Asian Americans Claim Top Honours in Fashion Industry

For the first time ever, the winners of the American Fashion Awards' Top New Designers awards are all Asian Americans. From left to right: Jason Wu (women's wear), Richard Chai (men's wear), and Alexander Wang (accessories)

The New York Times reports today that the most prestigious awards given to new designers at last night’s American Fashion Awards (the fashion industry’s version of the Oscars) honoured — for the first time ever — three young Asian American designers. Jason Wu, who skyrocketed to prominence after Michelle Obama elected to wear his white gown at the president’s inauguration, won for women’s wear.

The dress that Michelle Obama wore to the inaugural ball was designed by Jason Wu.

Richard Chai has owned his own label since 2004. His recent Spring/Summer menswear collection is described as “combin[ing] those classic elements with a more contemporary flair, pairing nicely tailored garments with looser-fitting trousers in a nice juxtaposition of styles.”

Models for Richard Chai's 2010 Spring/Summer collection.

Alexander Wang, who is known for his preference for dark colours and masculine lines in his women’s wear, has the fashion world all astir after his “Coco bag” from last year was carried by Mary Kate Olsen and consequently sold out within hours of being available online.

I'm not one to own a bazillion bags, but even *I* want one.

Chai, Wang, and Wu are part of a trend of hot new Asian American fashion designers. I’ve noticed for awhile that Asian Americans are increasingly appearing on shows like Project Runway, and are often amongst the most creative and meticulous of the designers. The New York Times identifies this as part of a growing population of Asian American designers bucking the traditional model minority stereotype and pursuing careers in fashion.

Major design schools around the world have seen an influx of Asian-American and Asian-born students since the 1990s, partly through their own recruitment efforts in countries with rapidly developing fashion industries, like South Korea and Japan, and partly because of changing attitudes in those countries about fashion careers. At Parsons the New School for Design, roughly 70 percent of its international students enrolled in the school of fashion now come from Asia, according to school officials. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, 23 percent of the nearly 1,200 students now enrolled are either Asian or Asian-American.

“F.I.T. is a pretty diverse place, but this is the most obvious change we have seen,” said Joanne Arbuckle, the dean of its school of art and design. “It is remarkable when you compare it to many years ago. I don’t think we ever had these numbers of students from Asian countries or Asian-American students. And it is a growing population.”

The cultural changes that have enabled would-be designers to pursue their chosen careers have happened slowly. Ms. Sui told The International Herald Tribune in 2008 that designers of her generation were often asked by their families, “Why do you want to be a dressmaker when you could be a doctor?”

Mr. Wu said those pressures were still there as recently as a decade ago. “When I was applying to Parsons, my mother had never heard of it,” he said. “Now, everyone in the generation after me wants to go to Parsons. Fashion has become a more prominent career in the eyes of Asian parents.”

In part, says these Asian American designers, it’s because they grew up around clothing because their parents worked in or owned clothing manufacturing companies.

Many of today’s Asian-American designers say they experienced a similar evolution from the factory to the catwalk, since some of their parents and grandparents were once involved in the production of clothes.Mr. Lam, whose luxury ready-to-wear collections evoke a classically uptown ideal, is a designer of Chinese descent who came to New York by way of San Francisco. His grandparents owned a factory there producing bridal gowns. His father imported clothing from Hong Kong, but Mr. Lam said he wanted to pursue a more creative course and enrolled in Parsons, graduating in 1990. Before starting his label in 2002, he worked for Mr. Kors in New York.

“I grew up around clothes,” Mr. Lam said. “It was like a default. Fashion became one of the few outlets for Asian-Americans who wanted to put their name out there.”

In addition, Asia’s rising prominence as a fashion focal point has helped boost the careers of these Asian American designers. Not only is the industry more open-minded about supporting or promoting fresh Asian/Asian American faces, but these designers can also find success across the ocean in the Asian market.

To me, this is a wonderful example of affirmative action working to diversify an industry that has been historically dominated by Caucasian (and often male) designers. Design schools are actively recruiting minority students, and they have been rewarded with innovative talent — and not just tokenism. Notably, while all three Asian American designers have risen to the top of the industry, none of them would describe themselves as having a specifically “Asian American” point-of-view when it comes to their designs.  

Unlike the avant-garde work of Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake — Japanese designers who took Paris by storm in the 1980s — there is no discernible aesthetic connection among the designs of Asian-Americans. Alexander Wang’s street style looks nothing like Mr. Lam’s polished dresses, nor the colorful mash-up prints of Peter Som, who also consults on sportswear for Tommy Hilfiger. None would care to identify their styles as “Asian-American.”

