From army brat to hippie, and as a Buddhist balancing a powerful reputation in an often ruthless industry, Nian Fish is a complex combination of Yin and Yang. As a pioneer in the New York fashion show scene, Fish helped the city find its rightful place among the traditional fashion mecca: Paris and Milan.
Fish’s humble beginnings fueled her creative spirit, and for three decades, she has channeled it into the art form she is the most passionate about: fashion. Though one might assume that to stay on top, one has to have a thick skin, Fish admits to getting emotional, even crying in front of some of fashion’s biggest names as a way of expressing the beauty of a woman. Fish sat down with The GROUND to share her experiences and offer unique perspectives on the truly global world of fashion.
Fish’s passion isn’t limited to only the fashion industry. By teaming up with her daughter, they run a successful film production company. They recently collaborated with Marina Abramović, (another amazing woman who is also featured in this issue of The GROUND) to capture her artistry on film.
You were born in Japan. How did New York come to be your home?
My father was an American soldier. His unit was stationed in Japan, and that’s where he met my mom. Her family was running the very first Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. My dad made a bet with his buddies that he would date her, and he won. I was born out of wedlock because they couldn’t get married – there was a law against American soldiers marrying Japanese citizens at that time. I traveled all around the world as an “army brat”: Germany, Norway, Hawaii, Japan, USA. When I was nine, my father left us and didn’t come back for months. At that time, we were living in Baltimore. My mother was a housewife and we had no money, so one day we had our neighbor drive us in his pick-up truck to 252 Broome Street in Manhattan. I finally felt home for the first time in my life.
Sounds like a tragic story.
Now, I’m very close to my dad. He feels terrible and always apologizes for walking out on us. I tell him: “I’m so glad you left mom, because New York is where I belong.” It’s one of those stories that seems tragic when you hear them [it], but it’s also the one about darkness turning into lightness.
You’ve been a creative force behind the fashion industry for over 30 years. Why fashion? Where does your story begin?
It would seem that it happened by accident, but when I think about it, there are no such things as accidents in life. Everything happens for a reason. My love for fashion started at a very young age. It’s one of those classic stories where I would cut up and fix up my hand-me-down clothes. You could also say that poverty played a great part in it as well. It taught me how to be creative with the very few things I had. Then the ’60s arrived. The Beatles were coinciding with the hippie movement. I lived in a commune in Woodstock and did some very mind-expanding things I care not to speak about. The way people dressed at that time was very self-expressive. I started thrift shopping. No one was wearing vintage since it was for poor people, and so I created sort of a trend.
What was your first job in fashion?
My mom worked in quality control in sweatshops, and she taught me how to sew. I could sew almost anything. I made a living making dresses out of Vogue patterns for “Park Avenue clients”.
Then I got a job making upholstery for wealthy New Yorkers. I worked crazy hours with no time for sleep. I was a good friend with Kezia Keeble and Paul Cavaco. We were devoted Buddhists, and our kids were best friends. One day, Kezia called me and said: “My business is growing. Will you please come and work for me?”
I said: “You know what, I don’t even know what you do.” She and Paul were working as stylists. They were in the top five at the time.
She said: “You’re so organized. I just want you to organize me.” And, so I became her assistant.
One day they had three shoots going on at the same time and they threw me to the wolves. I had to do a Dior campaign by myself and I was terrified. I kept running out to the phone booth, calling Paul, and yelling: “He doesn’t like the robe I chose! What should I do?”
Paul would say: “Do the burgundy one.” In the end, Kezia and Paul trained me so well that I was able to work as a stylist for next 10 years.
How did styling turn into producing fashion shows?
Kezia and Paul were doing some of the early fashion shows in New York. In the ’80s, I went on my own and did the same thing. Back then, I would do it all by myself: produce, cast, style, [and] choreograph. I would even steam clothes. In 1991, I started working for KCD, [a leading fashion public relations and production agency], and became their creative director. Since New York was always “a third cousin” to Paris and Milan, I made my mission to make its position stronger on the world’s fashion map. I can’t say it was entirely my achievement, but we did it. NYFW [New York Fashion Week] along with American designers like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford or Alexander Wang, grew to have a very strong global position.
What do you love the most about the work you do?
I love being [a] part of this community. Working on a show is like being in a “war zone” together. We all work very hard and barely sleep in order to deliver the best performance and create something exquisitely beautiful. You work for months to create a 10-minute long show and when it’s done, you have to say goodbye to all the people you have been in this “war zone” together with. You can’t help but feeling nostalgic, even though you know you will see them again in six months.
I also love art and I think of fashion as art.
A utility art.
