Redefining and celebrating Asian Americans in fashion

An exhibit at the Museum at FIT weaves together a rich history celebrating Asian Americans in fashion, from the sewing table to the runway.

Celebrating Asian Americans in New York fashion: an exhibition

What is Asian American fashion?

Fashion is an expression of one’s cultural and social identity. Like the individuals creating and wearing the clothes, Asian American fashion is not monolithic. Instead, it represents a wide range of nuanced and layered cultural experiences.

“In the past, many Asian American designers have been incorrectly associated with only designing collections that showcase literal connections to their heritage,” said Zoe Taylor, a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City.

In their recent exhibit at the Museum at FIT, Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation, Taylor and her fellow graduate students challenged these conventional stereotypes. They cast a spotlight on the diverse community of Asian Americans and their contributions from sewing table to the runway.

Ruben Toledo, “The Tug of War Continues...” illustration in Paper Magazine , December 1997, loan from Adnan Ege Kutay Collection . Courtesy of Rubin Toledo - Celebrating Asian Americans in Fashion
Photo credit: Rubin Toledo, “The Tug of War Continues…” Illustration in Paper Magazine, December 1997

“Many Asian American designers reflect their identities in more subtle ways, demonstrating that there is no one aesthetic that represents vastly different individuals,” said Taylor.

The thoughtful collection of textiles, photos, and videos weaves together a rich history celebrating Asian Americans in fashion. Whether powering the garment industry or advocating for sustainable design, they have influenced the overall industry since the 1950s.

 “The exhibition demonstrates that Asian Americans have been a part of the industry for decades and will continue to contribute to American fashion,” said Maurizio Marrero, a co-curator and intern at the Museum at FIT.

See also: Claudia Li: Fashion and Asian representation on the runway

Combating discrimination and invisibility of Asian Americans

The upsurgence of anti-Asian racism have underscored the discrimination and invisibility that Asian Americans face across all sectors. This includes the fashion industry. Creating a space for celebration is a panacea for the negative narrative surrounding the Asian community.

Sophia Daniel, another student in the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice M.A. program at FIT, points to the model minority myth and systemic racism contributing to Asian Americans’ success and influence being overlooked. Despite their exceptional designs and innovative ideas, Asian American designers do not receive enough credit in the media.

Jean Yu lingerie set, Mary Ping canvas bag - celebrating Asian Americans in Fashion
Photo credit: The Museum at FIT. Left: Jean Yu, lingerie set, spring/summer 2005. Right: Mary Ping, bag, fall 2002.

Some notable examples of such innovation include Mary Ping and Jean Yu’s creations. They are avid advocates for sustainability through their works of art. Mary Ping, founder of “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” made waves with her statement on sustainability and minimalism with a canvas, Balenciaga motorcycle bag. On the other hand, Jean Yu elevated lingerie by handcrafting made-to-order pieces with care, practicing slow design while promoting longevity.

See also: Courtney Chew makes waves in the fashion industry

Shaping the history of labour laws

Other than contributing to high-end design, Asian American garment workers were instrumental in advocating for workers’ rights. They also shaped labour laws for decades to come. 

Harvey Wang, “Chinese Garment Workers,” photograph, circa 1983. Courtesy of Harvey Wang
Photo credit: Harvey Wang, “Chinese Garment Workers” photograph, circa 1983

In her 1991 collection, Yeohlee Teng, of Malaysian and of Chinese heritage, brought attention to the labour behind the clothes. She placed the name of the seamstress, Sue, on the label of a jacket.

Factory worker Yue Jin Wu’s production notebook from the 1990s also captures the exploitative labour practices that the workers endured. Not only does it document the demands of garment production, it also notes the unjust compensation, which was less than minimum wage.

“Most fashion exhibitions have not historically examined the [labour]-related aspects of the garment industry,” Daniel said.

“When people are working hard within their communities to make a difference for future generations, it is important to highlight those successful efforts.”

See also: Women of colour are leading the change in labour laws

Cultivating community and pride

By bringing a wide range of Asian representation to the forefront, the collection elicits a strong sense of cultural pride and identity. 

“As an Asian American myself I know how important proper representation is,” said Taylor, who also works as a Collections Project Assistant at The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). “Seeing someone that looks like you who has achieved success is extremely inspiring, especially when you are not used to seeing faces that look like your own.”

Celebrating Asian Americans in fashion also means embracing a variety of identities and experiences across all aspects of the industry. The team of student curators intentionally incorporated photographs of designers and garment workers throughout the exhibit. Thus, the Asian community can “see people like them in a place of respect and achievement.”

Asian Americans in Fashion Exhibit at FIT - Celebrating Asian Americans in Fashion
Photo credit: The Museum at FIT. A view in Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation exhibit

The exhibit also features show-stopper pieces by Linda Kinoshita and Thakoon Panichgul worn by prominent figures in the US. Actress Lisa Kirk wore the 1950s evening dress by Linda Kinoshita, which is also the oldest item in the collection. And Michelle Obama appeared at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in a multicolour printed dress by Thakoon Panichgul. These garments symbolize the depth of the designers’ influence and visibility on the national stage.

Thakoon Panichgul, dress, resort 2009, museum purchase, 2009.20.1 © The Museum at FIT - Celebrating Asian Americans in Fashion
Photo submitted. Thakoon Panichgul dress, resort 2009.

Calls against injustice for the future

Representation serves as a powerful tool against anti-Asian racism. Recently, household names like Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung have been using their voices and spheres of influence to call out injustices in the fashion industry. More and more, designers, stylists, and creatives are coming together to call for more inclusivity and diversity.

“The recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes has been a horrific tragedy that the Asian American community has been subjected to in the last few years,” said Taylor. “However, from this tragedy has emerged a sense of community that is stronger and more solidified than before.”

You can view all the pieces to the exhibit online, and see more of FIT’s current and upcoming exhibits here.

Featured photo credit: The Museum at FIT

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