“I love color – black, dark gray, charcoal, smoke…” says Grace Ling with a smile. The Singaporean designer and latest addition to NET-A-PORTER’s talent nurturing initiative The Vanguard is speaking to me on a video call from her home in New York. She’s dressed in black, at least from the waist up, and the room behind her is testament to her neutral aesthetic – high ceilings, white walls, expansive windows. Everything about Ling is considered, from her influences – Marina Abramovic, surrealism and dystopian movies – to her sustainable design process. The latest collection, SS22, has caused quite a stir – the lineup of sleek, mostly black pieces are Instagram catnip and worn by the likes of J.Lo and Karlie Kloss.
Ling studied fine arts, sculpture and performance art before turning her hand to fashion. Her multidisciplinary background is evident in the playful short films she uses to present her collections. Silhouettes reflect her sculptural training, but there’s a lightness, a fluidity, about the pieces that comes to life with movement. The clean lines of the designs belie an incredible intricacy, and the overall mood is seductive, with a sophisticated edge that subverts assumptions about sensuality – “I like to call it intelligent femininity,” she says. “Being sexy can be intelligent, and I want my clothes to be empowering – that emerges in multiple ways, depending on who’s wearing them and how they wear them.”
I want my clothes to be empowering – that emerges in multiple ways, depending on who’s wearing them and how they wear them”
An alum of Central Saint Martins in London and Parsons School of Design in New York, Ling cut her teeth with Thom Browne and The Row. “As well as quality, refined taste and craftsmanship, those experiences taught me about team-building and company culture,” she says. She launched her label in 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a reality she is sanguine about (though she does concede the supply chain has been “a nightmare”). She chose New York because she loves the city’s fast pace and commercial mind. “My studio is in the Garment District [a corner unit in an old warehouse in Hudson Yards, with huge windows] and, each season, we convert it into a showroom to sell the collection,” she says.
The SS22 collection is named Square and inspired by artists Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Lucio Fontana: “The world is so chaotic, I just wanted to play with shapes on the body. It’s a meditation through geometry,” she says. And indeed, the resulting range feels like a tonic, with crisp, thoughtful, mix-and-match styles. True to its name, angular lines and cleverly placed cutaways are a theme – a bodycon mini skirt with a tapering hem; beautifully tailored ‘peek open thigh’ suit pants. Ling cleverly blends red-carpet-ready silhouettes – a square-cut dress, barely-there bralettes and draped skirt – with fresh-feeling separates, like a tank that would look great with denim and a sheer paneled jacket that’s a directional riff on evening tailoring.
The world is so chaotic, I just wanted to play with shapes on the body. It’s a meditation through geometry”
Instagram has been central to Ling’s success – “I sent [the SS22 collection] to Albert [Ayal, the fashion commentator behind the hugely influential @upnextdesigner], who posted it, then Instagram has this ripple effect,” she says. The ripples moved fast, and soon J.Lo’s stylist was on the phone. “She wanted the look [a black skirt and bralette with ties and polished silver hardware, and a cropped bolero jacket] for a shoot with The New York Times, then she liked it so much she ordered a custom one in white. I had so many approaches after that.” It’s a major coup for a brand in its infancy.
We lean towards natural fabrics – for quality, longevity, timelessness”
Sustainability is innate, a by-product of the way Ling works, and the ready-to-wear collection is all crafted in New York. “We lean towards natural fabrics – for quality, longevity, timelessness,” she says. “And then we use computer-aided design and 3D software, so we’re able to calculate the exact quantities of material we need, and we can often create with zero waste. Sometimes, we even use a 3D rendering instead of samples,” she says. “Plus, our hardware is 3D-printed aero aluminium, which is [one of the only metals in the world] that’s infinitely recyclable.” This is clearly a game-changing approach to design.
Alongside her unwavering creative vision, Ling’s business savvy peppers our conversation. “There’s being talented and making beautiful clothes, and then there’s commercial viability. Both are important,” she says. As a member of The Vanguard collective, Ling has business expertise at her fingertips, alongside a roster of other experience to draw on. “It’s invaluable – that mentorship is something money can’t buy,” she says.
What seems like overnight success has been hard-earned. Some of the hardware processes have taken four years to develop. And with just one assistant and one intern, there’s a lot of juggling – though Ling emanates that enviable knack of staying calm through the chaos: “I have 10 jobs, so we all do everything, and I have to be very organized.” And what’s next? Plans for shoes, menswear and, one day, interiors. But, for now, “I’d love to dress Zendaya – maybe in the next collection,” she muses with that charismatic smile again.
Before we say goodbye and I leave Ling to the Manhattan sunshine and her next collection, I ask if she can pinpoint a seminal moment. “This. NET-A-PORTER,” she tells me. “It’s one thing to be fulfilled by your own creativity, but to be able to create a team, create demand, have people actually buy it… That’s huge.” And something tells me she’s only just getting started.
The models featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown