In a fashion landscape full of utilitarian basics and quiet luxury, Terrence Zhou is far more interested in dreaming up a dress that makes you look like an animé-meets-haute couture supervillain than riffing on the classics. “That's why I want to enter fashion; it's about fulfilling fantasies,” says the China-born and New York City-based fashion designer, over a video call.
The 27-year-old wunderkind has more than achieved his goal since the 2021 launch of his wildly imaginative and supremely exuberant label Bad Binch TongTong — a name that also conjures lively, if not provocative, energy. Zhou’s custom-built pieces, happily worn by A-listers around the world, help achieve his intentions through wondrously fantastical looks made for meme-ability. Kris Jenner and Lizzo have posed on glossy magazine covers in his sleek black octopus queen dress, which flares out into eight appendages at the hem. Comedy icon Jennifer Coolidge and Chinese supermodel Ming Xi both emoted in versions of Zhou’s plush, oversize bow-embellished gowns in spectacular international W Magazine spreads. (The former’s, directed by Everything Everywhere All at Once auteurs Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, features a vibrantly colorful sci-fi battle theme, complete with Power Rangers-esque nemeses.)
“I just simply love [Coolidge’s] personality, being brave and humorous at the same time,” says Zhou, who is still a bit starstruck from his fandom since childhood, and, recently, The White Lotus. “It’s just vibing so well with my pieces, [her] humorous heart.”
In her recent Cosmopolitan Pride Issue cover feature, Outer Banks star Madison Bailey continues the Bad Binch fashion reverie. She presents an orb, while seemingly floating on a circular platform on the ocean blue, wearing an acid green version of Bad Binch TongTong’s signature hoop dress — which you can actually purchase, in three colorways, online.
Indeed, Zhou's boundless, creative talents dovetail with his inherent business acumen and risk-taking instincts. He took an ambitious, if not unorthodox, two-pronged approach to building his brand from his living room. For the U.S. market, Zhou launched with his conceptual couture via social media. His animated balloon dresses, shot on the roof of his studio in Long Island City, immediately went viral — attracting the eyes of celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo and Camila Cabello. “People rarely associate couture and the online world together,” says Zhou. “But somehow it works for me.”
His much-publicized bespoke and customized pieces — oftentimes designed straight out of his dreams — also serve as a branding and marketing tool for his ready-to-wear. “A lot of people saw these covers and it probably left a very deep impression and then they have more curiosity about this brand,” says Zhou, who has noted spikes in his web traffic each time a celebrity wears his custom creations. “They dig in and are like, ‘Oh my God. He actually has ready-to-wear.”
Bad Binch TongTong’s ready-to-wear diverges aesthetically from couture with more functional but still fanciful pieces, like lace-paneled sports bras and yoga pants, a versatile, UFO-referential crop top, and a sculptural bubble-hem midi-dress. But, for ready-to-wear, Zhou put his main focus on the China market, where his factories are based. (The couture is made in New York City.)
After “randomly” holding a digital presentation to Chinese buyers in 2022, retailers immediately took notice. Now, his ready-to-wear is available in around 20 brick-and-mortar and online stores, including Machine-A in Shanghai (and London) and Net-a-Porter’s China platform. And, shoppers in China are buying, especially ones itching to celebrate like a Bad Binch post-lockdown. “People love going back to events and our dresses are actually perfect for events and for special moments,” says Zhou. “Most people buy our dresses for their birthday or their dates or anniversaries and all these special moments in their life.”
Stateside, fans can peruse the ready-to-wear on a pared-down e-commerce site. Zhou sees a Bad Binch retail expansion into the U.S. and Europe in the future but is first carefully honing logistics, including how to scale production in his China-based factories. “We need like a few seasons to be prepared and then to have this extra push to enter the [U.S.] market,” says Zhou.
