The breakout NY designer channelled Heironymus Bosch’s curious chaos into a surreal, sexy, sophisticated debut runway show
The fantastical scenes of orgies, frivolity, glut, and sin in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” have served as inspiration for designers from Alexander McQueen to Raf Simons at Dior and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino. Fashion’s fixation with Bosch’s 15th century triptych is interesting, given that the characters are largely unclothed.
At Grace Ling’s debut show during NYFW, the artist’s curious chaos was channelled into her surreal, sexy, and sophisticated anthropomorphic women, who stepped out of the void and into a beam of light cast on the runway between two monolithic chrome walls. Across a 30-look collection, she presented Neverland, and the woman who inhabits it. A place where deviance is chic, Satan’s soon-to-be-subjects find a sophisticated uniform, the bawdy has a beat.
The Singapore-born, New York-based designer built on her now signature 3D-printed metal details, technological craft, and strong silhouettes, that have formed around the bodies of J.Lo, Ciara, and Soho’s most chic since 2020.
The clothes are intimate and sensual: an inky breastplate, a burn-like arpeggiating skirt, dagger-like pieces of metal that trace the collarbone, sculptural silhouettes sit close to conceal and reveal, and a gradient knit that moves from the colours of embers and smoke to reveal flashes of skin underneath. They’re also imbued with wit, humour, and confidence – a bag in the shape of a crow, the beloved chrome butt bag, a dress that cups the breasts with metal hands and drops to the belly button.
Ling chats below about authenticity versus originality, avoiding meme culture, the internet-fave butt bag, and making surrealist, side-eyeing chic.
Hi Grace! To kick things off, it'd be nice to understand why fashion is the medium you chose to pursue. You studied performance art and sculpture, and you’ve been a model and an actor. When did fashion crystallise as your passion?
Grace Ling: My inspiration still stems from fine art. I'm inspired by film, sculpture, performance – really, anything creative and beautiful. When I was doing performance art – in the style of Marina Abramovic – and sculpture, I started making wearable art. I was modelling on the side too. I was always thinking a lot about the body and form.
Being in these different worlds and appreciating beautiful, creative things, I also began to see that art can be exclusive. It is difficult for people to understand sometimes – to reach easily for a particular concept, to know a piece of history. It’s not necessarily accessible. I love that fashion has a wider audience – people can look at a piece of clothing and not even understand it totally, but just feel it, and know they want to wear one thing and not wear another. They want to look one way, and don't want to look another way. Fashion has a wider lens than art to me.
Why did you choose to go to fashion school?
Grace Ling: When I decided on fashion as my focus – and this was a conscious, synonymous decision – I knew I wanted to do fashion and my own brand. I knew fashion school was patternmaking and cutting, but also about making connections.
“I don't really care to be original, because it doesn't exist. Authenticity triumphs over originality any day for me” – Grace Ling
What was the best and worst thing about fashion school?
Grace Ling: I found a professor at Parsons, Markus Huemer, who spoke my language and really cared about me and what I had to say. I think that’s rare: finding someone on the same frequency as you that you can learn from. Worst thing… maybe I shouldn’t say it. But fashion school just… doesn’t actually prepare you for running a business. I acquired those skills on my own.
How did your experiences working at The Row and Thom Browne influence you?
Grace Ling: I interned at those places because I felt like there was a connection to the brand. I learned how to make clothing that is luxurious, how to elevate. My style is not the same, but the element of uniformity, proper tailoring and pattern making is something that I think is timeless, and will continue to carry over.
Who is the Grace Ling woman?
Grace Ling: I’m a very gut-led person. I go with what I think is chic, and what I want to wear or want to feel motivates me. When I think about the Grace Ling woman, I’d say she is multifaceted and diverse. There’s something for everyone, but the vein of it is the balance between sensuality and formality that runs throughout. A shirt that is fully covered until a slit or slash, a sexy dress. I think about growing up in Singapore, an Asian society that can be conservative. In the beginning, I was designing armour for myself. It was what I would want to wear regardless of what people would say. That progressed into a capsule and brand values.
How important is New York to your narrative?
Grace Ling: The brand is going in the direction of quintessential New York-wear. The brand could exist in Paris, yes – it is artistic and editorial, and I think Europeans tend to appreciate pieces differently. I sometimes feel that it's very easy to create editorial pieces that, when they're translated into commercial pieces, there is a disconnect. I think New York is the perfect place to have merchandise that is beautiful, the very essence of the brand message, and is still actually clothing that people can wear. I like to say that we're essentialists, not minimalist. America is consumer focused – we can work with that.
How does your debut feel?
Grace Ling: I feel honoured and validated. The CFDA has been so supportive of me this year. Now I feel I'm officially part of the global conversation. I feel empowered and also responsible, because now I can put a statement on the runway, I can say something, and it's gonna be part of a global fashion dialogue.
