Originally published by The Spinoff
Esther Ng is the most successful New Zealand designer you've never heard of. Her label, Prix, has been seen on celebrities like Ariana Grande and Kylie Jenner, she has more than 150,000 Instagram followers and she's currently working from her bedroom.
On any regular weekday you'd likely find Esther Ng playing games on her PC. Streaming live on Twitch to thousands of fans, the 24-year-old comes across as approachable when she's not dissing brands you'll probably never be able to afford.
"Who the **** wears Kenzo?", she asks in a recent stream, a chatty four-hour video that begins with her unboxing a "life-sized" Pokemon, before browsing a sale on Canadian high-street retailer Ssense. She exists between stereotypical male gaming culture and the often elitist world of fashion, and is aware of the clashes between her passions.
In a world where the lines of fashion and gaming have barely met, Ng openly embraces both, and her brand Prix is a culmination of years of gaming and a passion for creating only things she would want to wear.
"It's very ingrained in everything I do, from my marketing to the models that I cast to design and colourways. It's one of our design pillars, or one of our main inspirations," she explains. Even the names of her clothes are pulled from gaming. "It's like an Easter egg – if you know, you know."
While the hyper-sexualised images of women in video games have come under fire, that's the inspiration for the Prix fit. "The way that women are portrayed in video games is how I want women to be portrayed when they wear Prix. Really independent and strong and hot. Perfect, basically."
From what she's heard, that vision is working. "I've had girls come up to me and say, 'When I go out in Prix I don't have to pay for anything', or 'When I go out in Prix I get so much dick'."
The brand isn't just successful in helping its wearers score. Ng says in its first year, Prix made $1m in turnover, and has grown in the two years since. At just 24 years old, her knack for business has been sharpened to a point, her degree in commerce proving useful in Prix's precipitous rise.
That entrepreneurial drive isn't new for Ng, though – it's something she's utilised since she was a kid growing up in Auckland. At just 13 Ng says she was making sometimes hundreds of dollars a week turning secondhand jeans into shorts with rips, studs and patches, a signature of Gen-Z adolescent fashion.
"I would bus to the Salvation Army after school and buy a whole bunch of jeans and cut them and then spend my whole week distressing them and ****, with the studs from Smoove. I was selling clothes for ages and flipping them for fun."
'I'm not the CEO boss bitch type'
Despite the focus on comfort, the young designer seems to have struck a chord with a certain brand of "it-girl" celebrity, boasting an outrageous list of customers including the Kardashians, Ariana Grande, Hailey Beiber and Sophia Richie. She denies that she fits in the same box.
"I'm like 'anti-it-girl'. My hair's not nice, I'm not skinny, I'm not, like, the CEO boss bitch type," she says. But with 159,000 Instagram followers and a list of celebrities wearing her label on their clothing, she may be more of an "it-girl" than she'll acknowledge.
Just a few days ago her 24th birthday was celebrated, like many have been this year, via an internet stream party. Joined by a handful of friends from all over the world, Ng hosted a chatty karaoke livestream for her Twitch supporters. Rapper Lil Yachty posted an Instagram story wishing her a happy birthday and megastar DJ and producer Diplo dropped into her comments on the photo she posted that same day.
But the world of celebrity doesn't faze her. After living in Los Angeles for a few years and moving in the same circles as these well-known stars, her perspective on fame dramatically changed.
"They're literally just people. Tom [Diplo] is super normal. In New Zealand it's weird because we're so disconnected but as soon as you're in the States, you see people at cafes or meet famous people and it's not a thing.
"Hilary Barry. I'd be starstruck if I met her… or Mike Hosking," she jokes.
As much as she may not want the attention, Ng has that combination of charisma, confidence and recognisable look that tends to be associated with celebrity. While everyone else out for dinner at Britomart's Ortolana restaurant looks dressed up for the occasion, Ng sits comfortably at a corner table in a pair of black sweatpants and a merino top.
She looks like someone who's trying to not be noticed, with a "celeb in disguise" quality that makes it hard not to look. She orders for the table the roast potatoes – "they're amazing" – and gives off none of the awkward young millennial cues when asking the waiter about the greens. Ng seems too confident for her age, knowing what she likes to a degree most seem not to realise until well after their 20s.
The contrast of wearing sweatpants in an upmarket restaurant doesn't bother Ng. In her eyes, the lines between high fashion and streetwear are blurring and she doesn't think people care any more about that distinction. When she designs for Prix, she's not trying to fit neatly into either of those boxes.
