Photography and Words By Robecca Leyden @sans_pareil_online
I first met Cecilia Kang last year when I was invited to attend a Gala fashion show in Auckland. I had heard her name several times before, surrounding New Zealand Fashion Week, however, being in London for the last three years, I never had the opportunity to meet the designer. From the moment I saw Cecilia sitting gracefully and immaculately dressed- in a Morningside café- I was mesmerised.
Kiwi’s (yes, even Aucklanders) don’t tend to dress up, especially during the day. Myself, I was clean-faced, in sports leggings and trainers. Cecilia was perched impeccably in a booth, nursing a tea, wearing heels, perfectly centre-creased slacks and a gorgeous white cape - something I could see the likes of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly wearing. I felt almost sheepish at my casual attire. Sitting there quiet, poised, and impeccably dressed she might come off as intimidating but as soon as Cecilia speaks, a softness and kindness radiate.
As the months grew and I got to know Cecilia as an incredible designer and tailor we also forged a strong friendship. Cecilia’s kindness to those around her, strength of character and perseverance towards her goals only grew my desire to interview her. waned to share her story. It took some time but finally we were sitting in a small café in Birkenhead on a balmy Sunday afternoon.
Left to right: Cecilia as a baby with her father, Cecilia as a toddler.
Cecilia! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with me. I'm very honoured. Let’s start with who you are and your background.
CK: My name is Cecilia Kang, I’m a New Zealand based fashion designer, originally from South Korea. I am the first transexual New Zealand Fashion Week designer and ambassador and I also won Miss Queen Transexual New Zealand 2016.
SP: Wow, that's an impressive resume! Let’s go right back to the beginning; how did you get from a little Korean kid moving to Aotearoa to one of Auckland's most successful up and coming designers and Trans advocates?
CK: I came to NZ when I was ten years old with my Mother and Sister. I was struggling with my identity from a very young age - as long as I can remember actually. I always wanted to dress in female clothing. I was attracted to the vibrance, colourful, soft fabrics women wore. I loved flared skirts and mermaid gowns. I would dress up in these clothes, look in the mirror and I would feel happiest. Because this was around 8 years old, I wasn’t thinking about the gender. I didn’t understand why my parents would always tell me I couldn’t do things. Why I couldn’t wear things, I couldn't walk a certain way, I couldn’t put my hands a certain way. It was always so confusing to me.
There was also a difficult cultural aspect, which was a conservative middle class Korean family in the 90s.
PICTURED: CECILIA WINNING MISS QUEEN TRANSEXUAL NEW ZEALAND 2016, KANG'S DESIGNS AT NZFW18.
So when you were younger - your parents really wanted you to conform to what a young Korean boy should be?
Yes. Follow the rules, get in line. Stop being so feminine. I hated it because I just wanted to be myself, you know?
Was that strictness of culture why you moved to New Zealand?
Mostly, but at the same time because Korea and the world were becoming more globalised, it was top priority to learn English. My Mum decided NZ would provide a better environment for the family. She was very much into the idea of the ‘Kiwi dream’, nature, open/ less conservative. My mother wanted a better life for myself and sister. Because my father was a traditional, conservative Korean businessman she made the difficult decision to leave him and move us across the world to NZ.
What was it like when you moved here?
Amazing. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I remember thinking It was like a land of green. When you’re living in a big urban mega-city, surrounded by smoke and grey, it gets to you after a while. I felt caged in Korea. NZ felt like a paradise. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
What was it like being 10 years old, starting a new school, you don’t really speak the language, you’re already feeling different. Give us a snapshot of that time for you?
In the beginning, kids had a curiosity towards me and the way I carried myself. I was non-white and incredibly feminine. Then they started copying my gestures, my feminine hand movements - in a derogatory way, which broke my heart. I didn’t understand why I was so strange to them. I thought I was just being normal, being me.
What was being a teenager like?
