In the summer of 2011, I was offered an internship at House of Toi in New York City.
House of Toi was founded by Zang Toi, a New York-based Malaysian fashion designer. Recently named by Vivid Magazine as one of the Top 8 Influential Chinese Americans in the United States, Zang is renowned for creating “timeless beauties that are uniquely chic and glamorous”. He and I share something in common. We both hail from the northern state of Kelantan in Malaysia and he has always been an inspiration to me. I felt blessed to be able to not only meet him, but to learn and grow under his guidance.
My internship with Zang was the portal to the fashion world. I would spend the summer as Zang’s assistant, working long but rewarding hours to roll out Zang’s thirty-three-piece Spring 2012 Collection that was to be showcased at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in September 2011.
I was at Detroit Metro Airport, returning to New York City to complete the mission I started in the summer. I was on my way to the showroom at 57th and 5th . It was 11am and I was eager to see Nita Loyelty and Zang Toi. Together, the three of us were “Team Toi”.
Across the East River, the Manhattan skyline looked regal against the pure blue sky. The river was a deep gray. I rolled down the cab window, and the morning breeze greeted me with a gentle caress, welcoming me back to the Big Apple. I stepped onto the pavements of New York and felt the city’s energy beneath my feet. I was alive again!
I settled in quickly at House of Toi, not missing a beat. I was ready! The showroom and production room were filled with everything from shoes, model cards, handbags, gift bags, jewelry to seating cards.
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week was under way…
We were in the office at ten o’clock in the morning despite working late the night before. Kirstie Alley was coming to the House! I was beyond excited. I am a big fan of Cheers and Dancing with The Stars. Kirstie has been Zang’s dear friend for thirteen years and she would be taking to the centerpiece of the runway, gracing the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Zang Toi’s grand finale outfit.
Entertainment Tonight would be filming a 2-part exclusive series of Kirstie and her first-ever runway show, so we had to put in extra effort to prepare for her arrival. This meant tidying the showroom to tip-top perfection. We hid shoeboxes behind the staircase, tossed out trash and moved furniture around to the most accurate angles. An hour before she arrived, we found ourselves in front of the mirror, brushing our hair and re-touching our makeup. Everyone was trying to look his or her best.
When we heard the familiar laughter, we knew Ms. Alley was in the building. She is exactly the same person you see on television! She is funny, smart, positive and she looked better than gorgeous!
The fitting went well. The custom-made, one-of-a-kind Sapphire-beaded opera gown looked stunning on Kirstie. There was no doubt in our minds that she would own the runway.
Aimee Phillips, the jeweler from Malaysia, was in the House. Zang designed every single piece of the jewelry that was to be used in the show. The exquisite gold bracelet, gold earrings, chokers and sapphire epaulet completely blew me away.
Later in the evening, we had a meeting with the music composer to discuss the music that would be used for the show. The soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia was our initial choice because the theme of the show was “My dream of North Africa”. We listened to a wide variety of Arabic music and finally decided on a combination of a few songs that represented our African theme. Those irresistible sounds, beats, and haunting vocals stayed with me all day, even permeating my dreams.
Model after model came into the showroom for fittings. Each of them brought their own grace and beauty to accentuate Zang’s show. Precision was important to Zang. I helped him make sure everything fit perfectly.
Next up, I liaised with Jess Teutonico, our Public Relations Director, to assign the seating for the event. Some of the celebrities expected to be in attendance were Petra Nemcova, Julie Macklowe, Jill Zarin, Romona Singer, Jamee Gregory, and the legendary Patti LaBelle. Arranging the seating charts was no easy task, and that meant keeping track of all the gossip and being very mindful of the relationships and associations of our guests to avert any unnecessary uneasiness!
Kirstie Alley came in for a second fitting. After some minor alterations, the grand finale diva gown fitted her perfectly and she looked absolutely fabulous. We then had a meeting with the hair and makeup team. We discussed and agreed upon glamorous eye makeup and lacquered hair for Kirstie and the models.
The other models also came in for their second fittings. Everything had to be precise and pin-point perfect. There was no room for mistakes. I handed them their call sheets before they left.
We also finalized the seating assignments and blasted them out to the guests via a mobile phone app known as Fashion GPS. That was so much easier than having to mail everyone!
My highlight of the day though, was when the model Petra Nemcova came to the House! Working with her was a dream. She truly is a wonderful person, inside and out. She tried on several outfits before deciding on a white-laced top with bootleg pants to match.
Oh, I felt like Rachel Zoe! To be dressing celebrities and making them look beautiful; many would give an arm and a leg to do that. And here I am. It was absolutely divine and a shiver went down my spine.
This is the day before the big show and the atmosphere in our showroom and production room was surprisingly calm.
After a long day of work finalizing the details of the show and ensuring that it would be in pristine condition, we had KFC for dinner at 7 in the evening. Zang is a superstitious fellow. This “Lucky Chicken Night” ritual came from 1991. It has remained because of that first mega-successful show that led to his discovery by Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue.
A final pre-show meeting was called for the staff and the volunteers. Jess, our trusty Public Relations Director, assigned everybody with tasks.
I was pumped. I could feel the excitement in my veins!
Nita and I stayed late into the night. We made sure that every item of the thirty-three-piece collection was in order. Every loose end was sewn back or removed, and every button was polished several times.
By the time the cab pulled up at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York’s Upper West Side, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach. I never imagined myself stepping foot in the white tents during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. It was like a scene out of a magazine. I stood there and basked in that moment.
I was a goddess.
It was chaotic and exciting both at front-of-house and backstage. Gift bags were assembled and placed on every seat, the “Run of Show” was distributed to arriving guests, and the hair and makeup team were under pressure to make every model perfect. The backstage was a mess of sponsor representatives, camera crews, TV hosts conducting interviews and bloggers frantically taking pictures. We were engulfed in this craziness from the moment we took over the venue a mere two hours ago.
Twenty minutes before the show starts, and my work backstage was done. Guests filtered into The Studio. I was at the front-of-house checking in guests and the turnout was overwhelming. I recognized a number of familiar faces in the crowd. Robert Verdi, Miss J Alexander and Stephen Baldwin were among the attendees. I even caught a glimpse of Beyonce!
Suddenly, it was show time! The lights were dimmed. There was a hushed silence as the crowd settled, the runway’s cover was elegantly peeled away, and Sting’s “Desert Rose” started playing. One by one, Zang’s thirty-three-piece collection was unleashed on the runway. A thunderous applause erupted when Kirstie Alley walked down the runway in the “One Thousand Nights and One Night” imperial coat. It was one moment I could never forget.
I was teary-eyed when the models did their final walk. The audience was on their feet when Kirstie and Zang came out to take their bows. The standing ovation lasted 10 minutes and Zang deserved every minute of it. It was a good showing and I was so proud of our team effort!
My brief summer encounter with this multi-billion dollar fashion industry has truly been insightful. There are marked contrasts within this world. Where there is glitz and glamour, there is also sweat and tears. There are people who are genuine and accommodating, but there are more who are pretentious and intimidating. The only way one can be successful in this industry is through sheer determination, hard work and perseverance.
It was a privilege to be thrown in at the deep end at House of Toi. To be able to work closely with Zang Toi was a dream come true for me. He was not only down-to-earth and approachable, he was also infinitely energizing, invigorating and inspiring.
I realize that there will be sacrifices to make if I am to make it in this industry, but I walk away from this summer internship knowing that I am IN!
Steven Ong is an advertising major senior at Michigan State University. He is the writer of Little Brown Bag, http://www.lilbrownbag.blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @Steven_Zuhao