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.

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