Monday, April 26, 2010

Being Asian in the fashion industry

(Photo Credit -- Sharon Shum)
That's right. That's me with some of my heroes in fashion, art, publishing, business, and entertainment: Joe Zee (Creative Director of ELLE), Carol Lim (CEO and Co-Founder of Opening Ceremony), Arabelle Sicardi (Blogger for Fashion Pirates), E.J. Samson (Online Editor of Teen Vogue), Humberto Leon (Creative Director and Co-Founder of Opening Ceremony), Ujjwala Raut (former face of YSL cosmetics and first Indian model to walk Victoria's Secret), Tina Chai (freelance stylist and a graduate of Columbia University), Phillip Lim (do I need to explain who he is?), Patrick Li (Creative Director of Li, Inc.), Aya T. Kanai (freelance stylist and former editor of Nylon and Teen Vogue), and SuChin Pak (MTV Correspondent).

All fantastic, articulate people -- and Asian American, to boot. I could barely sleep last night. I shook Phillip Lim's hand, Ujjwala Raut gave me a kiss, SuChin Pak gave me a hug, and I told Joe Zee that I stalk his Twitter obsessively.
In case you didn't know, I organized a panel discussion at Columbia University, "Asian Americans in the Fashion Industry," where some of the top figures in the fashion industry came together and spoke to the public about their experiences (tickets were $5 each and proceeds benefited the Tibetan Village Project to help victims of the Yushu earthquake in China). This was in partnership with Asian Pacific American Awareness Month and Hoot magazine, in which I serve as Arts Chair and Co-Editor in Chief, respectively.
(Photo Credit -- Anna Cooperberg)
The event was moderated by SuChin Pak, who is one of the coolest girls I have ever met. Not only did she rock that cashmere dress, but she has a talent for facilitating conversation. I mean, that's why she's a television personality, right? Needless to say, I now have a huge girl crush on her.
(Photo Credit -- Sharon Shum)
Anyway, the point of the panel discussion was to spread the idea that Asian Americans are succeeding in the fashion industry because they are talented -- not because they fulfill a special niche of "Asian Americans." We opened up the majority of the panel discussion to audience questions, since this is one of the few opportunities for us plebeians to talk to the fashion greats.

To my slight dismay, most of the questions from the audience members were along the lines of, "How do I become like you and can I please have an internship or job?" I sat on the aisles listening to students attempt to impress Joe Zee and Phillip Lim with a long list of Asian designers that they need and analysis of the fashion industry. I was expecting more questions along the lines of, "How has the fashion industry changed for the new crop of Asian American designers?" Maybe just because that's what I'm interested in, but I felt that we weren't able to go in-depth into the topics that we aimed to discuss because of the "How do I become like you and am I impressing you?" comments from the audience members.

However, I can't blame them. This is one of the few opportunities that these students have face-to-face with some of the most influential and successful figures in fashion, and I can understand why students brought their resumes and portfolios and asked "self-masturbatory" (not my words) questions. However, I've decided that in the future, I will be filtering questions beforehand. I would like to give some of the other panelists more time to talk too, instead of audience members repeatedly trying to impress Joe Zee and Phillip Lim.

Additionally, an issue that I wanted to address -- that Arabelle Sicardi already pointed out in her blog -- is that Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto are not Asian American designers. Someone in the audiences asked why there is a dearth of truly groundbreaking Asian designers like Miyake and Yomamoto and why Asian fashion is not thriving (for example, Takashimaya closing down in New York City).

Well, frankly, look at Phillip Lim, Richard Chai, Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, and Jason Wu -- they are well-known designers not because they design Asian fashion, but because they design well. As Phillip Lim said during the discussion, "You can't redesign the t-shirt," and there is nothing wrong with that (although I would say Alexander Wang's t-shirt line is his own take on the basic).

He went on to explain that so many students, coming out of Parsons and Central Saint Martins, think only of concept and forget about context. "Watch the master do his work," he said.

I do feel that a common misconception that people have is that if you're Asian or Hispanic or Black, you're expected to incorporate some of your "culture" into your work. Is that really necessary? We have great designers like Vivienne Tam to embrace the merger of East and West. We have great designers like Rei Kawakubo to push into the avant-garde. And we also have great designers like Phillip Lim who design for their clients. And there is nothing wrong with any of them. They're all achieved success for staying true to themselves.

To be successful, you need to be good at what you do, no matter what your ethnic background is. And if you're Asian, you're not obligated to bust out the dragons and lotus blossoms. Just look at the speakers from last night.

Miss Couturable

P.S. For more coverage, check out these articles from Columbia Daily Spectator,,, and genuine incongruity.

Also, thank you so much to all 300 of you who showed up! Expect more in the future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Invitation to Asian Americans in the Fashion Industry

I do not usually get this excited over campus fashion events -- and I may be biased because I'm organizing the event. Nevertheless, I have been working day and night for weeks on this event, and I would like to personally invite all of you, in the New York City area, to come.

