There is a grande dame of Dutch fashion you’ve probably never heard of (if you live outside of The Netherlands). We hadn’t. But then when found a series of photos taken in the 1970s of legendary musician Kate Bush, dressed more exquisitely that we’d ever seen her. Who was she wearing and where can we get a quilted gold dress like that? We had to know more…
The name you want to know is Fong Leng. Unlike so many great fashion talents we’ve lost in recent years, this 86 year-old style maven is still very much alive and kicking, although sadly, she is no longer actively designing clothes. Her heyday as a fashion designer was in the 1970’s and 80’s, and while regarded as ‘la grande dame’ of Dutch fashion, she faced disaster in 1987 when Studio Fong Leng went bankrupt after Amsterdam lost out on hosting the 1992 Olympics. That honour ultimately went to Barcelona, but in 1988, when Amsterdam was a candidate, the Dutch Olympic Committee commissioned Fong Leng to design merchandise. When the games went to Spain instead, the studio was left high and dry with about 75 different designs going to waste. Today her work is displayed in Dutch museums and captured forever on film and canvas.
In 1971, a rich and famous socialite, Mathilde Willink was in the market for clothes, and designers like Chanel and and Yves Saint Laurent just would not do. Instead, Mathilde’s path crossed with a Chinese-Dutch fashion designer named Fong Leng, who had already been moving through the artist community prior to selling her work to Mathilde in 1971. Born in Rotterdam in 1937, originally Fong Leng studied photography, before becoming a fashion designer. She earned her degree from the Academy for Applied Arts in Rotterdam, and worked alongside her then-husband, Herbert Behrens. In 1968, while working with a Dutch jersey manufacturer, she seemed to find her true calling in fabric and textiles.
Suddenly her world was blasted wide open by this new passion. Certainly, the timeline of events is impressive: in the span of three years Fong Leng went from fashion photographer, to snagging a high society client with her very own designs, and opened Studio Fong Leng.
Mathilde became her close friend and most important client (buying a whopping 37 dresses from the designer, and even being buried in one!) Her famous painter of a husband, Carel Willek, immortalized this relationship when he painted a stunning portait of his wife in a long, flowing, gold Fong Leng gown. The eccentric husband and wife were a fixture of the Dutch gossip columns , and the ups and downs of their relationship were devoured by the public.
There isn’t a photograph of Mathilde where she doesn’t look like a fashion icon; her hair, make-up and clothes pushing boundaries long before Lady Gaga. She paraded through the city in Fong-Leng’s designs, appeared on TV and was regularly interviewed with accompanying photos in her outfits.
Her work leaps away from convention, and instead is more akin to “fairytales told in fabric”. Her pieces are an exciting deviation from more traditional designers in the fashion world, and have names like Straalmantel (Radius Cloak), and Luipaardmantel (Leopard Cloak). She is known for creating long dresses, coats, and cloaks, with a variety of fabrics and techniques. Here a snake will glide down a skirt, and there piercing blue eyes will follow you from wrist to bust to ankles. She leaned into a variety of materials, like leather, suede, silk, feathers, and fur.
In 1975, Leng lost her most important patron in the throes of Mathilde’s messy divorce from Carel after she discovered he had been cheating. The socialite threw herself into the nightlife and stopped seeing her old friends – including Fong-Leng – making new ones in the art trade and criminal world. She died in 1977 under suspicious circumstances with a gun lying next to her. Her death has never been solved.
And it wasn’t just the clothes that were breaking new ground, although they certainly did. Studio Fong Leng introduced fresh ideas, like showcasing other designers. Zandra Rhodes, Ossie Clark and Alice Pollock all had designs in the studio, and the work of other designers and artists were celebrated. Studio Fong Leng became a place where people wanted to be. Customers were offered champagne and appetizers, which sounds like a truly fantastic shopping experience in our opinion. Once a year, Fong Leng threw wild parties for the studio, with pop music and dancing mannequins. When these parties outgrew the studio space, they found new locations for the party. Fong Leng also wanted to stir the pot with her choice of locations for shows, choosing swimming pools, football stadiums, and museums.
In the late 80s, she moved into sportwear, which “appealed to both ambitious, fashion-conscious middle- class consumers and football fans,” writes Mousse Magazine. “At the same time, Fong Leng’s designs reveal her interest in cultural and ‘exotic’ references, bearing testimony to the idea of multiculturalism prevalent in Dutch culture and politics at the time”.
Fong Leng is still designing today, but she has turned her focus to a variety of other things, like furniture and jewelery. If you’re interested in adding a Fong Leng piece to your vintage collection, an attention stealing original piece will set you back around 1,500 euros.