Shock to Awe: Zang Toi rules runway

Chartreuse, red and shocking pink: Zang Toil burst onto the New York fashion scene in bold, outrageous color. His designs, he said, were for “women who are not afraid to make an entrance.”




When Zang Toi burst onto the New York fashion scene in 1989, people took notice, including the editors of Vogue magazine, which featured this story in March 1990.


That was in 1989. Toi has come a long way since then, and he’s still making a scene – a spectacle of the best kind – both in his personal appearance and in his design. His signature attire is a black kilt, velvet for dress-up occasions. (Sometimes he mixes it up with a white kilt.) While his own clothing preference is somewhat offbeat, his runway designs have transitioned from lavish to elegant and he’s included denim in between.


“I think my key design philosophy is very simple. All I want to do is make women look beautiful, not to just follow the fashion trends blindly,” he said in a phone interview. 


“Over the years, my design has become more refined than my early days’ work. As I get older and I’m fortunate enough to experience better things in life, I’ve learned that one of the most important things is to keep it simple.”



Accolades have come his way. Toi won the Mouton-Cadet Young Designers Award in 1991, he was presented an award of distinction by New York City Public Advocate Mark J. Green for his artistic contributions and achievements, and in 1997, he was awarded a knighthood by the Sultan of Kelantan. The native Malaysian is also a recipient of The International Center in New York’s Award of Excellence.


Fashionistas clamor for prized tickets to Toi’s runway shows. During the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in February, Toi ran away with the runway. The perfectly tailored evening gowns in camel contrasted with those in brilliant emerald green. The piece de resistance was the final, scene-stealing black gown with beautiful embroidery and sequins.


In February 2011’s Fall Runway show, TV personality Jill Zarin modeled the highly sequined gown on the left, which was the last creation down the runway. The collection’s mainstay colors were camel and black. The surprise color was emerald green, adding zest to the show.


“It was statement-making, but wearable. I like to make pieces a woman can enjoy. They’re classic with just a little drama,” Toi explains.


Drama aside, Toi notes that the collection “seems right for the time: a controlled palette and controlled sparkle.”


His models smile, as do those who wear his creations. “I always tell them, ‘be happy, be glamorous,’ ” Toi says.


But the most important compliments come from his devotees. Season after season they turn to Toi for his finely tailored suits and fairy-tale beautiful evening gowns. Among his faithful are Hollywood notables such as Eva Longoria, Angela Bassett, Sharon Stone and Kirstie Alley. And others: Melinda Gates is a client as are Ivana Trump and uncounted Saudi princesses.


“I was first introduced to Zang during Scottsdale Fashion Week when he was the main presenter, and Debbie Moak invited me,” says Paradise Valley’s Jacquie Dorrance. “I have been hooked since!


“I love Zang's pant suits. They are impeccably cut and can always be dressed up by his fabulous shawls. His clothes are tailored, but always extremely feminine. His fabrics are the finest from Loro Piana for daywear, and his gowns are fantasy-like and purely couture.”



Toi is a perfectionist. In everything. For the Fall 2011 runway show, he had the fabric for the final gown embroidered and sequins applied in India. But after the gown was constructed, it wasn’t enough.


“That gown has thousands of Swarovski crystals,” Toi says. “It took a team of 10 embroiderers three to four weeks to bead the fabric. When it arrived in New York from India, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the beading. The last two days before the show, I had a team of assistants adding more sequins, beads, crystals to get it to the way I wanted it to look on the runway.”


His obsession with perfection carries over into his personal life – or maybe vice versa. “It’s part of my daily life,” Toi says. “My assistants think I’m crazy. My Facebook is perfectly arranged. My apartment is perfectly arranged. When my sister saw it, she said, ‘This is like a museum!’


“When my housekeeper is not around, if I drink a cup of coffee, I have to clean the coffee cup and put it away. When I’m finished reading a book, I put it away. For me, it’s very normal; this is what makes me happy. I bring work home from my office and often work late into the evening, sometimes to early in the morning. Even if it’s 3:30 a.m., I put everything away. I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t do that.”


His closet, he says, is perfect. His computer is perfect – he deletes his email every evening, and every Friday cleans up the desktop. “That’s how I live my life. Once I do my thing, I’m happy. Usually creative people are much more free-spirited,” he admits. “But I can’t live that way. I guess I was born a perfectionist.”



During NYC’s fashion week this September, he hosted an intimate cocktail party in his apartment Saturday evening for Valley residents Catherine Jacobson, Debbie Moak, Carol Clemmensen and Dorrance, who were also his guests for the Spring 2012 runway show the following Tuesday.                                              


Zang Toi hosted Debbie Moak, Jacquie Dorrance, Carol Clemmensen and Catherine Jacobson for cocktails in his NYC apartment Saturday evening before Tuesday’s runway show.


Toi served Champagne and gave the women a tour of his apartment. With its mink living-room rug and dyed-fox bedroom rug, it was “very glam,” Dorrance says. And that perfect closet? Small, but black and white, like his clothes.


The four women attended the runway show at the Lincoln Center, sitting in coveted front- and second-row seats. In the photo below, Moak and Dorrance are visible in the crook of Toi's arm.





The show held some surprises. Black was still king, but while silver and platinum have reigned for years, Toi chose gold accents for spring. The show’s “it” color was royal blue, inspired by the “brilliant blue night sky” of Marrakech. Cory Stearns from American Ballet Theatre took a trip down the runway in a long dark sapphire velvet coat over a black evening shirt and pants. “Breathtaking,” says Dorrance. Rumor had it that 60-year-old Kirstie Alley would model the final gown, and she did. With style.



Toi uses his celebrity for good. With his cycling team, Team Zang, he earned Lance Armstrong’s top fundraiser award in 2008-2009, raising more than $600,000 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation against cancer. In his Spring 2012 collection, Toi features fabric purchased directly from a village in the northwest African country of Burkina Faso, after one of the models from that area showed him some work of her local weaving industry. Dorrance hopes to invite him to present a special show in support of Ballet Arizona. 


Next up for Toi? A collection of shoes has been licensed in Malaysia. The shoes are available in the U.S. only through trunk shows. He will expand to the rest of Asia first, he says, then Europe, then the U.S. He also has a licensed makeup and watch company in Malaysia, and says the company is “about 85 percent there” to begin marketing in America. It is soon to be followed by a makeup line.


“I don’t know how I keep up,” Toi says. “Once you love what you do, it’s fun. It’s no longer work”


– C. Miller

Runway photos:

Toi visits the Valley twice yearly. He will bring his trunk show to Neiman Marcus on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, and to Saks Fifth Avenue on Dec. 5 and 6.


2011 Fall Runway Show

2012 Spring Runway Show






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