An Embellished Life

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By Maggie Grainger | Photos by Rick Baraff

San Francisco’s aura is a prismatic tapestry embellished by a host of character traits: vibrancy,
edginess, controversy, style, sophistication
,and history. For fashion designer Hong Ni, the City by the Bay is all of this and so much more.
She has developed an affinity for its nuances and has a different way to describe her new home
city: “Calming,” she says with a smile. “I’ll just go down to the Ferry Building and look out at
the water. It’s so nice and relaxing.”

It’s also the perfect place for the Chinese native to sit back and reflect on all the things she’s
accomplished in the past year alone, including seeing all of her hard work come to life on the
runway at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week back in February 2014.

Ni grew up in Hangzhou, China, a waterfront city known as “Heaven on Earth” since ancient times.
Hangzhou is home to around eight million people, remains one of China’s most popular tourist
venues, and sits about an hour away from the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. Considering she grew up
within visiting distance of the renowned West Lake, which has inspired poets for centuries, perhaps
it is unsurprising she always dreamed of doing something artistic. Her parents encouraged her to
nurture her passions early on. “They were both supportive and restrictive,”
Ni explains. “Before I turned fourteen, they encouraged me to try as many things as time allowed,
but after that, they forced me to choose only one to focus on.”

She spent time flitting her fingers across the ivories, learning the careful brushstrokes of
Chinese painting, and folk dancing, but she ultimately decided to pursue a different form of art.
Ni gravitated toward textiles about ten years ago when she first encountered textile design in an
elective course. “I still remember my first homework assignment was to create a blanket cover,” she
remembers fondly. “It had beautiful white graphic patterns on an indigo-colored canvas.”
Unfortunately, Ni left the blanket in the classroom to dry and it “grew legs and walked out,” never
to be seen again, but that didn’t stop her from studying textile design more in-depth.

At her local university, she received a Master of Fine Arts in textile design and came to
California in 2009 to study fashion and textile design at San Diego State. It was here she realized
she could combine her love of textiles with the ever-evolving world of fashion, and she jumped in
head first. She studied at San Francisco’s prestigious Academy of Art University where she
simultaneously maintained a 3.8 G.P.A. and turned heads in the fashion world.

Her hard work has definitely paid off, and she isn’t slowing down. Before gracing the runway in New
York, she earned the Chinese National Art Exhibition Award in 2010, and even taught at her Chinese
alma mater. She’s also the chief designer of not one, but two fashion companies, LingLuoHui and
Dacheng Cityscape Design LLC. With dreaminess in her tone, she expresses hope that one day her work
will garner the same respect as the late Alexander McQueen.

Nature, the countryside, and unique textiles—particularly silk—all serve as inspirations for her
creations. “I like natural fabrics, especially 50% cotton, 50% silk,” she says. “I can use a
variety of techniques to bring out subtle details.” That’s not to say she shies away from
unconventional cloths, but she admits there is one material you will never see on her models:
spandex. For now, she’s having fun collaborating with other designers, expanding her creative
horizons, and looking for an authentic Chinese restaurant that reminds her of home. “San Francisco
has some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world, but nothing can replace hometown cooking,”
she admits. “I miss that and tea gardens.”

Whenever bouts of homesickness sneak up on her, Ni knows exactly what will cheer her up. She goes
outside, starts walking, and heads straight down
to her happy place: the Ferry Building.

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