This is an important point — minority artists (whether designers, writers, or filmmakers) need not be typecast based on their race or ethnicity. Each of these designers are Asian American, but even despite their shared demographics, they are a diverse group of talent. Just like designers of any other ethnicity, Asian Americans (and other minorities) are capable of pushing boundaries and developing a distinctive voice.

In short — in direct contrast to stereotypes that would claim otherwise — Asian Americans aren’t just a faceless, nameless mob of indistinct sameness. We are capable of being vibrant, creative, stylish, and unique — if only folks would get over their own prejudices of us as the drab, geeky model minority.

“There is this understanding that there is a group of Asian-American designers who are coming up in the world, and there is a sense of pride,” Mr. Lam said.

The Fight Begins Against Prop. 107

"WE CAN!"'s co-chairs, Javier Herrera and Delores Grayam discuss Proposition 107. That's my head in the foreground; I'm frantically writing notes.

Surrounded by colourful posters decrying the racism of Arizona’s latest slew of discriminatory and intolerant legislation (e.g. SB 1070), a group of seven community activists — whose backgrounds appear to transcend race, class and gender — animatedly discuss Proposition 107: a November ballot measure that proposes to amend Arizona’s state constitution to eliminate “discrimination” or “preferential treatment” based on race or gender in any of the state’s publicly-funded programs.

It’s the height of Arizona’s monsoon season, yet the volunteers for “WE CAN! The Equality and Opportunity Committe Opposing Prop. 107” have willingly eschewed air conditioning and swimming pools (standard fare for combating Arizona heat in the summer) this past Tuesday evening to gather in the cramped front room of their Southern Tucson office for their weekly meeting. Speaking above the constant whir of desk fans working over-time, these seven activists describe their motivations for opposing Proposition 107 to me.

“It’s important to show that Proposition 107 was brought to the state by the same people who brought SB 1070 and the ethnic studies ban,” says Delores Grayam, the group’s registered chairperson according to the Office of the Secretary of State. Grayam serves as the group’s co-chair and historian, having worked to oppose earlier efforts to ban affirmative action in Arizona. “We’re looking at a convergence of nativists and proponents of free enterprise, who see this as an opportunity to chase people of colour out of the state by a process of attrition and harassment.”

“Not a lot of people consider Proposition 200 [and other pieces of legislation, like SB 1070] as part of a strategized plan to capitalize on nativist hysteria for political gain. But, these things are intrinsically tied together, and intentionally so,” remarks Melanie Emerson, one of the group’s organizers.

Javier Herrera, the other co-chair of “WE CAN!”, suggests that Proposition 107 “will divide our communities instead of bringing them together.” Herrera argues that Governor Janet Napolitano’s appointment to the Department of Homeland Security left a political opening for right-wing activists to force-feed partisan legislation to Arizona voters. “[The sponsors of Proposition 107] went through the backdoor to turn Arizona into a testing ground for their mean-spirited bills. We’re trying to counteract this. [We want to] provide opportunities for everybody, so that everybody can have a piece of the American Dream.”

A poster displayed in "WE CAN!"'s office that voices opposition against Proposition 107

History demonstrates that failure to defeat Proposition 107 this November could have dire consequences. Recently, I wrote about how similar measure have already passed in California, Michigan, Washington and Nebraska; and I discussed how, in California, the ramifications Proposition 209 (their version of Proposition 107) have been profoundly negative to the state’s small business and educational communities. Here in Arizona, the members of “WE CAN!” worry that Proposition 107 could seriously disenfranchise Arizona’s minority residents.

“[This bill will] disconnect people of colour from the mainstream and roll back their opportunities,” says Grayam. “[Hispanics] in Arizona may become limited and left out from being leaders.” Herrera wonders about what Arizona will look like if Proposition 107 passes. “Are we going to have individuals [in this state] who can’t achieve?” 

Emerson chimes in, noting that what drew her to the fight against Proposition 107 was the bill’s potential effect on Arizona’s female voters, regardless of race. “Women have been the largest recipients of affirmative action. We have a responsibility to speak out against this.”