I found it pretty difficult. I went to West Lake Boys. There was a lot of bullying.
So at this point, as a teen, were you out?
I always saw myself as a girl, I had long hair, wore a little bit of makeup. I was undercover, I never came out and said what I felt I was, but inside I always knew. I was cross-dressing as female on the weekends. I started getting involved in the LGBT+ community. I found a website gaynz.com and being on that site, talking to people like me, forums and events, really helped. I started to understand who I was. It gave me strength.The most common question I was asked by my peers was ‘Are you gay?’ I got this daily.
What did you say to this? How did you feel?
I would say "no, I am not". Or not answer at all.
Cecilia Kang by Robecca Leyden for Sans Pareil.
Because it was none of their business?
Exactly, and I was a woman. I was not a gay man, I was/am a straight woman. They are two very different things that a lot of people don’t seem to understand. So it was hard, I felt bad about myself. I left school at the end of 6th form and went back to Korea for 2 years. I had started cross-dressing as a teen in Auckland, but was able to fully explore this in the Korean nightlife LGBT+ scene.
What was being back in Korea like?
I got to spend a lot of time with my father, which was interesting. He didn’t understand.
That must have been difficult. Did you present yourself to him as yourself or were you expected to be a boy?
I was expected to be a boy. So I had to be very secretive about going out at night cross-dressing.
When I got back to NZ I felt a bit more at ease being myself. Even though I had gotten a lot of bullying in school, adults were a lot more accepting and understanding with who I was.
When did you start to transition?
I was around the age of 16. I started taking medical hormones. I was developing curves, breasts etc. Hormones are a big thing to go through. I had a lot of issues with them like reactions, feeling sick, skin allergies etc.
Did you have surgery/ plan to?
I haven’t had any surgery. Top or bottom. I just feel like you don’t have to have surgery to be a woman. Surgery is such a big process. It’s not that I am fully against it, it is on my mind, I just haven’t committed either way yet. I'm still getting to know myself, and she hasn't decided yet. I do look at my boobs and wish they were bigger sometimes.
*Laughs* Do you think I should get my boobs done?
What made you apply for Queen Transexual New Zealand?
The whole purpose was to raise awareness about our (trans) community, building friendships, and showing the wider community transexual talents and greatness. Showing that we, transexual women do have talents. We are a part of society and we are here to stay. There is a misconception that most transexual women are in sex work, totally fine if you are, but I wanted to show that there are many different facets to our community and so many of them don’t need to be sexualised.
You won, didn’t you?
I did! There was only a single point difference between myself and the runner up. I designed all my own gowns for the pageant and then through that I designed and made two Miss Universe NZ gowns. After which NZFW took notice and asked if I wanted to debut in their Emerging Couture Show, and then things really started taking off for me as a designer!
It’s very difficult for a lot of people to be so openly public about being transexual, often due to bullying and negative reactions. What gave you the strength to be so public? Especially being such a private person?
Growing up I didn’t have many friends, and fashion was always my best friend. I took comfort in it, so I wanted to be in it as much as possible, which just happened to be public. It’s always been important to me to be true to who I am and simply doing that is what got me a public profile.
And being incredibly talented!
If you’re being true to yourself, people will come to support you along the way. I've learnt that it's important to never hide your pain, and let others in to help you.
Last question! I wanted to end on a positive. To me, you’re inspirational. You’ve got a fantastic career as a couture fashion designer - such a difficult climb in itself; but you partner this with an openness that’s unapologetically yourself - which is also difficult. What would you like to say to anyone reading this that might be struggling with their identity?
If you have a dream don't give it up for anyone. Work hard. It’s not about the identity, male, female or whatever, it’s about the person you are. Be that person.
Whether you’re trans, gay, drag, cis gender - anything - there is always beauty. You will find people to appreciate you, just keep going.
Pictured: Cecilia Kang by Robecca Leyden for Sans Pareil.