A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party supply store, the kind with green vintage glassware and five shelves dedicated to tinned fish. A fellow customer, a woman in her late 50s in a trench by The Row and a slightly scuffed Prada Re-Edition 1995 bag, looked at my pug, who was wearing a fleece jacket with a tiny leopard pocket by the designer Sandy Liang. Her eyes grew wide: “I have the version for people!”
Last week, I wore Liang’s flower power scrunchie—an enormous satin bloom that makes it look like a group of petals are emerging from the base of my ponytail—to get a bagel, and someone in a fantastic vintage bomber jacket asked where it was from. When I told them, it turned out they knew everything about her, including her dad’s job: “He owns Congee Village, right?”
Earlier, at a birthday dinner, a friend of mine asked me about the Sandy Liang sample sale. It was the last thing I expected to hear from an urban planner in a Mets T-shirt. He told me it entered his orbit via a tweet that read, “Will my girlfriend ever come back from war (the sandy liang sample sale).”
It was then that I realized there’s been a shift. I’ve loved Liang for years, but there was a time when I’d bring up her name and would be met with blank stares. Now, when I wear my tiered pink lace midi dress with gingham panels in the shape of a bra and underwear, or my sheer pointelle top with sleeves so big they engulf my arms like a scalloped bubble, no one asks me where they’re from. They just know—and it’s something that has been made possible through this little thing called girlhood.
When Liang launched her brand in 2014, she would have her friends model for the ad campaigns, placing the images alongside shots of her grandmother on the streets of Chinatown. Then, in 2019, her leopard-print-and-neon fleece jacket went viral. GQ called it “the hottest jacket in menswear”; a month later, The New York Times named it “the hottest jacket at New York Fashion Week.”
The success of the fleece gave Liang the confidence to host her very own fashion show that September. I remember that while I was waiting to go inside the venue, an editor told me, “I don’t really get why she’s doing a fashion show if she does fleeces.” At Liang’s fall 2023 show—held on the second day of New York Fashion Week in a book-lined room of a neo-Romanesque building on 106th Street—I overheard the very same editor tell her friend she was “relieved” when her seat confirmation finally came through the day before. There wasn’t a single fleece on the runway.
The brand still maintains its downtown New York roots, but its devoted fangirls no longer reside exclusively below Hester Street. “I’m just a girl designing for a girl,” Liang told me two days before her fall show, standing inside the studio on Rivington that used to serve as a storage space for her father’s restaurant. But while there is a prototypical Sandy Liang girl, the type who hangs around Nine Orchard but never books a night’s stay, Liang has always pictured herself speaking to “different attitudes,” as she put it.
“Last season, it felt like all the girls were best friends with each other, and they would all go to the same party. This season, you can find yourself in that girl, or maybe you’re not vibing with this girl and that’s cool. It’s all expanding a little bit,” she explained. When Liang was a fashion student at Parsons (after transferring from RISD, where she studied architecture), her professors would always ask, “Who is your customer for that collection?” and she would say, “I don’t know! Whoever can buy it.”
“That’s the real truth,” she told me. “As long as you love it and understand it, who am I to say you aren’t my girl?”
She added, “For a long time, just from the sales perspective, I had to be tethered to [the fleece] to make the sales. But now, I’m at the place where I feel very confident not showing them. People still know that I make a great fleece, but they’re not what’s exciting me every season.”
In fact, pieces like her heart-shaped ballerina earrings and her satin Mary Janes are so popular that she’s had to start taking preorders. It’s the only way to temper the die-hard fans who comment things like, “Miss sandy liang pls pls pls restock the terminator pins, I need to wear them to dinner,” or, “Bring back the bunny clips or else,” on every other Instagram post. Sometimes they’ll take to the accounts of her celebrity fans, like Bella Hadid or Brie Larson, leaving comments on posts where they’re wearing Sandy Liang, like, “Hey bestie can I borrow those mary janes? Asking for a friend.”
This season, Liang was fascinated by the idea of the dress as a uniform. “I don’t know about you, but when I wear a dress, I feel like I have to get dressed up. So I love the idea of a girl just wearing a dress and she’s doing whatever she wants to do,” she told me. “She’s just going to work. She’s playing basketball. She’s going to the farmers’ market. She’s going to do anything she wants. And her outfit isn’t dictating what she thinks she should be doing.”
