Oakland designer Zoe Hong brings elevated fashion to the Bay Area
on April 22, 2011
Late on a Thursday night this April, a fashion model stepped out onto a white runway in the darkened Ruby Skye nightclub in San Francisco, and the runway was immediately bathed in light. Her blond hair shot straight up and tattoos peeked out from underneath her dress, a slim-fitted white denim skirt with unfinished edges and top of black leather with an open back.
The model walked the runway under a large screen projecting the name of Oakland designer Zoe Hong, a 31-year-old emerging fashion talent in a region rarely recognized for its style. A soft glow filled the audience, emitted from the hundreds of cell phones held up to take photos of the coming attractions. The audience reaction to the dress, and to the rest of Hong’s work, suggests the Bay Area may be ready for a change.
Hong is currently working on her third season, a 10-piece mini-collection for summer, and is planning a larger collection for Fall. She sells her creations at Etsy.com and Kreeya.com, as well as in three boutiques, including The Factory in San Francisco.
Focusing on evening and cocktail looks, Hong’s aesthetic is “feminine but not saccharine,” she said. “A tomboy who grew up, but is nowhere near going to go for pink frilly looks.”
At the San Francisco show, put on by Project Ethos, a group specializing in events to showcase local music, art, and fashion, Hong showed 11 pieces. The collection featured mainly neutral colors—black, white, gray, and brown—and simple lines. Hong uses natural fabrics and cuts that graze a woman’s curves—adding just a hint of sexuality—but aren’t tight or constricting. She showed a white mini-dress with a higher neckline and simple cut, laced up the back with black leather strips, and a leather mini-skirt cut straight and styled with oversized gray T-shirt, among other looks.
Each designer’s final look was inspired by a new flavor of drink from show sponsor Vitamin Water. Hong chose a lemonade flavor called ‘Squeezed,’ and created a long white dress with yellow chiffon train flowing down the back.
While working in her West Oakland studio, Hong often looks the part of the grown-up tomboy herself, dressing in worn-in, denim cut-offs and a T-shirt. She’s new on the scene, but Hong gained considerable attention this year as one of nine finalists in the Oscars Designer Challenge, a competition to create an evening gown to be worn by an award escort at the 2011 Academy Awards.
“That was by far the most surreal weekend of my entire career,” Hong said. “It was so insane.”
For her “Oscar dress,” Hong designed a one-shoulder black silk gown with silver beading crossing the dress like a sash. Although she didn’t win, she showed the dress recently at the Project Ethos show and received a large cheer from the crowd.
Her trip to Los Angeles also included numerous press conferences and interviews.
“People really liked me because I was the only Asian contestant,” Hong said, laughing. “All the Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese news were like all up on me like ‘Hey, so you’re the only Asian!’”
The eventual winner, Chicago designer Borris Powell, was picked by an online vote, with voting open for one week, and then, Hong said, “for another week I had to keep my mouth shut about who won, which was so agonizing!”
Though Hong didn’t win, she said she was grateful for the experience and the exposure it provided her burgeoning career.
Born in Korea in 1979, Hong grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. The Anchorage school district gave Hong her first job in fashion, through a mentorship program for high school seniors.
“You tell them what you want to be when you grow up, and they hook you up with someone in that profession,” she said, laughing. “They had a hell of a time placing me.”
Still, she said, “It never occurred to me to do anything else. I wanted to be a designer as far back as I can remember.”
She had two choices when it came to a professional mentor in Anchorage: a woman who made sweaters covered in chotchkies, or the costume department at the Anchorage Opera House. Hong chose the opera.
The internship was four months long, but Hong didn’t leave.
“I stayed until like three weeks before graduation,” she said. “It was so fantastic.”
After high school Hong moved to Los Angeles and attended Otis College of Art and Design. “When I got to college I was just a country bumpkin from Anchorage,” she said, but “I was doing it. I was pursuing my dream.”
Four years later, Hong graduated with a BFA in fashion and bounced from job to job. “But then I met this stupid guy,” she said. “And he was all nice and everything.”
The “stupid guy,” whose name was Assaf Arkin, became Hong’s husband. The pair briefly tried dating long distance, but Hong soon realized she no longer needed to be in Los Angeles.
“I thought about it a lot,” she said. “But looking back, if I had stayed in L.A. I would have continued to work for other people and I wouldn’t have been as brave to strike out on my own.”
The Bay Area is not known as a hotbed for fashion. “It forces you to strike out if you want to do something really creative,” Hong said. “My determination now is to be the big fish in the small pond.”
Hong and Arkin moved to Oakland in 2007 to find more space, since both of them work from home. When she walked into what is now her apartment—in Oakland’s Cotton Mill Studios—she turned to her husband and said, “Gimme!”
The building is home to numerous artists and last Friday, Hong—along with friend and neighbor Kenneth Todd—produced F3 at the Cotton Mill, a celebration of the building’s artistic community. A quarterly production, F3 is held the third Friday of January, April, July, and October, and includes a fashion show.
The large first-floor room of Hong’s loft is covered in fabric, patterns, and sketches. A large poster board sits on her worktable, leaning against the wall.
“It’s my big board of ‘notes-to-self,’” Hong said. “Sometimes when I start working on a collection I just start sketching. I just have these ideas, like running around in my head, and they just come out and things happen.”
One of those things is what Hong affectionately calls “the big dress.” Made from numerous fabric scraps she picked up across the Bay Area, the big dress is white, its corseted bodice adorned with seashell beading, gilt beads with pearl centers, and rhinestones. The bottom consists of multiple layers of tulle—cream, tan, and aqua—and a long train flows from the back.
Its appearance drew oohs and ahhs from the audience at Project Ethos. The model wearing the dress, reaching the end of the runway and a barrage of flashing cameras, dramatically whipped the massive train around in front of her, before turning herself. As she walked back, the dress spilled off the side of the runway, brushing up against audience members in the front row.
“My goal is really more about creative autonomy than notoriety,” Hong said. “It’s not so much that I wanted to have my own label so I could see my name everywhere. I just”—she started to laugh—“really couldn’t think of a better name.”
But Zoe isn’t Hong’s legal first name; it’s Jennifer. “Do you know how many Jennifers there were in the 80s?” she said. “Each time you’d call out Jennifer, six people would turn around.”
The last straw came in college. “In my very first class, lo and behold, there is another freaking Jennifer,” Hong said. “There’s a girl, right there, and she has the same name as I do! And she’s even half Asian to boot! So I’m like, ‘Fuck you guys! Man!’”
Hong made a quick decision, and when her turn to introduce herself came, Hong went with her high school nickname, Zoe. Like her name, Hong wants her creations to be unique and her business motto is “future heirlooms.”
“I am all about trying to make the really beautiful, really well-made things that will last generations,” she said.
On average, it takes about a week for an idea to go from a sketch to reality, but online orders only take a couple of days. “I’m most excited when I sell something online,” Hong said. “That’s my favorite, when I’m cutting to order.”
“I would rather have this tiny budding business, to myself, than go work for some crazy lady who forgets to take her meds in the morning,” she said.
The first designer to follow her models onto to the Project Ethos runway during their final walk, Hong wore a full-length sheer gray kimono, the silk fabric so light it looked as if it might dissolve if touched. Despite large cork platform shoes with tan leather straps, Hong still was shorter than her models.
Still new to the business, Hong is making waves on her way to becoming the big fish in the small pond. And as she walked the runway, the crowd agreed—cheering loudly and energetically clapping their hands—as Hong smiled.
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