BY THESSALY LA FORCE April 13, 2020
IF THERE CAN be said to be a single group of people who have most effectively counteracted the monolithic idea of what it means to be Asian-American — a label that encompasses people with ancestry from countries in East Asia, the Pacific and South Asia — it might be the several dozen Asian-American designers who began to shape the fashion industry in New York beginning in the early ’80s. Their collective presence corrects at least some of the tokenism that has often defined the fashion world, where diversity can often be a one-dimensional gesture.
The very first Asian-American fashion designers were pioneers such as Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Vera Wang and Kimora Lee Simmons — women who launched their labels in a market dominated by Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs. Each had their own aesthetic: Sui with her peasant blouses and flouncy skirts; Tam with her updated takes on the traditional cheongsam; Simmons with her body-conscious velour tracksuits; and Wang, who built a new bridal vernacular with her clean, minimalist gowns. By the aughts, a new vanguard of Asian-American designers (here, we use the term to include both American citizens of Asian descent and Asians who work in America) were launching their own labels, including Phillip Lim, Richard Chai, Alexander Wang, Peter Som, Bibhu Mohapatra, Derek Lam and others. Their clothes shared no unifying aesthetic aside from being contemporary — a rebuke to the Orientalist belief that there is one particular Asian mode of expression. (Lim recalled early on being asked by reporters why he didn’t use dragons and red silk brocade in his designs.) Their arrival also added depth to the notion of who, exactly, could be an American fashion designer while also announcing a more organic age of inclusion — these designers, for example, made a point to cast Asian and other nonwhite models for their shows and campaigns. As they gained acclaim, their presence was bolstered by the success of more conceptual designers such as Jade Lai, Yeohlee Teng and Mary Ping. After the 2008 recession, many independent designers were unable to sustain themselves alongside luxury conglomerates. Still, those who have continued — Jason Wu, Joseph Altuzarra, Prabal Gurung, to name a few — have ushered in the next generation. Jin Kay, Dylan Cao and Huy Luong of the label Commission, which was created in 2018 and inspired by the stylish Vietnamese and Korean women of the late ’80s and ’90s, spent time at Lim’s and Gurung’s labels as well as at bigger European brands like Gucci. At around the same time, Peter Do, who used to work with Phoebe Philo at Celine, launched his own label in New York. There’s also now ’90s-grunge inspired designers such as Jenny Cheng, of Gauntlett Cheng, as well as Sandy Liang, whose label features raver-like cargo pants for the club kids of the Lower East Side, among many more.
The rise of these designers can be explained, in part, by the professionalization of fashion — the School of Fashion at Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan are incubators for talent (in 2010, The New York Times reported that roughly 70 percent of Parsons’s international students came from Asia; 23 percent of F.I.T.’s students were Asian or Asian-American). Their achievements have also helped Asian parents accept that fashion design can be a replicable pathway to success. And if many come from families with backgrounds in the garment industry, much like the Jewish-American designers who preceded them (the grandparents of Lam, who is of Chinese descent, owned a large bridal-gown factory in San Francisco; Lim’s mother, who emigrated from China, worked as a seamstress in Los Angeles), many also found their way into fashion through other arenas: Lim cites the music videos he used to watch on MTV as a teenager growing up in Southern California as being more of a direct influence on him than anything else. “I wanted to be part of that tribe,” he said.
BUT NONE OF this explicitly answers why so many Asian-Americans have gravitated toward fashion. Asian-American representation in the broader glamour industry — not only on the red carpets and in fashion shows but also in film and television — has been slow to come. There are still too few actors and models of Asian descent to accurately reflect the diversity of this country, one where Asian-Americans are approximately 6 percent of the population, according to the 2018 census. Whatever lingering resistance exists to seeing Asian-Americans speaks to a persistent invisibility — in part because Asian-Americans don’t neatly fit into the black-white racial dynamics of America, and also because our own history in this country is easily diminished or, worse, often left unacknowledged. The success of these designers is very hard won, as the funders, buyers and editors in fashion are still essentially the same as they were decades ago, and because building a brand takes years of dedication along with significant investment.
Perhaps one reason there are so many Asian-American designers is that fashion values the concept of presentation — design is a way to connect to the cultural values of craftsmanship and use of luxury materials so historically prevalent in East and South Asian countries. Perhaps, too, the stereotypes surrounding assimilation (especially the model minority) have made it easier for gatekeepers to accept and take risks on them (today, 48 of the more than 500 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America identify as Asian; by comparison, only 19 identify as black and 31 as Latinx). More commercially, the popularity of these American designers translates abroad, as brands such as Lim’s or Alexander Wang’s proved to be viable in not just the European markets but in China, South Korea and Japan as well, where consumer spending power has increased in the last two decades.
Finally, there’s also a less tangible factor, which is that the last half century of these designers’ work (as well as that of Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe and Issey Miyake) has aligned designers of Asian descent with the avant-garde. Asian invisibility may still persist, but these designers have become an indelible part of our collective consciousness when it comes to what we wear and how we choose to wear it. And that can only grow over time. Yet when you ask Gurung why there are so many Asian-American designers, he replies, “Are there, really?” There is always, he was pointedly saying, room for more.
Thessaly La Force is a features director at T Magazine. Renee Cox is a Jamaican-American artist. Her work focuses on feminist theory and black womanhood. Set design: Todd Knopke. Hair and makeup: Laura de Leon at Joe Management using Chanel Les Beiges. Hair and makeup for Prabal Gurung: Van Truong at MAC. Hair and makeup assistants: Robert Reyes and Anna Kurihara.