Get to Know: Sophia Chang, NYFW Producer and Diversity Crusader
“Fashion is the most overtly racist industry I've ever worked in.”
There are a ton of jobs that your high school guidance counselor never told you existed, never told you were fun, exciting and available for anyone ambitious enough to go for them. Sophia Chang has one of those jobs.
Though Chang has worked in a variety of fields, from journalism to music, it’s fashion where she has truly made her mark. Chang is one of the industry’s most respected fashion show producers. In this role, she is responsible for executing what we all think of when we hear the word “fashion show.” She conceptualizes the production from top to bottom, ensuring that the entire experience conveys to the audience the message, theme and feel the designer is striving for. (Think Margaret Cho's character in the infamous "Sex and the City" fashion week episode.) Chang’s shows are not only known for being among the funkiest and most fun of Fashion Week, but for being among the most diverse. Though Chang does not actually hire or cast the models herself, in her capacity as a show producer she guides designers towards a general aesthetic that will set the tone for the show. As she notes, her aesthetic is one that will always include people of color and her shows reflect this. “ A lot of it comes down to principle and speaking your mind when you think something isn't right, even if you know you're swimming upstream.”
Loop21: How exactly would you define what you do for a living?
Chang: I call myself Master of Many Trades because I've done so many different jobs. My core competency is as a personal manager but I've also been an A&R rep and event producer, fashion show producer, screenwriter and journalist.
Loop21: How did you get your start in the fashion industry?
Chang: I happened to meet Vivienne Tam [the designer] at her sample sale and introduced myself to her. She immediately asked if I would interview for the position as her assistant. I had just had my second child and part time work was right up my alley. From there I networked and got more work. But I do not define myself as someone in fashion because though it's fun and easy, it's a check, not my passion. Film, TV, and music are.
Loop21: Who have been some of your favorite people/designers to work with?
Chang: I'm currently working with the GZA from Wu Tang [Clan] and deeply appreciate that he earnestly asks my opinion, constantly expresses his gratitude, and doesn't make me chase my money, an untenable indignity I've suffered more times than I care to recall. I'll be damned if artists don't have the most sophisticated mechanisms for justifying and rationalizing not paying people who work for them.
Loop21: What shows/projects are you working on this Fashion Week?
Chang: Ralph Lauren girls, Pringle, Calvin Klein, Nicola Formichetti. I just had a ton of fun producing the Project Runway All Stars Finale fashion show because I got to build a show from top to bottom and marry fashion with my passion: TV. I also realized that I am a total tech geek. Although I love clothes for myself, I rarely connect with anything that goes down a runway. However, learning all the technical aspects of building a fashion show from top to bottom was so much fun. To know that most runways are made of 1" thick MDF, which stands for Medium Density Fibreboard, is the kind of knowledge I love to acquire.
Loop21: What do you think is the root cause of the lack of diversity we have seen on runways in recent years?
Chang: Someone much more experienced and informed than myself once said that it can be traced back to a specific season during which Miuccia Prada decided her aesthetic would be android-like. The girls that suited that look were singularly white and pale and thin. And, it would appear, in fashion, as Miuccia goes, so goes everyone else. And thus was born the onslaught and prevalence of Russian and Eastern European models on the runways and in editorial and advertising. But it would be egregiously unfair to direct our frustration at Miuccia, who was executing her vision, or the models, who are getting work and doing their jobs. I would be more apt to question the people who hold the power to determine who is in an ad, a spread, or a show.
Loop21: In the interest of full disclosure, I have attended fashion shows you have produced and I’ve noticed that they tend to feature a more diverse roster of models than some others. Do you think having people of color like yourself behind the scenes has an impact on whether we see more people of color on the runways?
Chang: I have had an impact; not because I cast, but because I will tell the designer the lineup should be more diverse. That being said, the scenario can go both ways in life in general, not just fashion: I've met plenty of people of color who don't identify as such and don't want nor know how to engage in discussions of race. I've also met lots of white folks who are down for the cause and will be very vocal and articulate about such issues. A lot of it comes down to principle and speaking your mind when you think something isn't right, even if you know you're swimming upstream. For instance, I was once in a room with a bunch of white women discussing the casting of a trade show. As one of the women was describing the girls she'd hired, she said "She's Puerto Rican...but she's pretty." I stopped her immediately and said "What does that mean? 'She's Puerto Rican but she's pretty?' because Puerto Ricans aren't usually pretty?" The interesting thing about being Asian, as my brilliant Filippina girl Gizelle would say, is that everyone assumes you as their own. Yes, we the silent model minority. Meaning that a white person would feel comfortable saying ignorant shit around me because I somehow identify as white. Wrong wrong wrong. The woman immediately sputtered and backpedalled but she was caught, as was every other complicit mute in the room. I will say that fashion is the most overtly racist industry I've ever worked in.
Loop21: What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do for a living someday?
Chang: Go do what my immigrant parents said: get an MBA, a degree in law or medicine and make a real living. I'm only half joking. I've had the distinct privilege of being freelance and choosing whom I work with for the past 20 years but that comes with a price--namely being broke a lot. Freelancing is not for everyone, not by a long stretch. Just like I know folks who couldn't survive inside the system. But it takes all sorts of wheels and cogs to make the world go 'round.
My advice is to do whatever you do, no matter how menial or grand, with brio and discipline. If you're fortunate enough, follow your passion because you'll enjoy your work more and put yourself in it 150%. And get your job done before trying to reach beyond it. As an assistant to three people at Atlantic Records, I did all the administrative stuff but did it right and quickly so that I had time to call college radio for rap records. I quickly got promoted because of my fastidiousness and motivation.
Keli Goff is a Senior Contributor at the Loop 21. For more on Keli visit KeliGoff.com
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