet of red tulips with a note saying, ‘I thought this would look nice in your boutique’,” says Zang.  More recently, Stone wore Zang Toi to the 2006 Oscars.  The latest and youngest celebrity fan is rising star model-turned-actress Devon Aoki, who wore a purple velvet-silk gown with sexy slits for the 2006 Spike Scream Awards.  And contrary to a popular practice by big couture houses, Zang does not offer free gowns to movie stars attending the Oscars.  “It costs up to a million to dress the stars; it’s like a war out there,” explains Zang. “Big fashion houses have spoilt many stars. Now even their stylists expect to get bribed. Thankfully, there are still many celebrities who insist on paying in full and refuse discounts.”  Zang freely admits his clothes are not cheap. A Sea Island cotton (the best you can get) shirt costs US$700 (RM2,457) while his gowns start from US$7,000 (RM24,570).  “Even Joan Collins, one of my first big clients, told me I am ‘a very expensive young man!’ But I believe that you get what you pay for.  

“I use only the finest fabrics available. I buy cashmere from Johnstons of Elgin in Scotland, which is the very best since 1797. My silk is from Italy’s Lake Como area that’s been producing silk since the 14th century, and I use French lace from Lyons. Zang Toi does not only look glamorous, it feels luxurious.” 

 Giving back  Despite the stiff competition and the hard work involved, Zang refuses to take what he does seriously.   “Fashion is fun!” he says. “It’s not a matter of life and death; most people in our industry take it so seriously. Fashion makes people feel good. They want to look beautiful for themselves or for their boyfriend or husband ? fashion is about putting smiles on people’s faces!”  Unusually for a fashion designer, Zang is not into the social scene New York is famous for.  “I don’t do parties, drugs or smoke,” he says earnestly. “If I must attend a function, I go for one hour and then I sneak out. It’s just not my thing!   “What I do love is good food. I go to all the best restaurants in New York or when I’m travelling – that’s where I spend all my money!”  He may not be a party animal but Zang has very cannily developed his own unique style and image. He dresses celebrities but he is a head-turning celebrity in his own right. His trademark: a short skirt showing off well-toned, shapely legs!  That stemmed from his fixation with kilts during a visit to Scotland in 2002 which led to his own little version immediately.  Zang was recently in Charleston, South Carolina, known for its conservative society, to receive an award for his charitable work. He came dressed in a black tuxedo, only to have his hosts insist that he change.  “They told me, ‘You look so adorable and cute in your kilt; don’t think of changing!’ I accepted the award in my kilt and everybody loved it.”  Zang even wore his a kilt over his cycling shorts at Ride for the Roses in Austin, Texas, last October, a 40-mile bike trip to raise funds for seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong’s Foundation in supporting cancer research.  “Lance was checking out my kilt during the ride!” Zang says merrily. “He said, ‘You look so cool,’ and I replied, ‘Maybe we can get you to wear a Zang kilt.’ He answered, ‘You never know, I just might’!”  Armstrong presented a signed cycling helmet to Zang later as the best-dressed participant. Zang hopes to auction the helmet and two signed kilts at the starting price of US$1,300 (RM4,564).   Zang got involved with raising funds for the Foundation two years ago after reading Armstrong’s autobiography of how he had survived cancer. He raised US$50,000 (RM176,000) last year and has sold hundreds of the trademark yellow LiveStrong wristband, of which he sports three on his right wrist.   “I don’t have friends or family with cancer, but I want to do what I can,” he says. “I grew up in a grocery store in a little village. We weren’t super poor, but we never had luxuries or holidays, as my father was always saving money for our education.   “I was very fortunate to grow up with a lot of love from my parents who worked very hard to ensure we had an education. My father told us: ‘All I’m giving you is education; the rest is up to you.’  “For me to be able to accomplish so much is amazing. I was just an immigrant in America. My parents paid for my tuition and since finishing my studies, I have not asked or received a penny from them.  “Life is about giving. If we can give back, why not?”

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