Zang Toi: Fashion, furniture and food – Malaysia style

The West 57th St. Café in Kuala Lumpur seems to be a misnomer, but that suits Zang Toi just fine.  Renaming the restaurant to reflect the fashion designer’s new Manhattan headquarters on East 48th St. is unnecessary because, as various brochures and signage advertise, it’s really known by one unofficial-turned-official name: the Zang Toi Café.

While the designer himself runs his primary operations out of New York – home to his semi-annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week runway shows – on the other side of the world in Malaysia, his company has a distinctly different feel thanks to the efforts of two older brothers.  Toi See Luon and Toi See Yen flew to New York to rescue Zang’s company from bankruptcy in the 1990’s – “Chapter 11” is what both brothers will say of that experience – and have been involved ever since.  Zang’s namesake label in his home country includes an eclectic mix of custom-made orders (comprising 50 percent of its clothing-related business, said See Yen), ready-to-wear (35 percent), and uniforms for institutions such as hotels and banks (15 percent).    Three Zang Toi retail locations exist in Kuala Lumpur: two side by side at Lot 10 and the other a central space, complete with aforementioned café, on the fourth floor of the Parkson department store at the Parkson Pavilion mall.

“For ready-to-wear, if we were to license it out, then I think there is a lot of potential, even in ASEAN countries [such as] Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore,” See Yen said.

At the Parkson location, numerous women’s long-sleeved dress shirts in more than 40 colors, all between US$100-150 each, hang on the rails.  Cuff links resembling the dragon buttons on Chinese qi pao come in at just under US$10.  There are numerous t-shirts emblazoned with the words “TEAM TOI” and Zang’s company logo, a slight source of disagreement between the brothers.

“People want the logos,” See Luon said of his top-selling items.  “I think the logo, if done right, is not that vulgar.  At the beginning, [Zang] always laughed at me.”  He added that male customers would actually approach him, wonder why the logos on certain shirts were too small, and demand that they be printed in much bigger fonts and images – in some cases even beaded, handmade or embroidered.

In fact, while handbags are not part of Zang’s regular accessory offerings, the logos gave See Luon an idea for a couple of purses with large sequined peony designs gathering dust.  He decided to take every single logo that Zang created over the years, overlap them around the peonies and create one-off pieces that See Luon proudly calls his “Hall of Fame” bags.  These will make the plane trip with See Luon to New York in September and hit the runway at Zang’s 25th Anniversary Spring 2015 show.

 

That covers just the main fashion business.  Other items include furniture, interior design pieces and shoes (footwear brought in US$3 million its first year in 2011; that figure is now up to $10 million thanks to distribution deals at department stores including Parkson, Robinson and Isetan, according to See Yen).  The mirrors dotted throughout the café carry an aesthetic reminiscent of Zang’s own apartment and office in New York.  Some are decorated with crown designs and priced at several thousand dollars apiece, and while it is unsurprising that their top customers are past and present Malaysian royalty, the royals tell See Luon that they would rather keep the designs instead of switching them out to their own family crowns.  In addition, sculptures, throw pillows, chairs, tables and other items fit for a king are for sale – some of which are designed by Zang himself, are handmade outside of Malaysia and, of course, bear his company logo.

Then there is the food.  While not a major part of that mix, the Zang Toi Café is by several accounts a natural extension of the designer’s portfolio.  For starters, Zang himself enjoys cooking, often hosting parties for the talent he works with in New York and serving his own recipes at the sample sales he holds several times a year.  A couple of the menu offerings, the Zang Toi Tea Punch and the pasta dishes with pesto sauce (ranging from MYR17 to 38 (US$5.40 to $12)), are the designer’s own creations.   The most significant supporter behind the café is See Luon, who decided during the Fall 2012 New York collections to hand make chicken curry buns for all the photographers covering his youngest brother’s show.  It was See Luon with more than 30 years under his belt in the catering business that enabled Zang’s commercial foray into cuisine.  The evolving menu includes Western fare, and traditional Malaysian dishes and items such as nasi lemak (seven versions, MYR16 to 36 (US$5 to $11.50)) and biskit bangkit cheese; soon to be served is ayam percik, a Malaysian barbecue coconut chicken dish.

The café’s current location at Parkson Pavilion – where it has been based since 2008 – is an open space surrounded by retail items, serving as a hybrid restaurant-office.  On a late Sunday afternoon, for example, a girl named Christine was celebrating her 16th birthday as diners ate to the soundtrack of Zang’s New York runway shows screening on a nearby monitor.  Meanwhile, one table over, See Luon himself was fielding calls from a multinational firm eager to outfit all its male employees in tailored suits for upcoming business meetings.  When See Luon informs Zang of such an order, the designer e-mails some sketches the next day.

“I just copy whatever he does,” said See Luon with a laugh.  “I don’t design – I just knock it off!”

Despite the Malaysian side of the company being the smaller division, complacency does not figure into the brothers’ vocabulary.  Business in Asia continues to expand, with Zang’s shoes about to be sold at Parkson in Indonesia and all the brothers mulling over other possibilities, including Muslim wear, an area that quite a few Malaysian ready-to-wear designers pursue given that more than 61 percent of the population practices Islam, according to the Malaysian government.

“I’m lucky that I have a clever brother like Zang,” See Luon said.  “He is one of the very few designers who enjoys his work and his life.  He has been very, very blessed to get all the right clientele.”

Zang Toi’s stores in Kuala Lumpur are located at LOT 10 Shopping Centre (Lot P6 & P7, Level 4) and on Level 4 of Parkson at the Parkson Pavilion Shopping Centre on Jalan Bukit Bintang. For more information about the Zang Toi Café, go to zangtoicafe.com.