The most striking thing about Sandy Liang is how chill she is. Curled up in a sweater in her bright white, mirror-covered basement studio in the Lower East Side, Drake's new album playing in the background, the designer tells me: “Me being happy equals me being creative, and Ina Garten calms me the fuck down.” She must be watching a lot of "Barefoot Contessa" then, because she is the definition of calm.
Liang showed her third collection at MADE Fashion Week for the first time in February, and is slowly building up her list of stockists (Avenue32, Assembly New York, American Rag and Spring are already among them). But the buzz is building quickly.
Unlike some young designers, Liang doesn't dwell on the challenges she's faced while starting her namesake brand. She has managed to succeed in two incredibly competitive environments, first at Parsons and now as a new designer in New York, and she's done it with unwavering confidence in her vision. "Being at school and seeing how other people sketch out a thousand things to get that one thing — I'm like, 'No, I like this one jacket and I’m just going to do this.'"
That kind of confidence translates to her clothes. She's known for oversized outerwear that's equal parts tough and soft, and simple yet cool separates, like cropped wide-legged pants. 'Downtown New York' is probably an overused descriptor but it's tough to think of a more accurate one for Liang's aesthetic, which is influenced by her Chinese grandmother's bold yet carefree manner of getting dressed. "I’ve never been that aspirational designer," she says. "I’m not designing clothes for the girl who wants to be this person. I’m designing clothes for the girl who is who she is and rides the subway to work."
Liang doesn't gloss over how hard she's working though, noting that if she knew then what she knows now about the brass tacks of starting her own line, she doesn't think she would have done it. "Was I batshit crazy?" she wonders.
Read on for our interview with Liang about her senior thesis and showing her first collection in a hotel room in Paris.
You changed courses early in college, leaving RISD for Parsons and leaving architecture for fashion. Why did you transfer and what did you learn at Parsons?
I think fashion is a very scary thing to commit to. It's almost like if you want to be a celebrity or a movie star or something. There are so many things that could happen or could not happen. For a while, I wanted to take the safe route — you know, Asian parents — and then I thought, 'No, I want to give this is a try, I'm young, you only live once, YOLO.'
Parsons was a great experience because I got to intern while I was at school and I think that was so important. I learned the most from being in the background and listening to how they talk to each other — the every day things that you have to do that you wouldn't necessarily associate with fashion, like running out to get garment bags or buying thread. One of my favorite internships was when I was a press intern at Phillip Lim. That was really helpful because, more so than design, you learn about how to run a business and how to communicate, which I think is the most important thing.
You've said your senior thesis was inspired by Chinese grandmothers. Why does that style interest you?
Well, it's very personal. I never really thought about it, but that's just what interested me. When everyone else says, 'Oh, I look to this island in France for inspiration or I look to this piece of art,' I think, 'Well, I don't really know that much about that piece of art or whatever else.' What I know is how I grew up and the people that I grew up with, the people who took care of me. And that just came very naturally and I always thought it was beautiful the way my grandmother dressed. She would get these Chinatown pants that were ill-fitting and cropped and wide-legged. Are they meant to be cropped, are they not? Who knows. Also it was much more about the attitude, about they way they just don't really care.
Why start your own line after graduating from Parsons? Why not work for another company or do something less risky?
Well, the original plan was to work for a couple of years at other companies. I was just high off my thesis; I felt at that point that I really knew who I wanted to design for and all the other stuff comes later, you know, all the legal stuff, all the financial stuff. But I just felt the timing was right. Even now if you said, 'Sandy, now that you've worked at a company for another year, do you want to start your own thing?' I'd be like, 'Fuck, no, it's miserable. I've seen how it works in the background and I don't want to do it.' But because I was so naive, I didn't know. You do eventually figure everything else out. It's hard and it's definitely a challenge every day and I'm so happy I did it. I think, was I batshit crazy?
How did you get the funding to start the line?
A bunch of things, like my family. I’m really fortunate enough that my family believed in what I did and for a long time, they didn’t. My dad really wanted me to be an architect, but I think after he saw my thesis collection, he thought, 'Wow, I could actually see real people wearing this.'
Tell me about some of the challenges of putting together the first collection.
I think the only challenge was that I had no idea. I had no prior experience. In terms of getting the physical collection made, I did it by myself. I just took the F train every day to Midtown to sample makers and I went to all these fabric appointments by myself. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m sure people looked at me thinking, 'What is this girl, who is she, why is she so crazy?' So then after I got the collection made and I had something to show people, I started reaching out to a bunch of people through social media and just emailing.
My first season I didn’t have an official showroom or sales department. It was just me doing the sales with my friend Aziza. I brought two friends with me and we went to Paris and we stayed at a hotel. We made the hotel room basically our showroom and that's where I had all the appointments with our buyers. I didn’t have an official presentation or anything. I just had a lookbook shoot and I emailed the lookbook to buyers. But a lot of the people weren’t in New York at that time so I had to bring the collection to Paris so that everyone could see it. I’m really glad I did, I met a lot of really great people when I was there.
Did anyone help you figure it out?
I never realized that designers worked so closely with stylists because I always assumed if you were a designer, you could style your own look bookshoot. I worked with Kate Foley for the last lookbook shoot I did. We met through a mutual friend and she came to visit the studio during the first collection and she saw everything. Later that day she emailed me and said, 'I want to help you,' and I was like, 'Awesome.' She’s been so supportive, especially because she doesn’t have to help me. There are so many great designers out there that she could be working with.
How have your collections influenced the subsequent ones?
I always like to say that I don’t really work from one inspiration, that changes every season. It doesn’t matter for me. My last collection is always going to inform my current collection because it's the same customer, it's the same girl, it's still me. Maybe five years from now my collection will be totally different.
I love outerwear and so fall/winter is my thing, I love it. There were definitely a couple of pieces from my first collection that didn’t get the exposure that I felt like they could have gotten, so I reworked them into my newest one.
How did you end up showing at MADE Fashion Week? And where did you get those amazing urns that you had at your presentation?
I worked with Sara [Byworth] from Saturday Group and I think she was talking to the brand relations person at Milk. I came up and they liked my stuff. The people at Made and Milk are so awesome, I had zero stress that day presenting because they made it so easy and they’re just nice and warm. I don’t even know why I’m talking about this so much but I just love them so much.
People have been calling them urns but they’re just decorative Asian vases. It's funny — my dad had them in his restaurant and in our old house back in Queens and I said, 'I want them in my office,' and then I thought, 'Wait, we could use these for the lookbook shoot,' and then we were like, 'Wait, we could use these for the presentation.' I don’t really think that far ahead or plan ahead like that, but they’re there, they’re free, they look good with the clothes. I’m Asian, they’re Asian.
What are your goals for the rest of the year?
Definitely to reach more stockists. I’m working with a really good sales team, Paper Mache Tiger. They’re great, they get the clothes, they know how to talk about it. But it helps to be more present in the sales process. When you’re such a new brand, people don’t really know who you are as a designer or as a brand. I think its important for me to be there to talk about that.
Brand identity is something that's really important to me, because at the end of the day, you just have a bunch of clothes and without your identity, you think, 'What's the connection between you and all these other girls?' I know my girl so well, because she has everything to do with how I dress and what I decide to wear in the morning, and even my every day environment. I live two blocks away from here, and it all make sense for me when I'm designing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.