Cooking

Sweet Disposition

Meet the former fashion designer dominating the candy world
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table
Maayan Zilberman

Join us on the catwalk this month as Fashion Week takes over NYC and discover where Food + Fashion meet.

For two weeks in September, in certain neighborhoods in Manhattan, from the muted dusk of sartorial discretion emerge Fashion Week’s peacocks. They are elaborately festooned and just really going for it. This display, much more so than the runway shows themselves or the desultory gatherings of beautiful people that pass for parties, is the heart of Fashion Week. It’s what Bill Cunningham and Helen Levitt and Leland Bobbé captured with their lenses. Weird personal joy.

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Most of the fashion lovers I see milling about Chelsea and up and down the West Side aren’t the lithe beautiful type who swan through life as carried on a gust of wind or an Uber VIP. They are young kids, many black and brown, wearing full-on leopard-print tracksuits, denims of various hues, hats with generous brims, some with ornate mustaches or baroque makeup and sometimes both. This is their week to emerge and to be excited. Whether or not they gain entry into the shows is immaterial. Anyway, the struggle for acceptance doesn’t stop until the Shangri-la of front row is reached. They are the sweetest thing about Fashion Week.

Second sweetest, perhaps. Over the river and across Flatbush Avenue, a candymaker also draws inspiration from the runway. In her stylish Park Slope apartment, Maayan Zilberman of Sweet Saba candy scrolls through photographs of runway looks from this week’s shows. “There’s always been a relationship between fashion and candy,” she says, “ever since the days of Marie Antoinette.” Zilberman knows this connection firsthand. The 36-year-old Canadian Israeli began her career as one half of The Lake & Stars, a luxury lingerie line she cofounded in 2007. She later continued her work in fashion as creative director for Frederick’s of Hollywood. Since last year, however, she’s devoted herself to mastering the fine art of candy making.

Much of Zilberman’s work revolves around candy in organic forms. From its revered place next to the kitchen counter next to vials of flavors like rosé, bacon, Champagne and mother’s milk, she produces a hardcover book from 1982 entitled Brazil: Paradise of Gemstones, by Jules Roger Sauer; “I got a lot of inspiration from this,” she says flipping through the pages. And sure enough, the crystals on those yellowed pages—tourmaline, amethyst, diamonds—are paler versions of the shimmering, glittering pieces she sells on her online shop.

But she doesn’t limit her creations to the natural. Pointing to a tray of freshly made and hand-painted candy, she says, “These are some things I thought a fashion editor might carry in her bag.” On the tray are a cassette tape labeled Runway, tubes of lipsticks, palettes of eye shadow, a score of two-toned Xanax that taste like strawberry and brightly colored candy tassels. “I’m seeing a lot of disco Navajo stuff on the runway,” she says, “so the tassels are a nod to that.”

As for the cassette tape, it’s a recurring motif in Zilberman’s creations. [NB: The cassette tape is a type of technology that was once used to listen to music.] It is an important object for Zilberman with almost fetishistic import. “When I was little, I had this dream that if I took all my mixtapes and buried them in the ground, they’d turn into candy.” It took a couple of decades, but she finally got her wish.

Zilberman’s career has three-way toggled between high art, fashion and food. She studied ceramics at SUNY, New Genres (!!) at the San Francisco Art Institute and Sculpture at SVAI—her drawings grace the walls of Park Slope’s Hugo & Sons—and even as The Lake & Stars grew, she baked on the side. She called her company WaveCake, after an obscure TV movie by Norman Lear, The Wave. Some of her cakes included a Malevich cross, made with chocolate cake and berry filling for her Russian friend’s birthday, and an Internet-famous fetus pie, made with cherry filling, for a baby shower. “The client asked for a sonogram listening to an iPod,” Zilberman says, “but the cherry filling bubbled over.” [The client ended up using an alternative cake.]

She has since left cake and turned to candy, perhaps an even more demanding technical endeavor. “Experts told me I was insane to try,” she says. Among her most formidable foes is moisture. “A candy thermometer and a dehumidifier are a candymaker’s most important tools,” she says. If her creations have too much moisture, they dim and dull. “Keeping the pieces shiny is incredibly important,” she says, “since that’s what allows the color to shine through.”

This afternoon, Zilberman is inspired by the looks of Alexander Wang, the small label Monse, Baja East, Christian Siriano’s couture collection and Adam Selman. “He is one of my favorites,” she says. “He made my Sweet Saba aprons. He always does a fun print that is kinda pervy. He took pictures from 1940s porn and traced them on screen.” Inspired, Zilberman hand-painted figures in flagrante delicto on her perfectly transparent panes of candy.

“I’ve also noticed a lot of floral watercolor treatments, like in Siriano’s dresses, and the heavy treatment of fabric, as in Monse’s collection.” So Zilberman used a modified jelly bean paint to create a similar effect. She’s recreated Alexander Wang’s crop-top sweatshirts and striking rose patterns. “Bright pops of red are definitely on trend this season,” she says.

These candies, which represent the highest, most aesthetically minded end of Zilberman’s output are part of her relentless search for ideas and ken for inspiration. For fashion is just one of many pools from which she draws her creativity. “I’m working on a collaboration with Eataly,” she says excitedly. “I’ve made a box of different types of pasta, all made out of candy.” She shows me a tray of shampoo bottles drying on a metal rack. “I do a lot of work with beauty companies, too, like La Mer and Kérastase.” And she is even planning a pop-up at Paris’s Le Bon Marché, the epicenter of shopping, for late October. “The whole time I was in fashion,” she says, “I wanted to be in Le Bon Marché. Now that I’m making candy, I finally am.” It’s a sweet ending at last.

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