Fashion director reflects on mixed cultural roots
Updated: 2013-02-15 14:04
By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)
Nian Fish, a creative director of hundreds of fashion shows, says she hopes to be able to stage large-scale "theatrical extravaganza-style" shows in China in the coming years. Provided to China Daily
As owner of her own creative direction and production company and consultant to the media-relations company KCD, Nian Fish has directed hundreds of fashion shows for the world's biggest design names. On a typical morning in the weeks surrounding New York Fashion Week, she is up at 6 am for an 18-hour day that will include consultations on set design, model casting, music and styling for designers including Calvin Klein and Tory Burch.
But the whirlwind of activity that now fills her days had humble beginnings: She directed her first talent show at age 10, in the lobby of a tenement building on New York's Broome Street. Among her cast of young performers were a Chinese violinist, a Japanese flutist, a Puerto Rican drummer and a Jewish folk dancer, she recalled recently. Later, she directed shows in Forsyth Park as audiences swelled - and eventually, of course, on the glamorous stages of New York's Fashion Week. But at the time, entrance cost a quarter and "hot hors d'oeuvres" meant potato chips warmed on a radiator under the stairs.
"In most people's lives, there will be a thread somewhere in how you look at the world or who you are," she said. "For me, I loved discovering and cultivating talent even then. At the beginning I performed, too - a little beatnik dance - but then I stopped and let other people be stars. That's what I do now, and I like it that way. I'm very behind the scenes."
In her work today she is exposed to enormous personalities and egos that make the business run, she said. "It's fascinating and exciting. Sometimes you wish everyone wouldn't yell so much, but the reality is that Picasso wasn't docile."
Fish, who is also an accomplished film maker, has worked with the Council of Fashion Designers of America on various film projects and directs the CFDA Awards.
"What is so refreshing about Nian is the integrity she brings to her work," said Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA. "She strives for perfection, but is so respectful of everyone's opinions around her. She is not without compromise and will accept change when it's for the best. Her ideas are big and she can make them happen."
He also noted her leadership role with the CFDA Health Initiative, which promotes healthy eating for models.
Francisco Costa, women's creative director of the Calvin Klein Collection, has worked closely with Fish, too.
"I consider Nian to be a beacon of the fashion industry as well as a friend," he said. "She has an acute eye for modernity and always brings her unique perspective, experience and invaluable knowledge. I truly appreciate her loyalty to our brand and the care and attention she gives to everything she does."
Born in Kobe, Japan, to an American soldier and a half-Japanese and half-Chinese mother, Nian's upbringing as an "army brat" took her to Germany, Hawaii and Norway, among other countries. At 9 her father left her mother, in a move that ultimately proved fortuitous.
"It was one of the most fortunate days of my life, because we moved to New York," she said. "My father still feels guilty sometimes, but I say, 'You know what? I'm so glad that happened because I ended up in New York, exactly where I belong."
In other countries her biracial family had experienced pointed racism, she said. But as a child on New York's Lower East Side, she was suddenly surrounded by diversity. She ate dinner in Chinatown, and made Jewish friends. Still, she always felt different, she said.
"I think that's why I cast all these kids of different backgrounds in my talent shows," she said. "Because of my background, I've always really appreciated ethnic diversity, and I'm still very sympathetic to racial issues in fashion today. You'll hear people say 'We already have one of those' when we're casting a show, and I'll say 'What do you mean?' But I know what they mean. It's getting better though, and I'm doing what I can to help promote Asian models."
Fish started out as an assistant at KCD in the 1970s; she caught her big break when she was thrown onto a fashion shoot with legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Through the 1980s she worked as an independent stylist, but later returned to serve as creative director of KCD, a post she held for 18 years until starting her own company five years ago, she said. She still works closely with KCD as a consultant and director, and now spends about 30 percent of her time on film.
She is currently working on a film about biracial families, with a focus on her own. Like her passion for directing, her love of film can also be traced to those years on Broome Street, she said. She filled her afternoons and evenings with classic films on New York's Channel 9.
Among her favorite films today is Kurosawa's Rashoman, in which the same story is told from four different points of view. "It fascinates me that the same incident can mean so many different things for different people, because that means every single one of us is a writer, or a filmmaker," she said.
"I think that as a result of coming from two different races and cultures, I relate to the idea of different perspectives. I never felt like I belonged to anybody. My mother always told me, 'Don't ask for too much money, they'll fire you'; and my father always said, 'Say what you want and get it.' I understand both points of view, and as a result I'm not a judgmental person, even though in my work I'm hired to judge. I might critique style, but I don't judge people for who they are, and never have."
In the coming years, she hopes to shift her focus to China, she said. In 2010, she visited the country for the first time and cried when her plane touched down.
"It was a part of me I had ignored," she said. "It was extremely emotional, because a big part of me felt like I was home."
She hopes to do large-scale "theatrical extravaganza-style" shows there, and cited Fendi's 2007 show on the Great Wall as an example of the Chinese appetite for entertainment.
As in most industries, US fashion companies are increasingly mindful of the Chinese market, she said.
She noted the professionalism of the Chinese production teams. "They absolutely delivered, and the work was impeccable. I think I inherited that work ethic from my mother: In my work, I will not leave until the job is done. There's something extremely gratifying about completing what you say you're going to complete. Not everyone feels that, but I saw it in China. They do what they say they're going to do, and they do their best. I relate to that."