Upon descending into the Lower East Side basement studio of designer Sandy Liang, I’m greeted by two animals: the first, a sticker of a cartoon pig on the door (this year’s Chinese zodiac animal), and the other undoubtedly real — Liang’s dog, Timmy, an Australian Shepherd with two different colored eyes and a strong loyalty to his owner. Timmy moves with an indifferent ease among the studio’s marble coffee tables, feather bouquets, ceiling-high Chinese porcelain vases, and racks of neon-accented fleeces. The fleeces have become the 27-year-old designer’s signature, and the regalia of a certain cohort of downtown denizen, traversing the peaks of LES rooftops and the valleys of graffitied basements. While the space is technically the former storage space for her father’s restaurant (the Chinatown mainstay Congee Village), it’s now the center of Liang’s candy-colored galaxy: an unabashedly frothy aesthetic concoction of Chinese grandma, flamboyant frat boy, and dreamy ‘90s kid. Sandy’s boyfriend, who’s wearing one of her long-sleeve leopard print shirts, has a desk beside her; her employees chat over shared containers of take-out; and, of course, everyone is petting Timmy. It’s something of a utopia, an image of a female-driven world order ruled by communication, coziness, and an unironic use of millennial pink.
“I love falling into these worlds,” she says, nestling Timmy (“Timissimo,” she calls him) in the fabric of her floral dress. “I get really sad after certain TV shows or movies because I’m out of the world. After watching Twilight, I wanted to be a vampire. After watching Harry Potter, which I do every Thanksgiving, I wanted to be a wizard. And no matter how old I get, I never fall out of that.” The dress that Liang wears is a piece from her latest collection, a sort of take on the fashion world’s newfound love affair with women of the prairie. Its cream-colored fabric skims the camel toes of her metallic purple Margiela boots — an anomaly for the designer, who can usually be found in sneakers. As we talk, Liang alternatively pets Timmy and the couch’s baby pink cushions as she describes its journey from the design store Coming Soon on Orchard Street, which is owned by her two friends Helena Barquet and Fabiana Faria. “I remember walking past it, and I did a double take. I couldn’t really afford it, but I was like, ‘I’m getting it.'” My head continually brushes against an oversized bouquet of feathers dangling from the ceiling — pink and white with some peacock thrown in, for good measure. Liang tells me they’re from her friend Brittany — Brittany Asch, the founder of BRRCH florals, who supplied the ceiling bouquet for Liang’s pop-up at the hypebeast vintage hub Procell, this past December. Whereas others may opt for faux hydrangeas, or some cacti, Liang naturally went for a burst of feathers. “I didn’t want to replace flowers every week, you know?”
These stories of creative camaraderie — the exchange of ideas, faces, fabrics, feathers — are typical for Liang. Since graduating from Parson’s in 2013, and launching her own label a year later, she’s lodged herself into the social fabric of New York’s downtown scene, where her pieces have become unstatedly de rigeur. Liang has become a Zelig amongst a crowd that includes Jonah Hill, Gillian Jacobs, Isabella Boylston, and the omnipresent chef Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese. “Danny just called me up one day, so randomly,” Liang says. “I sent him a T-shirt and he was like, ‘Can I have it in a smaller size so it shows off my stomach?'” Bowien now models Liang’s clothes on her website, along with artists, models, and SoulCycle instructors Jo Rosenthal, Lua Beaulieu, Madde Pontin, Parker Radcliffe — not to mention her pawpaw (that’s “grandma” in Mandarin.) She met Barquet and Faria, the duo behind Coming Soon, simply by DMing them on Instagram. “When I first started, I had no PR or anything like that. I just wanted to shoot cool women in my jackets. That was my way of meeting people.” When Liang talks about her friends, it’s not with the who-do-you-know pretension that is all too familiar in fashion-adjacent circles. Instead, she speaks with the giggling excitement of the eternal new kid, exuding gratitude to be in the company of creators. In an ever-ephemeral industry of changing tides and cropping up faces, Liang finds creative consistency in the sheer joy of creating clothing for people she would hang out with. “I remember the first time I saw somebody wearing the first fleece I ever made on the street, and I was tripping because it wasn’t, like, a free one that I gave out to a friend. It was like,” Liang pauses, “Sick.”
At the root of Liang’s humility is her appetite for nostalgia — which, for her, tastes like Congee and her pawpaw’s rice cakes. She grew up in Bayside, Queens, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She still has weekly dinners of Cantonese food with her family — sometimes at the Congee Village in Flushing, but mostly at the Chinatown location around the corner from her studio. The restaurant was where she staged the presentation of her Spring 2019 ready-to-wear collection, in which models stood atop tables, forking food with chopsticks as they posed for photos in sweatshirts, socks and sandals, and leather shorts. Years before Dirt Candy and the yoga studios and the organic grocery stores began to populate the Lower East Side, the Liangs were there on Allen Street. “My dad told me the Lower East Side was gonna be the new Soho, and I was like, ‘No way,'” she says with a laugh.
Liang recalls a childhood in which she was taught that an interest in fashion, or anything unrelated to grades and career ambitions, is trivial. Her mother would let her shop once a year, during back-to-school sales. “I was always taught to feel guilty about clothes, and because of that, I loved them so much more. I would envy all the girls in school. When you’re a kid, you just want the shiny Skechers, right?” Liang hasn’t stopped looking for those metaphorical shiny Skechers: Her fleeces are updated versions of the ones she was forced to wear as a kid. “Everyone has that one fleece that’s nasty and pilly. I love thinking back to things you’d wear on the playground.” In addition to the fleeces, Liang’s latest collection seems to have been sprung from a ’90s kid’s dream closet. There’s an asymmetrical sequin dress with chiffon sleeves (aptly titled the “Fonda“), flower-shaped pearl costume earrings in Easter-egg hues, puffed-out babydoll dresses, and pink nylon bucket hats. In her upcoming collection for fall, she includes puffer jackets coated with tulle, embroidered with flowers reminiscent of spiral notebook scribbles.
Between her apartment on Orchard Street and the studio, Liang is now making a corner of New York — once predominantly occupied by immigrants like her parents, but now a mainstay of Juul-puffing models and Supreme-clad skaters — her own. You could say the Lower East Side is to Liang as, say, Milan is to Prada or Paris is to Hermès. The Sandy Liang logo, too, is proudly inscribed with the three words that describe her home base, both creatively and personally. The neighborhood is integral to the label’s identity, and to the specific crossroads of cool one inhabits when wearing her Congee Village menu tees or carrying a miniature “Lil Tote“ bag that says “Sandy Liang: Lower East Side.” I ask her if she ever imagines moving the brand out of her little corner, if she has her sights set on the world beyond the LES. Liang puts Timmy down, and says, “All the good things are here that I love. And the Regal Cinema is opening down the street on Delancey, which is going to be sick. I’m really never going to leave. Ever.”