"Luxury doesn't excite people as much any more, and neither does streetwear. I'm interested to see where it goes because I don't really think I belong to either of them. People say [Prix] is a streetwear brand, but there are dresses you could wear out to dinner – it's not necessarily casual, but it's not necessarily dressy."
Zoe Walker Ahwa, founder of fashion website Ensemble, says Prix is a really interesting example of a new age for the fashion industry, where designers aren't so focused on the local market – because they don't have to be. She says it's interesting to see young designers like Ng go international from the start, and use social media as a tool for that growth.
"She looked overseas before she looked to New Zealand. A lot of the brands who are more established now, like Trelise [Cooper], they started out when PR was way more focused on traditional media and New Zealand. She made a conscious effort to focus on the US and to use Instagram as a platform to PR herself. She's part of this next generation of designers who are focused on international stores. They are a lot more outward-thinking."
While Prix doesn't compete price-wise with international fast-fashion brands, one of Ng's long-term goals is to help drive the fast-fashion industry out of business. She's adamant that selling a T-shirt for any less than $40 means someone's getting screwed, and says far too few people are aware of the real cost of their clothing.
"Greenwashing is so huge in the fashion industry and it's a scam. These initiatives don't come out of a place where people actually care about the Earth, it's just to get more buying power. If you really care about sustainability, you need to look into what your manufacturers are doing."
She wants consumers to be cautious about brands greenwashing – expressing ethical or environmental concerns for appearance without taking any of the necessary steps to reduce their footprint and treat their workers fairly. "If they really wanted to be more sustainable, they would halve their production size. It's so dumb. As soon as you stop ordering environmentally harmful fabric, they're going to stop making it, but that's just not happening, realistically."
Before Covid hit, Ng would travel to China regularly to check in at her factory and conduct quality checks. As a kid she learnt a lot about clothing and factory work from her parents, who manufactured socks and would take her on trips to their factory in China. She says a big reason why she chose the factory where Prix garments are made was that they allowed unscheduled visits.
"I go every three months and I don't tell them when I'm coming in so there's no ****. I walk in and check on my stuff and they let me just walk in, so I know that they're ethical. Because if they weren't they would make you schedule a time."
For the last few months, Ng has been working from home in Auckland, after cancelling plans to move to Milan due to the pandemic. She's got her sights set on expanding her brand, with a dream to start creating more gaming peripherals – keyboards and mice.
"I think that's where my interests really collide. I feel like clothes are fine and accessories are fine, but I don't see that being my whole life. I want Prix to be a lifestyle brand and then under that umbrella just make whatever I want."
Her intelligence and confidence are noted by Ng's friends as drivers behind the young designer's success, but close friend and Prix employee Ch'lita Collins says it's Ng's sense of humour and generosity that draw people to her.
"She has this real 'if I'm eating, you're eating too' mindset, she's super generous and she's only ever wanted the best for everyone around her. In New Zealand the whole tall poppy syndrome means nobody really wants you to do well and if they do, they don't want you to do better than them. Esther goes out of her way to help her friends – she gives a lot of her time."
If being liked is a currency in the social-media-driven world, Ng is rich. While her bikini photos and mirror selfies may not appeal to the generations who didn't grow up with an iPhone, it's the Gen Z fans she's trying to interest. For them, she embodies the "Insta baddie" aesthetic that's taking over from the thigh gaps and kale smoothies that were cool 10 years ago.
It's those Gen Z fans who are changing the fashion landscape around the world, and Ng is confident the same will happen in New Zealand, driving a change in the styles we typically see from our top designers. She's not worried about focusing her energy here for the time being.
At the moment, only 10 per cent of Prix customers are from New Zealand, and Ng thinks most of her international customers aren't aware the company was born here.
Walker Ahwa isn't surprised that Ng's sights aren't set on the New Zealand market. She says the local industry does need to assess its diversity if it wants designers like Ng to feel more welcome.
"I think there is a point about the lack of diversity within the industry, behind the scenes, which is definitely true in terms of designers, stylists and writers across the board. I think it's a valid point that people aren't having a conversation about yet, but in this younger generation that is changing a lot."
Despite Aotearoa being her home, and wanting to see more diversity in fashion here, Ng is not particularly concerned about being a part of the local scene. She's fine with Prix's current place in the international landscape and if that means New Zealand misses out on claiming her as our own, she couldn't care less.
"I love New Zealand, it's my home, but to be honest I don't care about the scene, I don't care about anything.
"New Zealand fashion doesn't interest me and I don't owe it anything."
For a 24-year-old who's created, designed, marketed and sold her brand to celebrities many pay hundreds of thousands for, why should she need to?