Proposition 107 is the brain-child of Ward Connerly’s deceptively-named American Civil Rights Initiative. For the past decade, ACRI has used their considerable wealth to ram anti-affirmative action policies down the throats of voters in several states. Here in Arizona, I reported how the ACRI — based in Sacramento, California — spent more than $600,000 to place proposition 107 on the ballot this November. Furthermore, though the election season has barely begun, ACRI has already spent another $30,000 of their out-of-state money to mobilize their misguided campaign here in Arizona. 

Honestly, when faced with the overwhelming funds that ACRI is pouring into Arizona, I felt as if the prognosis on Proposition 107 was grim. Ward Connerly was going to buy himself a vote this year; what could possibly be done to stop it?

Encouragingly, “WE CAN!” has a broad-based plan that combines efforts to obtain endorsements from Democratic elected officials and candidates, outreach to large- and small-business owners, and door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness amongst the average voter. Although the group still appears somewhat divided about exactly what their campaign’s message will be, two websites are already in the works: one that will provide information about Proposition 107 , and another (more broadly-focused site) that will invite bloggers to write about anti-Latino legislative efforts in Arizona. As for fundraising, the group plans to rely on small (and hopefully not-so-small) donations from in-state and out-of-state voters — basically anyone affected by Proposition 107.

“This is really a grassroots effort,” remarks Grayam, as she notes that the group has already received several donations from Arizonans and concerned citizens around the country.

From left to right: Emmett Alvarez (in charge of the group's outreach and messaging), Estevan Leon, and Renee Pacheco (both of whom are responsible for the group's artwork and online activities)

But, the members of “WE CAN!” insist that this isn’t just about defeating Proposition 107 in November. Citing their plans to register new voters and improve voter turnout, Maritza Broce discusses how the group can turn “WE CAN!” into a long-lived political outreach movement. “We’re going to focus on the electoral portion [of this fight],” she says. “But, we’re also going to try to build relationships that can carry forward past November.”

But, for now, their eyes are set on the election this fall, nor are “WE CAN!” the only group to begin mobilization efforts against Proposition 107.

AC NOW! To donate (time, money or manpower) to “WE CAN!”, swing by their office at 2111 S 6th Ave or feel free to attend their weekly meeting, every Tuesday at 5:30pm. You can also register your opposition to Proposition 107 by joining “WE CAN!”‘s Facebook group.

Cross-Posted: Blog for Arizona

Will Arizona Voters Roll Back Racial Progress with Prop. 107?

Ward Connerly and Fred Thompson -- two-thirds of a true axis of evil?

Here’s my latest post over at Yes, it’s also on Proposition 107.

Will Arizona Voters Roll Back Racial Progress with Prop. 107?

Following on the heels of its notorious anti-immigrant law, Arizona is again taking aim at its resident people of color — this time through a seemingly innocuous ballot initiative.

The proposal sounds like this: This state shall not grant preferential treatment to or discriminate against any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

How many of us might support such a statement if we were asked to vote for it? Most of us probably would — it’s a disarmingly simple statement that appeals to our common hopes for a race- and gender-equal society. It suggests a dream of a better America, where racism and sexism no longer exist.

Yet a single statement like this one is what has successfully institutionalized racism and discrimination in California. In 1996, voters in California passed a ballot proposition based on these ideas. Since then, black and Latino enrollment in state universities has dwindled. Minority- and female-owned small businesses are less successful. Training programs and scholarships focused at underrepresented minorities have been decimated. (For a full discussion of the impact of this ballot proposition in California, read this report.) Similar efforts have succeeded in drastically reducing opportunities for minorities and women in Michigan and Nebraska, as well.

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Affirmative Action Revisited

I saw this short post on Time’s Detroit Blog today: Still Getting It Wrong on Affirmative Action. In it, blogger Darrell Dawsey comments about the recent news that civil rights groups in Michigan have brought an appeals case challenging the constitutionality of a rcent ballot measure banning the practice of affirmative action in Michigan state schools

Dawsey doesn’t get into the constitutionality of affirmative action in his post; rather, he complains about the persistent perception of affirmative action as merely a “race thing”. Dawsey writes:

Yes, I think affirmative action is a palatable, if mild, remedy to the ongoing discrimination that women and people of color face in Michigan and around the country. But this take isn’t about cheering the court’s decision to hear the challenge to race preferences or even affirmative action itself, for that matter. Rather, it’s about the implications of the persistent, narrow belief that affirmative action is just a set of “racial preferences” — when the truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

No, I’m not saying that  blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans haven’t also benefited. (The University of Michigan, for instance, has 11 percent fewer minorities than in 2006, in part because affirmative action was outlawed.) But it’s the idea that these minorities, not white women, are disproportionately helped by affirmative action that inflames much of the opposition that we saw here three years ago.