I usually do 15 looks in a collection, but SS24 is 30! The sheer volume and pressure to be doing something new, all while keeping it a very high quality, is the biggest challenge – but I think it's going well. I’m figuring it out.
“I think New York is the perfect place to have merchandise that is beautiful, the very essence of the brand message, and is still actually clothing that people can wear. I like to say that we're essentialists, not minimalist” – Grace Ling
You found a lot of early success on Instagram. Would you say you're an extremely online person?
Grace Ling: Well.. I love the media. I love CGI, technology, and the digital world. I do a good job navigating it, I think. Given a choice, I would still engage in the digital realm, but Instagram and posting and engaging is a job for me. I rely on my friends for memes and references. Like, someone will send me a crop top with a super low-waisted skirt. Some ridiculous stuff.
There's so much going on and I think if I'm looking at it too much, I subconsciously get sucked into trends. Sometimes I think by the time the trends are on the internet it's over. I focus a lot on timelessness, and I want to be my authentic self. I want to make what I feel is relevant at a given time.
Tell me about the concept for Neverland, your debut collection.
Grace Ling: I was very inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights". I see surrealism as a design and life philosophy. I'm constantly revisiting Surrealists like Rene Magritte, Alberto Giacometti, and Bosch. I'm very intrigued by how chaotic the painting is. All the veins of the human psyche – it's deviant, but whimsical. The clothing is both youthful and mature at the same time. It is meant to look deviant and light-hearted, but always chic.
You’ve become known also for your use of technology. How are you working with it currently?
Grace Ling: There's a lot of 3D printing and metal trims, which is the core of the brand's DNA. The textures question the dichotomy between sensuality and formality. With the techniques, we're considering how we conceal and reveal the body. There's an ombre knit series we are expanding. The fabric fades from opaque to sheer to reveal the skin – like a heat sensor. It's a naked, deviant wedding gown closing look.
The 3D printing techniques are seen across our editorial pieces, logos, tags, and buttons. The process we use means we can be zero waste. The metal pieces of 3D printing are arrow aluminium which is infinitely recyclable. I like to say sustainability is a design process and for us, maybe it's not necessarily an end product. But we're able to create these designs and iterations, see what it looks like, and only make the final version that we approve of – one and done.
Let’s talk about the butt bag – one of your stand out pieces. What was its intention?
Grace Ling: There's now a leather version, and a wood version carved from walnut. It's created using a 3D printing technique called CNC. The wood is carved layer by layer.
The butt bag is an encapsulation of both humour and sophistication. In the beginning when I first designed the butt bag, I was thinking about how I had been creating quite conservative clothing – those power dressing suits that cover up the body, and then the butt bag, sitting on the hip, the outside, subverts the voyeurism. The gaze is directed at the purse, instead of the person. It was designed to be a conversation starter, which it really is. Walk down Soho and I guarantee you people would ask you about it. And I can be a shy person, so I wanted to create things for people to talk about. It resonates with people.
“What film character would wear Grace Ling? A woman in the next Matrix film” – Grace Ling
How do you consider the 'uniform dressing' concept?
Grace Ling: I am navigating the value of the uniform. I like to think that uniform dressing empowers a person. There's definitely value in finding something which makes you feel eccentric and elegant, intelligent and sensual at the same time. Clothing should empower you throughout the day.
You have a clear, articulated idea of what your brand is – you've described it succinctly as 'eccentric elegance', 'intelligent femininity'. How do you keep that clear vision?
Grace Ling: I focus a lot on being authentic. I don't really care to be original, because it doesn't exist. Authenticity triumphs over originality any day for me. It can be hard, because there's so many opinions and perspectives, but I just remind myself that there's a reason I'm the designer and that I'm doing this. I ask myself honest questions. Do I really want to wear this? Where would I wear this, how does it make me feel? I put in extra effort to shut out the world and listen to my gut.
What do you make of the cohort of new-gen New York designers?
Grace Ling: I would be friendly with some of the people at Peter Do. I really like what he does. I think we approach femininity in a very different way, but I respect his work. I really like Khaite and Bad Binch TONGTONG – I love those sculptural shapes, the appreciation of the body.
What celebrities do you want to dress?
Grace Ling: I am so keen to dress Zendaya – she's so elegant. My brand is really ageless too – we can dress someone like Bella Hadid and Jennifer Lopez, Ciara, Charli XCX. I want to dress people who are very diverse in age and background, but who have a sense of a witty spirit, light-hearted humour, while retaining how elegant and sophisticated they are.
What film character would wear Grace Ling?
Grace Ling: A woman in the next Matrix film.
And what's next for you?
Grace Ling: This runway show solidifies the brand DNA and the statement I want to make, and expand on. I hope every collection refines my values, but explores new plains. I want to introduce a shoe category first, and then homeware. I love interior design, like that in Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson cinematography. I'd love to build sets with homeware and furniture, set a scene – a Grace Ling world.