The opening look was a cotton twill dress with puff sleeves and a silk sash draped across the chest, cinched with a rosette at the waist, worn with stockings, chunky leg warmers, and brown satin Mary Janes. When I spoke to Liang at her studio, she pointed to the look pinned onto a white board, exclaiming “prom queen!” before listing off all the other ways she sees it styled, like with Salomon sneakers and an oversized hoodie. “She can ride the subway in that.”
Liang designed that dress, every other piece from the collection, and her entire brand with that scenario in mind—not of notoriety, but of someone like you or me or her just riding the train. She said she doesn’t think of this approach as selfless—in fact, maybe it’s even a bit selfish: “It’s just the clothes that I would want to wear.”
And she does wear them, as seen in numerous mirror selfies taken at her store at 28 Orchard, uploaded onto the brand’s official account, which is also her personal account. “People are always like, ‘Sandy, you love to share yourself so much!’ And I was like, ‘Do I?’”
On December 28, 2022, she uploaded a photo of herself crouched in a dangling Sandy Liang bow headband, a pair of light blue satin Mary Janes, and gray sweatpants. The following photo in the Instagram carousel is of four pairs of her Mary Janes sprawled out on the floor, alongside their white tissue paper and cardboard box packaging. The third is another mirror selfie, taken in Liang’s own bathroom; her fiancé is in the shower in the background, his head peering out from behind hers. The next is of her mini Australian shepherd, Tim Tam, on a pillow next to a large ball of pink yarn. It’s a traditional photo dump, the preferred photo sharing technique of Gen Z, with no campaign image in sight. The caption read “...did you miss me!” The comments read, “Yes,” “Always,” and, “Yaaaaas!!”
“I just take a shit ton of photos,” she told me. Liang also photographs all the e-commerce imagery on her website. “I just couldn’t trust anybody to do it. I want the clothes to be shot a certain way. I don’t know anything about lighting, I just use a film camera, and we go to the back of the store and do it. There’s this angle that looks hot to me and I really care about that. I love sharing with people—like, ‘Look at this!’” Most products also have a sweet little haiku in lieu of a proper description; the one for her Magic Powers Earrings reads, “Bubblegum pearls hang / Swinging sparkles from your ear / Little bit evil.”
She told me that when her Parsons professors used to ask her to pick out an artist or a piece of architecture or a place that inspires her, she couldn’t. “The only thing that ever inspired me was my iPhone photos and nostalgic items. I tried to express that a lot in the beginning, and nobody really got it.”
Now they do. Nostalgia is the core of her appeal. Wearing Sandy Liang isn’t about putting on an oversized hair bow and a taffeta drop waist skirt, and becoming someone else. It’s about becoming who you’ve been, a child just discovering pink or the simple pleasure of tying a ribbon onto a strand of hair. “Everyone always tells me, ‘That reminds me of my childhood,’ and I have to say, ‘That’s literally the point!’” It’s this feeling that she’s somehow sewn into her brand’s label that has made her that girl for the girl.
“Sandy’s approach to clothes definitely made me reconsider embracing my own femininity,” a friend in her 20s told me in an attempt to explain why she loves the brand. “Wearing Sandy Liang is the closest you can get to being in a Coppola movie,” another wrote to me over text. Her pieces feel like admission tickets to a world of delicate girliness, free of the crushing weight of actually being a girl in this world.
I think maybe Sandy Liang is like Supreme for a certain subset of women who wear ballet flats. There’s an undeniable collectability to everything she makes, but there’s also a distinctive air of real New Yorker energy. Liang is from Queens, she went to public school in lower Manhattan, and she spent a large portion of her childhood walking around Chinatown with her family. When she photographs her clothes in front of a bodega or talks about wearing them on the subway, she’s embodying one of the most mythical places on earth with genuine grit, and that’s something she can do, because New York raised her.
But the thing about a brand like Supreme is that it’s too easy to go from being inspired by a New York subculture to simply commercializing it. How cool is it, really, to wait on line for hours to buy the same shirt everyone behind you also wants, only to resell it for five times the retail price? I don’t see that happening to Liang’s brand, because she isn’t trying to sell you the promise of ineffable coolness you can’t actually buy. She’s giving you something less easy to define, something more cinematic. And maybe something you already possess: the lulling delights of girlhood.
On a recent Instagram photo, featuring a model wearing the Mary Janes and a Sandy Liang trench at the wheel of an old navy Honda, a large red bow hanging from the rearview mirror, one commenter asked, “How do I achieve this level of girl?” The answer is simple: You wear Sandy Liang, of course.
Tara Gonzalez is the Senior Fashion Editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Previously, she was the style writer at InStyle, founding commerce editor at Glamour, and fashion editor at Coveteur.