Something spectacular is happening to the designer Sandy Liang. There is a hurdle being cleared, an achievement being achieved, a new rung on the ladder being gripped, the sort of thing your aunt commemorates by giving you a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! The special thing happening to Sandy Liang, the founder and designer of her eponymous five-year-old brand, is this: she’s sitting. Specifically, she’s sitting at a table in the back of her glittering underground studio on the Lower East Side while, on the other side of a rack of clothes, a casting director is at work finding models to walk in the designer’s very first fashion show just a few days away.
See, this is typically the point in her process—120 hours out—when Liang is hassling friends, texting her address book, and rounding up her network while trying to figure out how much to pay them to appear in a presentation or lookbook. No longer. “It's my first season not doing the casting. I love it,” she says. “I'm letting more people do stuff because they should and they're better at it and I can slowly start to afford these things. It's good.”
It might seem small, sitting back while a casting director does the job that you’re paying them to do. But in Liang’s case, it’s evident of something larger, of the way her signature brightly trimmed fleece has, over the course of a few years, become a sensation in mens- and womenswear—and also allowed her to reshape and rescale her ambitions.
To be clear: the casting director isn’t the only change. During the runway bit, she’ll show a collaboration with the show SpongeBob Squarepants, which is a little silly, but is also the kind of thing historically pursued by massive global brands like Nike and Timberland. And all of the clothes that come down the runway will soon wind up in her first retail space, not too far from her studio, which she plans to open early next year. All that to say: just about everything I see on this day in September suggests that it’s been a good year for Sandy Liang, the designer and the brand.
Liang, in a metallic silver skirt, one of her own tees, and Nike Air Max 97s, directs me to the rack of clothes she’s going to show on the runway. Her collection still primarily consists of womenswear, but it is growing. There is a dip-dyed tee with a Range Rover logo flip on the back, and another graphic T-shirt with Sailor Moon eyes on it. Then there are her signature fleeces, in cream, tan, and a new, deeply covetable black-and-white checkerboard pattern. (“Isn’t that one beautiful?” she says excitedly.) Another is a soft white but cleverly lined with a bright orange layer so it radiates from the inside, as if it swallowed a roadside flare. (Getting larger and more popular creates its own problems, too. Liang has been in touch with a trademark lawyer to deal with brands making fleeces she feels are too close to hers. “It's really sad, because there's nothing you can do about it,” she says.)
Everything that Liang does drips with nostalgia for the ‘90s, mined from her memories of being a child at the time. The fleece is a piece she detested as a kid, and over the past few years, has remade as vibrant and fashionable. Everything else comes from that era, too. The Range Rover logo flip: “Growing up, my brother listened to a lot of rap music off Kazaa or whatever—he’d be playing Diablo or [Capital Steez], like loud rap music,” she explains. “That, combined with Nelly songs and watching MTV Cribs,” she learned about aspiration: “‘Okay. That is the pinnacle of what you want in life, you want a Range Rover.’” The SpongeBob collaboration, meanwhile, comes from a desire to celebrate a program that “takes kids seriously. It's not just a dumb kid show.” Chunks of the women’s collection, meanwhile, are inspired by Polly Pocket, the line of toys for future Fashion Girls.
“I feel like there's no truer happiness than moments from when we were kids,” Liang says. “When like the sky was the limit and like your life didn't exist in this way. And so anything that I create that can draw me back to that makes me feel like, ‘Okay, this is really me.’”
Recently, Liang told me, she was being photographed for another brand’s advertising campaign and, much to the cameraman’s chagrin, started to laugh. The photographer was attempting to amp her up: “You’re a bad bitch!” he said. “You're the baddest bitch in the room!” The sort of exhortation that might conjure Blue Steel from most models, but didn’t have the same effect on Liang.
You didn’t feel like a bad bitch?
“No,” she says.
Instead, Liang worries about it all going away, a family habit of not dwelling on what’s going well for too long. “I feel like I'm never gonna let myself feel like I made it,” she says. She remembers, after a series of stories about her brand came out earlier this year, texting one to her brother, who didn’t acknowledge it. “But it wasn't to be shady, it was like, ‘So what? Do better. Next time get a bigger article.’”
On a recent road trip to Maine, Liang and her boyfriend listened to the audiobook of Shoe Dog, the memoir by Nike founder Phil Knight. There’s a happy ending, of course, but the book focuses on the beginnings of the sportswear brand, when everything was dicey and always on the verge of falling apart. The story was grating for Liang. “I got tired of hearing him having shitty things happen to him,” she says. Of course, Nike eventually becomes Nike. Liang couldn’t help but wonder how her own path would compare.“You see him from the ground up,” she says, “and it almost made me feel like one day this will all be worth it—the shitty days when people return 10 things and you make negative money or whatever.”
Liang won’t be confused for a multinational behemoth anytime soon, but her success feels notable. A small New York-based brand, led by a young designer, making good clothes, putting on fashion shows, expanding her collection, and even opening a retail store—in this economy?
Despite the wins at her own brand, Liang still says by the end of the book she was ready to give it all up to go and work for Nike. “But I'm that person,” she explains. She told Interview earlier this year, “After watching Twilight, I wanted to be a vampire. After watching Harry Potter, which I do every Thanksgiving, I wanted to be a wizard.”
While those fantasies always seem to dissipate a little, there is one world that Liang can’t shake, and for the better. Her desire to sit in quicksand explains why the tokens of her childhood have remained the touchstone of her brand since its founding. It’s the personal effects she’s able to bring back from that period—typically a time travel no-no!—that make her brand so relatable.
As I left Liang’s studio, I asked if she’d thought about the bow she planned to take at the end of the show. It was her first runway presentation, after all. “I was hoping to just stay backstage,” she says warily. “Does everybody always come out?” And for all that’s changed for Liang this year, Monday’s fashion show was proof that everything is not all that different. Danny Bowien, New York’s best-dressed chef and Liang’s longtime friend, opened the show in a biker jacket open to his bare, tattooed chest. Atop plywood obelisks were talismans from her childhood: plastic Polly Pocket makeup drawers, sets of stick-on earrings, and a CD of the Marie Antoinette soundtrack. And when it came time to greet the applauding audience, Liang barely ducked out from backstage, making a quick wave before disappearing behind the curtain back into her bubble.
Originally Appeared on GQ