Q&A | Mark Gong
Mark Gong is a man of passionate ambition; transforming a childhood dream into a bonafide fashion career in just a matter of years. The self-taught, Parsons-trained designer took a leap of faith with an extended gap year to upstart his namesake label. As the youngest designer in New York Fashion Week history, Mark is well on his way to creating the next big luxury brand born in NYC.
Gong has a strong influence from elemental forces. After spending four years in a remote Southern California boarding school, it’s no wonder his connection to nature remains a prominent inspiration. His last collection for Fall/ Winter 2019 was an ode to Western life; embossed leather, suede chaps, and prairie dresses. Meanwhile, his recent presentation for Spring/ Summer 2020 conveyed a couture-like camping trip with feathers, ruffles, and paracord knotted garments. All in all, his collections commit the brand to a continuous relationship with environments of Mother Earth. This commitment is inversely symbolic of his natural desire to cultivate garments of creativity, grace, and comfort for New York women.
Days before his SS20 show, I sat down with Mark over coffee in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District to discuss the inception and evolution of his growing brand.
When did you first begin to understand and develop your interest in clothing and garment construction?
I watched a lot of movies at first and then began to self teach. One of the most inspirational movies to me growing up was ‘Devil Wears Prada,’ [he laughs]. But after I saw Raf Simons's Dior I was like, "Okay, I definitely want to be a designer."
How has nature played a large part in your design process?
It almost plays...everything. I went to high school in California in a town called Los Olivos - it’s literally in the middle of nowhere about a 50-minute drive outside of Santa Barbara. Our closest neighbor was Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, so middle of nowhere I promise is not an exaggeration. There were foxes and bears everywhere; we lived in a little wood cabin without AC or heating, and would still go proper camping every month. In the winter if we wanted warmth we had to make our own fire. We weren’t allowed to have cell phones and there was no signal even if we were. I hated it when I first arrived, but I remember my sister saying that it will be my biggest inspiration later on - and she was right.
I was the first international student to attend in years, and the very first one to stay all four years till graduation. No Chinese student had done that before because nobody wanted to. I didn’t even want to! But I’m certainly grateful I stuck with it.
When I first started doing fashion I didn’t really have a direction, so I used these experiences to mold it.
What was that experience like in comparison to growing up in China?
When I first started school there I literally cried every night. It's so sad, I was like, "I cannot take it!" Nobody ever wore anything cool. I was wearing Prada and some people didn’t even know what that was. Classmates would ask, "Why are you wearing that here? It’s going to get ruined.” And I was like, "It's my last hope!”
The whole experience was just the antithesis of growing up in Hong Kong. Two complete opposite worlds - metropolitan vs. nature. I think focusing on fashion was my way of bringing these two world together. That and quietly smoking cigarettes in my cabin bedroom at night.
What does your design process look like? Take us into that moment.
For the new Spring Summer 2020 collection, I knew I wanted do a camping theme.
I started with a very literal approach— just a lot of research on hiking outfits and what people wear specifically to go camping in. I even turned to my high school’s Instagram for inspiration!
I also like to build upon previous collection pieces to help establish a clear continuity from season to season. This time I took personal signature pieces and made slight changes to the fabric to start. In the pursuit of luxury we introduced a lot of feathers and beading which is new for me and I found pretty interesting. As a young designer it’s my goal to try and introduce a new technique each season to continue expanding my skill set, and this was definitely it.
Once luxury materials and silhouettes were established I started pairing looks with backpacks and hiking boots and things of that nature. We even had umbrellas and axes made! To me it was this really interesting combination of old and new, luxury and accessibility. I like to picture the MARKGONG girl wearing sneakers and flats sometimes, even with her evening looks. It’s something that requires confidence.
The whole process and combination I found to be indicative of the MET Gala theme - camp-y/camp-ing; it was a lot of fun to put together.
Tell me about the influences for the tie dye, plaids, structured leathers, and cutout details from your last collection. Where did those inspirations derive from?
The last collection was western and cowboy inspired, hence the stamped leather which was taken directly from saddles and items of that nature. With this theme, I really wanted to take a male dominant culture into a woman’s world. Taking very non-feminine stereotypes of an average cowboy and use those characteristics to make women look strong. Like, I want to see more cowgirls! There’s so many films in which cowboys are heroes, yet I haven’t seen a cowgirl movie. This collection was my manifestation of that— I just wanted it to be very literally western.
What silhouettes will carry on as signature Mark Gong silhouettes?
I do a lot of ruffles; ruffle dresses specifically. This will probably be one of the signature things. I did it for Gemma Chan and Fernanda Ly, so it’s certainly something that’s brought good attention, therefore I’ll probably keep that going. It also has to be women in men's clothing and tailoring… I just find this theme really interesting and want to continue expanding on it.
What else can you tell us about MARKGONG SS20?
Lots of colors, very fresh, very girly. There’s a lot of very feminine pieces and dresses as well beading, feathers, lots of new materials— it’s going to be fun. It's like a bunch of fashion kids going on a camping trip; a camp version of camping.