I agree with Dawsey: affirmative action suffers a public relations problem. Affirmative action is frequently discussed in terms of race — both by proponents and opponents of the practice. Yet, the reality of affirmative action is far more nuanced: affirmative action not only is intended to benefit members of all underrepresented ethnic groups (Native Americans, and underrepresented Asians to name a few), but it also benefits applicants who come from other underrepresented backgrounds including class, gender, and faith.

The problem is the word “minority”, which in our society has become a codeword for “Black”. This is not only unfair, it is inaccurate: critics of “minority”-targeted initiatives present narrow-minded arguments that fail to accurately represent the full spectrum of people encompassed by the word “minority”. It paints reasonable and useful policies with a tinge of racial favoritism. And above all, it reinforces the notion of Blacks and Latinos as the bottom rung of our social hierarchy, rather than one of many underprivileged yet deserving minority groups.

That being said, I’m not sure that Dawsey gets it right with the point of his post. Dawsey argues that opponents of affirmative action, in colouring (pardon the pun) the debate as a “race thing”, are motivated by racial hatred in their opposition.

Many who voted against affirmative action had it in their heads that black people and other minorities were somehow getting something they didn’t “deserve” or were receiving “something for nothing.” Sure, some will howl that I’m wrong — that affirmative action opponents were driven solely by noble desires for “fairness” and “equality” — but I’m not. I’ve lived in Detroit much of my life. And I know well that even though many of us here consider it uncomfortable or impolite to discuss race when talking about why metro Detroit is what it is — and that includes its standing as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. —  intense racial hatred remains alive and well.

While racism is clearly alive and well in today’s America, I’m not sure what use there is in characterizing the majority of affirmative action’s detractors as seething racists. Clearly, there is a perception that underrepresented minorities are being accepted despite the appearance that they are “less qualified”, but I simply don’t believe that all or even most of affirmative action’s critics are primarily fueled by this misconception.

Affirmative action is a tough issue: neither side has a clear, moral (let alone legal) stance to advocate. Even proponents of affirmative action admit it is an imperfect (dare I say “band-aid”?) solution to a tough societal problem. To over-simplify the other side as racists does nothing to improve the quality of the debate on affirmative action, and turns the whole thing into finger-pointing and name-calling. 

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Anti-Asian Bias in College Admissions?: Part 1 – An improper comparison



This post is broken into two parts for the sake of length:

Since the implementation of affirmative action in the college admissions process, opponents of the policy have alleged anti-White and anti-Asian bias that reduces the chances of White and Asian high school students applying to elite colleges. Recently, a study conducted by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade (published in the book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life) presented data that appear to support this notion.

First of all, I should point out that the primary data Espenshade analyzed were collected in 1997. But, it’s likely that the trends that Espenshade report remain in effect, since there have been no major changes to the college admissions process nationwide since then, nor have we seen significant changes in student demographics.

The “Scary Graph”: what does it mean?

Espenshade shows that middle class Asian students have a reduced probability of being accepted into private universities compared to students of other races (I re-created the graph below from page 7 of this presentation of Espenshade’s data, eliminating upper- and lower- class students, but the trends are roughly the same).


This graph looks pretty alarming until you consider the following applicant demographics, compared to national demographic information:


What this graph is showing you is that while Asian Americans are roughly 4% of the U.S. population, we represent nearly a quarter of all applicants to the institutions studied by Espenshade. For some universities, this can reach as high as 1/3 — and many of these applicants boast high SAT scores and high school GPAs. Many of these students also come from higher-income families compared to Black and Latino applicants, and therefore have access to better educational opportunities to help improve their scores. In addition, Espenshade’s data show that, compared to other races, Asian American applicants appear to preferentially apply to private institutions, which causes an even more dramatic increase in our applicant number.

Basically, the admissions percentage is low for Asians is at least in part because so many college applicants are Asian/Asian American. You can think of it this way: if 50 White students, 25 Asian students and 5 Black students are accepted to a college, but there are 100 White applicants, 75 Asian applicants and 10 Black applicants, your probability of being accepted based on race is as follows: 50% for Whites and Blacks, and only 33% for Asians — even if the absolute number of acceptances are still higher.

And certainly, we must remember that Espenshade’s study does not consider non-numerical aspects of applicant portfolios; admissions boards often favour applicants who have acceptable scores but who have also demonstrated a diversity of talents or interests, including music, athleticism, or art.