Panel Discussion: Asian Americans in the Fashion Industry
Hosted by Columbia University's Asian Pacific American Awareness Month and Hoot Magazine

Sunday, April 25th, 2010
6:30pm - 8:30pm
Roone Arledge Cinema
Alfred J. Lerner Hall
Columbia University
2920 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Speakers include:
SuChin Pak, MTV Correspondent (Moderator)
Humberto Leon, Creative Director and Co-Founder of Opening Ceremony
Carol Lim, CEO and Co-Founder of Opening Ceremony
Joe Zee, Creative Director of ELLE & Stylist (newest confirmed panelist!)
Tina Chai, Stylist
Aya T. Kanai, Stylist
Phillip Lim, Fashion Designer
Patrick Li, Creative Director of Li, Inc
Ujjwala Raut, Model
EJ Samson, Online Editor of Teen Vogue
Arabelle Sicardi, Fashion Blogger of Fashion Pirates

Refreshments will be served.

Columbia University's Asian Pacific American Awareness Month and Columbia University's first and only fashion publication, Hoot Magazine (, is hosting a mega-panel discussion with top Asian American figures in the fashion industry in order to promote the education and discussion of fashion and careers in fashion. In accordance to this year's theme, "Deeper," we hope to dive deeper into exploring the different ways in which Asian Americans have made revolutionary contributions.

The limited number of tickets (only $5 each) can be reserved through the TIC box in Lerner Hall or online at You may also purchase your tickets and pick up your will-call tickets at the door, but please be aware that seating will not be guaranteed last-minute.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Tibetan Village Project to aid in relief for those devastated in the Yushu earthquake in China.

RSVP on Facebook and invite your friends here:

Please email for more information or press passes.

Basically, this is going to be a fun event, and you should all attend! And say hello to me if I'm not running frantically all over the building. You do not need to be Asian to come celebrate the achievements of people like Phillip Lim, Joe Zee, and SuChin Pak.

Miss Couturable

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Change of plans

Everyone and their mother (literally) has read the recent article from the New York Times, "Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say," by Steven Greenhouse. My fellow schoolmates, many of whom are unpaid interns in the fashion industry like me, and I have laughed about how our parents called us after reading the article, demanding that we seek compensation from our employers. The Ivy League student that "spent an unpaid three-month internship at a magazine packaging and shipping 20 or 40 apparel samples a day back to fashion houses that had provided them for photo shoot" was close to home for many of us.

It's funny because, well, none of us would dare ask our employers for compensation. The fashion industry is all about paying your dues, and the internship opportunities are more apprenticeship than internship -- your job is to make your boss' job easier. You definitely learn a lot and you learn to think for others.

"It's not enough to be booksmart. It's even more important to be able to do the smallest menial tasks with full competence," said my mother, when I was helping her sort files last summer.

The truth is, though, it can get expensive being an unpaid intern. When I was interning for Seventeen, the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent over $2,000 on summer housing, not including my budget for food and transportation.

This upcoming summer, I am interning for a fashion magazine in Beijing, China -- unpaid, too. My mother just called me to inform me that plane tickets will cost about $2,000, and that doesn't even include housing, transportation, and food in Beijing, one of the most expensive cities in China today.

"We support you, but this will be the last summer that you're allowed to do anything unpaid," she said.

Understandable. After all, I go to school in New York City and I can do all the unpaid internships that I want during the school year, without any additional financial burden on my parents.

Additionally, I understand how my parents feel -- my friends who are interning in the finance industry are making about $10,000 this summer. They have comparatively much less experience in the finance industry than I do in the fashion industry, but I am unpaid and will most likely always be unpaid as an intern.

The truth is, this system is not fair to students. Many students cannot intern at all because they cannot afford to -- because they're working part-time jobs to pay for college. However, for every intern who is unwilling or unable to work unpaid, there will be ten interns who are willing to. And it continues.

I've learned a lot in my internships, and I wholeheartedly believe in making sacrifices to achieve your dreams -- but my parents end up being the ones making the financial sacrifices. And that's not fair to them.

So, I don't know what I'm going to do about future internships. I am going to continue to intern during the next three school years, but I can't work full time in the summer after this upcoming summer anymore. Is this going to hinder my fashion magazine dreams? Will it appear that I am less dedicated?

Well, I think summers should be used to explore new things. So, this summer I am improving my Chinese, working at a Chinese fashion magazine (unpaid), and exploring China. Next summer? Perhaps I will put my business and analytical skills to work and try to get a consulting internship. Or try my hand at finance. During the school year, I will continue to intern in fashion and try to learn as much as I can.

So, Mum, there you have it. Hope this compromise appeases you. And while I was initially frustrated that this basically shuts me off from all the summer magazine internships in the city, this may just be an excuse for me to explore the world and learn even more things to complete my education.

Miss Couturable

P.S. What is the best internship you've ever had? And what was the best thing you've ever done for a summer?