Ahead of debuting her solo show at New Zealand Fashion Week, Korean-NZ couture designer Cecilia Kang talks about growing up ‘feminine’, being influenced by the LGBTQ+ community, and why an ‘administrative error’ at Fashion Week left her so shaken up.
‘I like something big,” says Cecilia Kang, gesturing to the giant nest of tulle protruding from her model’s neck. It’s the centrepiece for one of her most prized works – a sheer white dress covered in embroidered details, all handstitched by Kang herself. Every pearl, every feather, every sequin, all coming together to make something that’s pretty hard to come by nowadays – a genuine, handmade couture gown.
“It’s wearable, but to me, it’s more like a work of art,” the 31-year-old designer explains. “I don’t think I really want to sell my creations. I’ve put so much time and effort into them and I’m not really in a rush to get to the top, or desperate to sell any pieces.”
Instead, Kang pays her dues by showcasing her work at various events and exhibitions both here and overseas (including an exhibition in Parnell next month). She says there’s been no shortage of requests to show her work, not since her appearance at a New Zealand Fashion Week group show last year. Her debut made her the first openly transgender designer to be featured on the NZFW catwalk, and now, she’s back for round two; this time, with a solo show.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kang moved to New Zealand in the late 90s, alone, at just 10 years old. Like the children of many ambitious South Korean families at the time, she was sent here to learn English, moving in with her uncle and aunt who were already living on Auckland’s North Shore.
Kang says she holds fond memories of her childhood in Auckland, particularly in comparison to the educational intensity she’d experienced back in Seoul (“When I moved here, I just noticed that everyone was enjoying life… running around the field all day!”). But all that changed once high school came along with Kang describing her years at Westlake Boys as a “nightmare”.
“I was bullied a lot in high school, just for being different from a lot of people,” she says. “I was struggling with my sexual identity. And then [on top of that] people were being racist because I was Asian too.”
“I was very ‘feminine’ with my posture and gestures. People would make comments like ‘why do you walk like that?’ or ‘why do you sit like that?’ I didn’t really argue back though, I didn’t like to get into arguments with other people.
“I definitely went through a lot of issues. To me, that was quite a hurtful [time in my life] and something I don’t really want to think about. It was tough, especially at a boys school. I actually wagged school quite a lot because of all those issues. I just didn’t want to be there. It just wasn’t where I belonged.”
After high school, Kang went on to study linguistics at the University of Auckland, “purely because my mum was like ‘oh you have to at least have a university degree!’” It was also around this time Kang began to formally identify as a trans woman.
“I’ve always been feminine and I always thought I was a woman from the beginning. When I was a child, I never really thought I was a ‘man’ or a ‘boy’… During my high school years, I guess I was kind of ‘undercover’. I [knew what I was] but I was just too scared to tell people. For me, that was a secret.
“But to be a trans woman, I went through quite a process. At first, I thought ‘am I a gay man?’ Then I started crossdressing and tried to find out more about ‘femininity’ and the [LGBTQ+] community. But then I realised I wasn’t a crossdresser. I didn’t identify myself as a drag queen or anything. It was through that process that I realised I was a woman and discovered that was called being transsexual.”
Most of Kang’s immediate family now live in New Zealand, and while she has good relationships with them now she says that hasn’t always been the case.
“I didn’t really talk about my sexuality with my family. They actually kind of ‘found out’ through my actions,” she says. “My mum didn’t really accept me at first… she was really shocked and she didn’t speak to me for a while. She was crying, like ‘how come my son is [like this]?’ It took her quite a long time to accept who I was as a person.
“For my younger siblings, it was quite hard them to understand too. But as a family, we’ve been in New Zealand for quite a long time so they’re quite open-minded. They’re all supportive of me now.”
Kang’s garments are detailed, dramatic; a careful balance between flowery ruffles and structured pleats. Her upcoming show at Fashion Week titled ‘Galaxy Extravaganza’ centres on the celestial, swapping last year’s lush flowers and forest motifs for glittering constellations – clusters of handstitched details surrounded by swathes of billowing, diaphanous fabrics reminiscent of what she calls “non-solids”, like gas and mist.
On the whole, the collection is sophisticated but never dull, an aesthetic Kang has honed in the four short years she’s been formally designing; an aesthetic heavily informed by the nightlife and fashions of the LGBTQ+ community.
“That first spark [for fashion] definitely started to come out as I became a bigger part of the community,” says Kang. “When I’d meet people on the weekends to hang out with them, everyone was dressed really fashionably. They were dressed really unique, really distinctive, so I think that had a big influence on me.
“But I also [drew inspiration] from high fashion and the red carpet. The LGBT community can be very colourful and sparkly… but I actually wanted to do some elegant and luxurious [fashion as well].”
Eventually, Kang got the chance to test her evening wear skills when a friend decided to enter Miss Universe NZ. For two years Kang worked in New Zealand’s pageant scene, dressing several contestants and winners. It became an invaluable platform for Kang to jump-start her career, especially as a self-taught designer lacking the necessary networks to get ahead. Then in 2018, Fashion Week came knocking, inviting Kang to be one of four up and coming designers featured in its New Generation Emerging Couture show.
“That’s actually how I moved onto the [traditional] fashion industry,” Kang says, adding that she’s now moved on from working in pageants. “After I got the invitation to be part of their couture show, that’s when I realised I was actually destined to be at Fashion Week.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. At the start of the month, Kang voiced her horror at Fashion Week organisers when she discovered they had named her as “Cecelia Chang” on the event’s official schedule which was widely shared online. She posted on Instagram that the incident had left her “traumatised, depressed” and “scared that a lot of people in the public [would] make fun of my name and my brand’s image.”
“A person’s name is important to them as it represents their culture, life, background, heritage, family, and more. ‘Kang’ represents my identity as [a] Korean New Zealander” (‘Chang’ is a common Chinese name, not Korean).
She later criticised NZFW’s goals for diversity and inclusivity in light of the error. A spokesperson for the event blamed the misspelling of both the designer’s first and last name on “an administrative error”.
“We are mortified to have made a spelling mistake on the NZ Fashion Week schedule and immediately contacted Cecilia to offer our apologies.”
Kang says she’s been trying to move on, noting that organisers have now rectified the error and that she still regards Fashion Week as “the best fashion platform in New Zealand”. But there’s a slight waver in Kang’s voice as she explains why the incident affected her so intensely, her reasoning tracing back to a history of racist bullying.
“When the error came out as ‘Chang’, I got so offended because in high school I experienced students bullying me [because of my race]. Because I’m Asian they don’t know if I’m Korean or not, so they’d always follow me and say ‘ching chang chong’ to me. That phrase has always stuck in my mind. That’s why I was so offended when they got the name wrong… that trauma [from high school] just came back when I saw the name.
“I still have headaches [about it, but] I’m still looking forward to Fashion Week… I just feel I need to move on now and celebrate what’s in front of me.”
When Kang’s garments walk down the runway at this year’s Fashion Week, she’ll be making history as the not only the first trans designer to have a solo show, but the first Korean-New Zealander as well.
“I feel like I’m a representative of these two communities. I actually want to be a role model for our younger generation. I want to be a supporter to all those that need help.
“I want to tell them to never give up, keep trying, and that there are always people supporting you no matter what. Just be you, don’t be someone else.”
‘Galaxy Extravaganza’ by Cecilia Kang Couture and Face Me Make-Up will take place at the Concert Chamber on August 29 as part of New Zealand Fashion Week.
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