Perspective: Interview with Candy Tong, Founder, Candy Tong Collection

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your dance career! What has your journey in the dance world been like, and how has it led you into careers in both modeling and now fashion?

Hello, lovelies! My name is Candy Tong, and I am a NYC professional dancer, model, and entrepreneur. I have been dancing for most of my life, 22 years to be exact. I started off as a classical dancer, where I spent most of my training years at San Francisco Ballet School before venturing off to different techniques at Pacific Northwest Ballet and English National Ballet.

At ENBS in London, I discovered my passion for contemporary ballet, when I got to work in-person with McGregor, Forsythe, and even Rambert. However, I was still very much pursuing a classical ballet company at the time I was graduating (17-18 years old). Unfortunately due to my first serious injury upon graduating, I had result to plan B, which was to attend college.

I graduated from University of California, Irvine with a B.F.A. in Dance Performance in just 2.5 years. I knew from day one of entering college that I wanted to graduate quickly but also take full advantage of my time there. During my freshman year, I attended my very first Complexions intensive in the winter and absolutely fell in love with the technique, repertoire, and the company on day one. From there, it is history.

Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson stayed in touch with me ever since, and eventually after I graduated college, I got an invitation the day after Christmas in Disneyland to join Complexions Contemporary Ballet. I have now been with Complexions since 2018 and am so happy to say that I am working with my dream company and living in my favorite city in the world. 

Modeling has always been a side hustle for me, and I never saw it as a career until I was scouted on Instagram back in 2019 by my agency, Stetts Model Management. I like to say that I am much more than a model. I love conceptualizing shoots, styling, and being the creative director for it. 

As for being a fashion designer, I have always loved all things, fashion. I’ve been known to overdress to every occasion ever since I was a little girl. If I weren’t a dancer, I’d probably be working for a fashion magazine either in public relations or as a buyer. Having my own brand has been a huge dream of mine, and I didn’t think it was going to be a possibility with the busy schedule that I had pre-covid with Complexions. So, I am thankful for quarantine, as it really helped solidify my plans of becoming a fashion designer. 

Candy Tong Collection
Candy Tong, Courtesy of Candy Tong Collection
"I want to empower women to feel confident, powerful, and elegant all whilst feeling comfortable in their own body." - Candy Tong

When did you first have the idea to create your own clothing brand? Since that time, what have been some of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of building your brand?

It all began the same month of my interview with Pointe Magazine for my "Studio to Street" feature in January 2019. It was rather ironic how it all happened, as I had just wrapped my interview with Pointe Magazine writer, Marissa DeSantis about my fashion and style "in and out" of the studio. I remember her explicitly asking what I like to wear to dance, and I blatantly answered, "swimwear" or "everyday casual wear." She was somewhat surprised, which seems to be the common reaction now that I've told several people.

Dancewear has lost my attention for years now. Not only have I been unable to find a brand that suits muscular, curvy, and tall body types, but also a brand that goes beyond the "pretty," "dainty," and "bun-head" look.  I am not your average ballerina, nor am I your average model. I am your unconventional 5'10, muscular, curvy, Asian artist.  

Furthermore, I was approached by major dancewear companies and boutiques in the U.S. and E.U. within that week of my interview. It was almost as if the fashion gods were looking down on me. I received an unexpected call from my friends over at Allegro Boutique in Chicago (for whom I am a brand representative) about an upcoming meeting with a large dancewear distribution company. A complete and utter surprise that was...and from there, the rest is history.

The first year and a half was lots of trial and errors - from sample designs, to legal issues, to website domain failures, and launch date revisions. There was even a period of time when I didn't think this was going to happen. The only ONE thing that I can confidently say that was concrete were my designs. After I had ordered my first Fashionary book, I easily whipped out at least 20 hand-drawn designs in a week. I am happy to say that most of the products that are in this collection have stayed true to their original drawings. It is absolutely surreal and crazy to see it come to life, let a lone on another human body.  

After months of working with my production team over in Europe, we finally had our first batch of 'Dear New York' in the fall of 2020. I booked a ticket to New York City and selected one of my absolute  favorite photographers, Joe Lyman (who actually resides in Kentucky) for CTC's first catalogue shoot. One photographer, one model, and two full six hour days of shooting. Joe has been an actual dream to collaborate with, and I couldn't have asked for anyone better to capture my first collection.

I knew that this was the next big leap that was needed to step toward the brand becoming a reality. Soon after the photos were fully edited, the start of making the website began. I am not only in charge of all marketing aspects of CTC and product design, but also the foundation of the website. It has been a learning curve to say the least, as there is much more to it than creating a personal website. Things slowly gathered together as more concrete details were finessed, such as my campaign videos like 'Dear New York', ambassador searches, press releases and so forth.

Fast forward to February 2021. My brand CTC was bookmarked in my calendar for a launch date of March 5th, 2021. From here on out, it has been days of sleepless nights, endless international meetings, and brand marketing to gear up for the big day. 

I truly hope you all are excited as just as I am about this release as I truly believe I am bringing something new to this dance world. 

