Cindy Soong. In one of her latest undertakings, Soong actually had to turn to Minnie Mouse (yes, Minnie, as in “Disney”, my little Tinkerbells) for inspiration. Disney China recently collaborated with four well-known homegrown Dragon designers, aka Ji Cheng, Han Lulu, Makin Ma and Soong herself.
The Walt Disney empire — its Greater China branch, to be more specific — had the Fab Four create fashion collections inspired by Minnie, who “has served as a [polka dot] fashion muse to designers for decades and is, all in all, Disney’s very own fashion star.” According to Vice-President of Product Creative Allen Au-Yeung. Designing for Disney definitely seems one step off the beaten runway to me, but it’s like that tidbit of Rapunzel (that Grimm sell-out) wisdom as stated in “Tangled”: “Venture outside your comfort zone. The rewards are worth it.”
Magic Kingdom lover or not, Soong threw in some tough chick chic with a solid black skirt construction to please any Disney villain. Enough with the chitchat, time to get on with the show. The Disney collections took to the stage during Shanghai Fashion Week last April and Soong’s A/W16 collection was lit up with a strong constructional, oversized as well as playfully shaped aesthetic in mixed materials. With the occasional soft, again tongue-in-cheek, Minnie touch, from bows to ears, underscoring the brand’s mission to unify the female toughness and spiritual freedom. The collection was very well received, described in “That’s It” magazine as “a balance of feminism, power and independence; all mushed together within the women who were cat-walking with confidence.”
May I present, a Q&A with this highly likeable (as opposed to what the “Punk Slut” scribbled on her runway models’ foreheads might indicate) and perfectly proficient designer. Modern art meets business. Let the duet commence.
- The designer and her designs.
Soong: “I am Chinese, born in 1989, and I am a fashion designer. I went off to study in the U.S. when I was 16 and eventually graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. During my first two years of college I was in business school, but then I decided to move from Michigan to New York City to study fashion. I was doing internships with many brands in the NYC market, including Alexander Wang. After working in NYC for a while, I received a great opportunity to collaborate with JNBY, a Chinese brand that saw something they liked in me (well, in my designs, of course). So, as the story goes, I came back to China, skicked off that first collaboration with JNBY – i.e. mainly selling them my design samples – and in 2012 set up my own brand. My team gradually expanded and at this point we have a Shanghai office of some 15 staff and are working non-stop to get our London office in order.”
- The staple “Triple S” question about your take on design: Do you favor certain sustainable materials? Do you prefer one specific silhouette? Do you prefer a certain season?
Soong: “I like stiff fabrics and materials instead of ‘drapey’ or soft fabrics such as silk georgette or chiffon. Plus, I like black and white; those simply are my favorite colors. Silhouette-wise… I’d have to say I prefer the sporty silhouette as done by Balenciaga, Celine and Gareth Pugh. I used to like A/W better, but now I’d have to say that the S/S collections just offer more room for variation. Transitional season collections, like “pre-fall” and “resort”, are great too ‘cause these clothes are not made so much for their functional use as for their artsy-ness. That way, you can just focus on the art part and go nuts – should you want to.” [Slideshow below shows the A/W 2015 collection]
- Inspiration and the creative process. Key to any design(er).
Soong: “Most of the time, I get my inspiration from vacations I happen to be on or from daily affairs at work or from things I sees or do when free and relaxed. Usually, my process doesn’t start with a development of the overall collection. That actually sounds more complicated than it is ha. In a nutshell, I will draw my croquis [sketches, my little elfs] first. Then, I’ll come up with a couple of ideas, which I will match with the croquis that flew out of my pencil earlier. The overall design process usually lasts about a month and then I will have finished the sketching part — my design assistant does come in very handy during this time. Moving on swiftly to the pattern-making part, sample-making part, etc. I will always come back from (read: delete) certain ideas whilst we’re right in the midst of things or fix certain details that I feel just aren’t quite there yet. All in all, it’s not a fast work process, but all the while I will keep every market trend and concept/idea change in the back of my mind.”
- Sustaining a brand in China anno 2016 is not one easy-peasy feat.
Soong: “A good designer can always be a good business person at the same time. My goal is to find a balance between both the design part and the business part. Dreams, and money, are equally important in this industry. I probably got my business sense from my first two years of business school in university. Before you go and judge a designer in general, I think you should always carefully examine whether or not the products they serve up are marketable, let alone sellable, and if their company is making money or not. Not everyone is Alexander McQueen or Coco Chanel. Either you are extremely bloody talented (and you die at age 30 or live in a hotel being someone’s mistress for the rest of your life) or you find a smart solution to get your products out there. To market, to market!”[Slideshow below shows the A/W 2016 collection]
- How and where does your Chinese heritage specifically come into play? Any other specific influences grâce à the Mainland?
Soong: “I got the fashion vibe from my mother when I was little. She had her first book published [no, we shall not be namedropping; this piece is just about the Daughter] when I was 6, in 1994, and we went to Beijing together to attend her press conference. At that time, everybody in China, or let’s say in Beijing, was wearing that navy blue/greyish or black ‘uniform’. My mom had just received her first book royalties and was wearing Valentino at that time. [Mom’s testament to a nation in motion — as seen through fashion.] She was passionate about fashion and we got our hands on the very first edition of Vogue China as soon as it was published in September of 2005. And we have received its every edition since. I certainly was influenced a lot by my mom, with her wardrobe sprawled across three rooms, and by the way she thinks about fashion. I had a little storage box for all my fabrics and needles around the age of 8 or 9 and I actually created my very own dancing outfits at that time. Everything felt fresh and fun to me, I felt like I could do whatever I loved when I was a child.”
- The Mainland China Fashion scene anno 2016.
Soong: “Lots of new designers are rapidly emerging, with many of them vanishing from the Fashion Week backstage areas just as quickly. Many local O2O [online to offline, vv; yes, I googled] businesses have emerged in China, with the aim to create a new sales platform for designers. Most of them just don’t make it and go under before they were ever even ‘slightly’ afloat. We have been in the market for 4 years now and have witnessed so much ongoings, and downpours, in this industry… China used to hold the (quite non-PC) advantage in manufacturing — due to its cheap labor. This advantage is rapidly diminishing since Vietnam, Indonesia and so on are providing far cheaper clothing manufacturers. We always jokingly refer to the Chinese fashion industry’s current situation as one that is “shuffling the playing cards”: Resources and positions are constantly being re-allocated. A new generation, including my brand, emerges, whilst at the same time the ‘older’ generation [i.e. NE Tiger] is still there. We now find ourselves in a transitional time. Who knows what the future holds! For the foreseeable future, I can say that we, as in ‘the Cindy Soong brand’, just want to grow the company, grow our UK business and design more collections. Que sera, sera!”
Polka Minnie or punk mini; if you possess the creativity and ability to work with both, I’m sure the song of Soong won’t be a swan one just yet.
All photos: Cindy Soong.