Two years into launching both parts of his brand, and after growing his team to six, Zhou realized it was time to expand upon his “vision.” So, he made his New York Fashion Week debut for Spring 2023 with a contemporary dance extravaganza highlighting his spectrum of design. The runway ran the gamut of fantastical (gigantic velvet-cushion-y spiders, black blobs, and a brocade mermaid) to relatively practical: mesh-paneled biker shorts and crop tops, bubble ruffle accents, and pleated hoop dresses that then hit the brick-and-mortar and virtual racks.
Zhou credits his parents — especially his mother, an accountant for an architecture firm — for inspiring him to be a small business owner. “Because my parents always told me that running a business means that you're able to go on a platform that can make other people's lives better,” says Zhou, who first studied math and engineering at Indiana’s Wabash College before finishing his undergrad at Parsons in New York City, where he’s remained. He’s actually visiting his parents, in his hometown of Wuhan, China, for the first time in six years — and making it a working vacation.
Zhou’s been an entrepreneurial dreamer since his school days, when he referred to himself as a “bad b*tch” for constantly disrupting his unchallenging classes. Fortuitously, his teenage nickname became the genesis for his label’s moniker — also indicating his instinctive knack for marketing. “‘Bad Binch TongTong.’ Even if they never see the brand, or the products, people can immediately picture the personality of the founder or the creative director,” says Zhou. “It sounds funny and catchy.”
Surprisingly, for a two-year-old brand with prolific virality and celebrity placements, Zhou doesn’t retain a PR agency. Instead, he also plays publicist, marketer, and social media director in guiding his four bilingual assistants in New York City, and three staffers in China. The scrappy team discusses what they “feel passionate” about that day, and then will post in the distinctive Bad Binch voice.
“I usually tell my team: ‘Plant an acre of flowers. If the flowers are beautiful and planted well, the bees will come by themselves and you will get honey in there,’” says Zhou. So far, stylists and celebrity teams reach out to him.
Zhou takes the same organic approach for the influencers who help communicate his design vision and messaging: global entertainers and KOLs. (Key opinion leaders are influencers and brand ambassadors in China, who have more consumer impact than traditional marketing efforts.) “We mostly look at if we’re vibing; if their style can bring new perspectives to our clothes, and then, in the same way, if our clothes can bring a new perspective to [them],” says Zhou. “So that's a little different than a traditional PR agency just handing clothes directly to KOLs or who they find influential. We're gonna find people who have unique personalities and represent the new generation of cool girls.”
Zhou’s target influencer audience also transcends real-world boundaries into the metaverse. Last year he intrepidly entered the polarizing NFT space by dropping a trio of high-fashion and silver-armored mermaid tails. Zhou enjoys being curious and bold in the technology realm, crediting his analytical skills and mathematics studies for his fearless approach to new media. Who hasn’t mused of becoming Ariel at some point in their lives? Of course, that transformation is impossible, but, one can embody a mermaid through their avatar in the metaverse — which is where Zhou spotted the opportunity to push the boundaries through NFTs last year.
“Why not just design a dress that's exactly like a mermaid tail?” he says, with a slight shrug. “After the first week we launched, it completely sold out.” Zhou just released six more NFTs in the mermaid-inspired collection last week.
For his upcoming ready-to-wear collection, Zhou experimented with AI to develop outerwear. He casually rattles off how he entered prompts and scripts for functionality, and then sprinkled in his brand essence and current inspirations, like the 2014 movie Interstellar and The Little Mermaid. With another nonchalant shrug, he explains that solutions-driven AI “follows logic” in mining data to determine the most optimal color, functionalities, length, and other details desired by the consumer market at that moment.
“I tried a few concepts and was like, ‘Wait. Actually I liked it,’” he says. “If I were a customer, I would definitely buy it.”
Before M3GAN-esque sci-fi scenarios start creeping into your brain, Zhou explains that the full design process requires human intuition and curiosity to first ask the right questions. Not to mention, a person needs to bring the AI-generated design to life through realistic fabrications and functionalities.
“You just have to be good at describing things,” says Zhou, giving a stamp of approval on this next wave of collaborative design fueled by his inherent talent and true ingenuity. “So your AI can be your assistant, but doesn't mean that they will help you to create.”