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Grace Ling, Winner of CFDA/Genesis House AAPI Design + Innovation Grant, Talks About Winning $100,000 Grand Prize

Grace Ling, the 27-year-old Singaporean-born winner of the CFDA/Genesis House AAPI Design + Innovation Grant Wednesday night, is excited to be the first designer to win the award and believes it will help her scale her three-year-old business and give representation to the Asian design community.

In an interview following the awards at Genesis House, Ling said she didn’t have her hopes up that she would come away with the $100,000 grand prize.

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“I didn’t want to think anything. There have been situations in the past where I was so confident about my work, and some things I didn’t end up winning, and I didn’t want to jinx it. I just wanted to keep a cool head,” she said.

Ling has been working on the project since August and she and the other inaugural participants — Andrew Kwon and Haoran Li and Siying Qu of Private Policy — went to Korea in October “for inspiration.”

“The trip was amazing. It was my first time in Korea, it was really nice to visit. I’m from Singapore, and I rarely go home,” said Ling, who came to the U.S. in 2016 to attend Parsons School of Design. “I’m almost a true New Yorker,” she said. She then did a year at Central Saint Martins.

The grant is really important to her for several reasons. “I’m at a stage where my business can really scale with the grant. I’ve been working solo for three years. I do sales, press…my first collection I sewed the entire collection myself,” she said. She began her business in 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, while in her senior year at Parsons.

Ling sees the award as helping to put more of a spotlight on Asian designers, and among those in the crowd Wednesday night were Peter Som, Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim of Monse, Mimi So, and Sang A Im-Propp.

Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA, told WWD that this program was really important to the CFDA. “Like other programs we have that heightens opportunity for underrepresented communities, it gives a platform, funding and business advice to these three amazing finalists in the AAPI community. A lot of work around diversity is rightfully so about Black and brown designers. We wanted to expand our work. It’s the first-ever and only program of its kind of AAPI designers. Genesis being a Korean company is a perfect partner for us,” said Kolb.

Steven Kolb, Grace Ling and Rachel Esperson
Steven Kolb, Grace Ling and Rachel Espersen.

Rachel Espersen, executive director, brand experience at Genesis House and Studios, said, “One of our primary pillars at Genesis House is to preserve and expand the presence of distinctly Korean culture in New York City, and it has been an essential focal point of our partnership with the CFDA. Through our combined resources, expertise and connections, this program has furthered our mission to uplift emerging AAPI talent and elevate the importance of Asian culture, tradition, and talent in the fashion industry and beyond.”

“This is like a huge honor. I’m the first recipient of the first-ever CFDA/Genesis House AAPI Design + Innovation Grant. I just think it’s really powerful,” said Ling. “There’s a huge Asian community that supports the fashion industry, whether that’s seamstresses in New York or even in Italy. And also the [Asian] customer base. Normally, they’re seen as behind the scenes. I think it’s really important for people to see representation — that it’s possible for an Asian woman creative director. I used to think representation doesn’t matter as much, everyone’s the same and you just work hard and it’s merit-based. Recently, I’ve come to feel that it actually matters and I should be more outspoken about it.”

Ling said she’s not having a show this fashion week because she’s not doing a fall collection, but will be doing a spring collection.

Each participant was given $40,000 to work on a collection for the competition.

Ling produced a collection of three full looks inspired by a femme fatale character, each representing seduction, transformation and initiation. Known for blending futurism and sustainability, Ling used a unique 3D-printing process to create one of the looks from the collection. Showcasing a new feminine aesthetic, each look blended aspects of Asian heritage with modern touches, incorporating references to figures from Asian folktales along with motifs such as hair, which symbolizes respect in Asian culture.

Ling said she actually didn’t end up spending the entire $40,000 on the collection. “We wanted to conserve the cash. We managed to make the collection for a lower amount because we were doing it in-house,” she said. She and her assistant did the whole thing themselves and didn’t outsource anything.

She’s been awarded an additional $60,000 in prize money.

The part that took a long time was more the ideation and conceptualization. “We were working up to the last minute. Yesterday we were setting it up,” she said.

With the additional prize money, she plans to hire someone to help with production. “I already have somebody in mind,” she said.

Before Ling started designing fashion, she was doing fine arts and sculpture, and also did a bit of modeling on the side. She ended up creating a lot of wearable pieces and decided that fashion was the direction she wanted to take. “My brain thinks in a sculptural way. I like to think in a biomorphic manner,” she said.

The collection that she presented to the judges Wednesday had a theme: “Beware of Beauty.” Taking a page from Korean-Asian folklore, her collection was based on a mythical creature that transforms into a beautiful woman to seduce unsuspecting men and she devours them. “The story is a little dark. If she devours 1,000 men’s livers, she has an opportunity of becoming human. It’s a very popular Asian folklore. The reason why I picked this is that I was very intrigued by the stories people spin about women and beauty. With the collection, I want [that] when you look at it, you think ‘this person is so chic, she must be dangerous,'” said Ling.

The judges were Jodie Chan, vice president of global marketing and communications at Carolina Herrera; Laurent Claquin, president of Kering Americas; Espersen; Kolb, and Wen Zhou, CEO and cofounder of 3.1 Phillip Lim.

This is the first design award that Ling has ever won.

Ling said she would eventually like to be at a large fashion house. “I would love to be able to do both at the same time. Sometimes I have all these ideas, but with my brand being small and having limited resources, I can’t do everything that I imagine. If I was at a big fashion house with resources, I think I could really create something that’s really beautiful,” she said. Ling finances her collection herself.

She said she took advantage of the mentorship that was offered throughout the program, working with designers such as Prabal Gurung, Garcia and Kim, as well as Sandra Park of Saks. “I loved the mentorship and loved the mentors. They’re very relatable and they know everything we’ve been through such as starting a brand from scratch. They just know your troubles. I think I got some peace from that, and I felt I was not alone and was on the right path. Sometimes it can be really hard to run your own brand,” she said.

Ling has office space in the Garment Center and would love to get larger space. “I’ve been eyeing a few,” she said.

Does she feel that programs like this really put a spotlight on Asian designers and are important?

“I think it’s definitely important. It’s like 2024, and it’s happening now. I know $60,000 can only go so far, but for a small business, it’s really helpful. With that $60K, I can actually scale. I don’t feel that I just won $60,000, I feel like I won $500,000, I can get that with having someone help with production, and having my time free up more and my mental energy focus on the other things. In my head, I’m winning an opportunity to scale the business, which is actually so much more valuable than the actual $60,000,” she said.

Ling sells Net-a-porter, Fwrd, Bergdorf Goodman and Selfridges, and her line is available at her own website, gracelingofficial.com. She said she’s looking for investors.

“Over the last three years I’ve spent a lot of time building a solid foundation. You know when you build a solid foundation, nobody sees it, the actual work. Just to make sure my supply chain is good, my production is good. So when it is the right time, I can scale more smoothly. Right now, I’m in the process of looking for investments and the right partner,” she said.

Turning to sustainability, she said these days you can’t make a collection without thinking about it. “The 3D-printing technique is actually zero-waste technique. I would say sustainability is part of the design process itself,” she said.

Ling said her family isn’t involved in fashion. Her mother was a makeup artist and her father was an events designer. Both are still in Singapore. Has she told them she won yet?

“Not yet,” she said.

Asked how she plans to celebrate, she said, “I will get good, peaceful sleep.”

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