Yes. [a] Funny thing is that you always hear people saying: “I’m really not into fashion.” But the truth is, everyone is into fashion even if they don’t realize it. I like to say we’re “tribes” and we define ourselves “tribally” by how we dress, how we wear our hair, [and] the makeup we put on. It all defines which “tribe” we belong to. Even if you go to a trailer park in the middle of Tennessee, you’ll find a “look” there. There is a “look” because they want to belong.
Our upcoming issue is about women and their influence in the arts. How do you see a woman’s influence in the fashion world?
There used to be a time when men and women were equally adorning themselves. In the royal courts of Europe or in the Far East, both men and women were equally dressed up in wigs, brocades, velvet, and makeup. Now, we’ve definitely taken a big turn from men being the “colorful peacocks” of the animal kingdom. Women became main players in fashion, and the ultimate consumers. There is just so much that a man can wear. I’ve worked on many menswear shows, and I know what a struggle it is for a designer to create something new that’s not ludicrous. Sometimes, someone will throw a skirt over a pair of pants, but it’s not going to sell. Women dominate fashion. The game is to make them “fall in love” with the new collection whether it’s their pocket book, their husband’s or their parents’; women are the buyers. That’s what keeps the economy going.
“Fall in love?”
It’s the designer’s goal to make you fall in love with the product. You see a pair of shoes and you walk away, but you can’t stop thinking about them. You come back and buy them. You think if you have this pair, it will make you happy – and it does for that moment. I think there is nothing wrong with that hit of happiness, but there is also an illusion that what you wear is going to bring you happiness. It never does, and it’s important to remember that.
For yourself, were there any barriers you encountered because you are a woman?
I did a show for a few American designers in Japan back in 1994. [Fashion designer] Stephen Sprouse wanted to have a motorcycle crash through the film screen for the show opening, and I told that to the Japanese technical producer. He said: “Hai. Hai. Hai.” and I said: “Great!” On the day of the rehearsal, the motorcycle is a no show, so I go: “Where is it?” and they’re like: “We’re not going to get you a motorcycle.” Then, someone immediately told me that because I’m a woman, they didn’t listen to me and ignored my request. This happened quite some time ago and I would hope that things have changed in Japan since then. I made them get my motorcycle in the end.
Also, because I’m a woman, when I’m sleep deprived, I get really emotional. I’ve cried in front of many people. I even cried in front of Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. Sometimes, it’s hard to control my emotion, but I see a beauty in it – the beauty of being a woman.
What charities are you involved with? Which charities are closest to your heart?
The National Resources Defense Council. Last year, with Leo DiCaprio, we saved a wolf community in Canada and it made me feel really good. Also Amnesty International to help free people who are innocent, and Doctors Without Borders. I volunteer as a chair of the CFDA Health Initiative, which brings attention to eating disorders in our business. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done so far. Putting models on a runway as young as 12 years old used to be a big issue. Girls this young are usually size 0, but as they grow up, their body changes. Then, they try to get back to their old body, and it can end tragically. Now, in America, you can’t hire a runway model younger then 16 years old. It took us three years to achieve, but we succeeded!
You are also an accomplished filmmaker. How did that come about?
I’m a movie addict. When I was a kid, there was a show called, “20 Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9. I would do my homework as soon as possible so I could watch it. Now, I really don’t have much free time to watch movies, but when I do, I watch seven in a row. I started a film company with my daughter called Tiger and Dragon Films that produces fashion films.
How does fashion film differ from a commercial?
A fashion film is a commercial in the way it’s branded, but it isn’t selling a particular product. It’s selling the brand: the lifestyle. They were born out of necessity with the increasing importance of Internet, and they’re starting to replace print ads.
Fashion films are everywhere now; video, in general, is so prevalent. Do you think that’s a good thing or is video becoming devalued?
Anything that’s too devalued… it’s definitely not a good thing. There is always Yin and Yang in life. Right now, we’re experiencing an oversaturation of almost everything, and this has to change. The modern world is very aggressive, very Yang. I have faith in the human soul and its need for peace and happiness. Things eventually need to go back to the softer and more feminine Yin.
Do you think the world is already at the tipping point?
No, not yet. Things have to hit a rock bottom first. Everybody is stressed out now. How many people told you recently: “I had a great weekend. I just relaxed.” When was the last time you relaxed? Life is getting faster and globalization is reaching a whole different level. China is becoming America while South Korea is already totally Americanized. We need to stop and think about what we’re trying to teach the world. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be our mission. I guess this is my hippie side talking.
And where is Nian Fish’s future heading?
Despite what people might think, I’m not retiring. I always say, “they’ll have to wheel me out.” I love my work so much. I want to invest more time in doing films. I’m working on a documentary right now. I wouldn’t mind getting an award at Sundance or Cannes when it’s done. I’ll take either one. I would like to see more balance and divide my time between fashion shows and films better. That’s where I’m headed.
Portrait by Ryan Yoon