 Candy Tong Collection
Jessica Aronoff, Candy Tong, &  Lil Aronoff, Courtesy of Candy Tong Collection

I love that your designs are organized on your website by NYC locations like Central Park and Soho! What elements of those places are reflected in your pieces? 

When creating this collection, I knew I wanted to dedicate it to the city that has allowed me to pursue my biggest and wildest dreams. I chose these locations because they are some of my favorite neighborhoods where I find myself lingering around the most and am inspired by. The division of the neighborhoods actually came after the naming process of the leotards. The prints on the styles is what resonates most with each specific neighborhood. For example, when I think of Soho or Lower East Side, I think of snakeskin. 


In your blog post, Building a Business During a Pandemic, you mention that you’re no longer a fan of traditional leotards and dancewear for several reasons… can you elaborate on those for us?

Definitely! I see the ballet world as “lily-white”, and, unfortunately, I think a lot of leotard companies still comply with that. Again, I am not your average ballerina, so it is only ideal for me to break boundaries and create something more bold and daring for this industry and this modern day. We need to add SPICE to the mix- and show some more personality.


What sets CTC apart from other fashion and dancewear brands? 

Edginess.

I want to empower women to feel confident, powerful, and elegant all whilst feeling comfortable in their own body. I am challenging the dance world with my designs as I break barriers and go more extreme with cuts, prints, and designs. Not only that, but it was also important for me to create a brand that is easily versatile, as I am not just a dancer, but also a model and entrepreneur. I want to target the masses, which is why I created “barre to bar” looks. All of my pieces can easily be transformed into an athleisure, business-casual, or evening look. 

Candy Tong in the Broadway Leotard, Candy Tong Collection
Candy Tong in the Broadway Leotard, Courtesy of Candy Tong Collection

 

If you had to pick one all-time favorite design from your collection, which would it be and why?

Oh goodness, I was hoping this wouldn’t be a question. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be ‘Broadway.’ As you can tell, I am obsessed with snakeskin. It screams edge, bold, and power, which are things I like to portray and want all women to, as well. I think this specific leotard is just so striking especially with the intricate mesh panels that wrap around the front giving you an illusion of a curvy and lean line. Can be easily dressed up or down too!

 

And we HAVE to talk about that incredible CTC Campaign Video: Dear New York! What was it like working with Jessica Aronoff, Lil Aronoff, and Larissa Gerszeke? Can you tell us about those iconic Empire State Building shots of you?!

Ah, first off, I can’t believe how this turned out. I cannot tell you enough how stressed I was prior to this shoot date. I had been planning out this video for months with my producer... and, girl, did he do an amazing job.

Shout out to my team at Plus Ultra for bringing my vision to life. My dancers, Jessica, Lil, and Larissa were all just a dream to work with. Their professionalism and overall enthusiasm throughout the process was great. Larissa was the first girl that came to mind even before I had plans of making a campaign video. She has been a large inspiration for me at Complexions and is a role model for the next generation to come, especially for Black ballerinas.

I was insanely lucky to be introduced to Jessica and Lil Aronoff from Paige (PointePeople co-founder!) actually. I could not have been referred two better dancers and overall amazing humans. They embody everything CTC is about. I didn’t have to direct any of these dancers much because they just understood what I was going for off the bat. Needless to say, they made my job so easy and less stressful. 

Wow, Empire State… that was surreal. I was invited to a private tour, pre-opening hours, and I asked if I could film some shots there for CTC. I cannot believe they said yes!!! It was the first landmark I saw when I visited New York for the first time at age 9, so it’s almost like I traveled full circle. 
Dear New York - Candy Tong Collection from Candy Tong on Vimeo.

How important is diversity to you, be it in the kinds of dancers & people you want to reach, the designs you create, and the ideas that you represent?

Diversity is insanely important to me.

As an Asian American female and an advocate for my kind (specifically) in the arts, I am striving to be a great representative for Asian Americans. I co-started a campaign with a fellow hip-hop Asian dancer, Yvonne Chow, about 2 years ago on our beloved “Unapologetically Asian” movement. Asians are so underrepresented in the dance world and I want to change that.  Especially during this crazy time of hate, we are not put in the best light whatsoever currently. 

I hope to inspire not only through my dance career, but also through my new life as an entrepreneur, that Asian female artists can also create a successful, yet unconventional career in the arts.

Candy Tong Collection
Candy Tong, Lil Aronoff, & Jessica Aronoff, Courtesy of Candy Tong Collection

Where do you hope to take the Candy Tong Collection in the future? How do you see it growing?

I eventually hope to make Candy Tong Collection my full time job. I see it expanding bigger and bigger each year. I am hoping to make this a large fashion brand that is not just catered towards dancewear. I already have future plans in the works as we speak about new collections featuring many other products.


Lastly, any words of advice for other artists/creatives out there looking to start their own companies?

If you have an idea in your mind, don’t wait for anyone else to help you. You are your biggest motivator and successor. You are all you need. 

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