But what can’t be denied from Espenshade’s data is this: if you’re an Asian American high school student, you are competing against a lot of other, highly-talented White, Black and Asian American applicants and you have a lower probability of being accepted based on race compared to applicants of other races.

But does this mean there’s “anti-Asian bias”?

Searching for “anti-Asian bias”: an improper comparison

I caution against coming to the conclusion that Asian Americans are patently discriminated against in the college admissions process. Instead, I think what we’re seeing is the flip side of affirmative action: affirmative action argues that, all other factors being equal, an applicant who is a member of an underrepresented minority (whether race-based or class-based) will be preferred over a similar candidate who is not of an underrepresented minority.

And Asian Americans are anything but underrepresented in higher education. This columnist pulled racial demographics at Ivy League institutions from and found that at all of these colleges, which practice affirmative action in their admissions processes, Asian/Asian Americans are over-represented compared to our national demographics:


Clearly, college admissions board aren’t outright refusing Asian American applicants based solely on race. In fact, even with affirmative action in place, Asian Americans are four times better represented at elite universities compared to our national population.

What this also means, however, is that because Asian Americans are so well represented in higher education, there is no racial “preference” for Asian/Asian American applicants based solely on race (Espenshade’s data shows high probability of acceptance for lower-class Asian Americans, which hints that less well-represented Asian ethnicities who also tend to come from lower-income families are still beneficiaries of affirmative action). Thus, we cannot compare the probability of acceptance rates for Asian Americans against those of underrepresented minorities; with affirmative action in place, those probabilities will — by definition –be higher for Black, Latino and Native American applicants. It’s not that we’re being biased against in affirmative action practices, it’s simply that we’re not benefiting from affirmative action — nor should well-represented Asian ethnicities be beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Nonetheless, this kind of comparison is tempting, because it is fueled by the entitlement complex that those who are not underrepresented minorities tend to feel. An Asian American applicant, who scores highly on his or her SAT test expects to be accepted, but, when they do not get in compared to a Black or Hispanic Non-White applicant who does, they feel as if life’s unfair. How often have applicants to college (or law school, or medical school) complained that “less qualified” minorities are skating through the admissions process on the back of affirmative action policies?

The bottom line is that underrepresented minorities are not skating through the admissions process. Universities will only accept applicants that meet a certain minimum standard for GPA and SAT — so no student, be they Black, White or Asian, accepted into college is actually unqualified. Moreover, the characterization of lower-scoring applicants who are accepted into college based, in part, on affirmative action relies on the assumption that SAT scores directly correlate with success in college life: yet, studies on the effectiveness by which SAT scores predict college success remain conflicted on whether the SATs are truly a good indicator that an applicant is “qualified” for college life. In addition, critics of the standardized tests argue that the SAT and other tests are culturally biased, and that higher-class applicants fare better in part because they can pay for test-taking prep classes that help them achieve a higher score. In other words, someone who scores a perfect score on the SATs may not actually be “better qualified” than another applicant who scores lower. Moreover, scoring highly on the SATs does not guarantee acceptance into top schools; schools nowadays emphasize breadth as well as depth, and seek out applicants who do well academically while pursuing diverse, non-academic interests.

Because of unequal opportunities that unfairly disadvantage Black and Non-White Hispanic students in college admissions, affirmative action seeks to improve representation of these minorities in each incoming student body, by preferentially choosing the underrepresented minority student when compared to a student of similar standing who is not underrepresented. As far as I can tell, this is one of the few ways affirmative action is put into practice, based on the ruling by the Supreme Court  that found explicit racial quotas unconstitutional.

Thus, because neither Whites nor Asians are underrepresented on the campuses of elite universities (and thus don’t benefit from affirmative action), comparing acceptance rates for Asians against beneficiaries of affirmative action is an erroneous comparison specifically designed to whip up anti-affirmative action sentiment. It ignores the fact that Asian Americans remain, even with affirmative action, well-represented on college campuses. It uses “Scary Graphs” (like the first one in this post) to raise hysteria and resentment between Asian/Asian Americans and other racial minorities, ignoring the fact that with affirmative action in place, we know those acceptance rates will not be the same.

Instead, to determine if there is any “anti-Asian bias” in the admissions process, we should really be comparing the acceptance rates of Asian/Asian Americans against the other “non-beneficiary” group: Whites.

Continue to Part 2: In support of affirmative action