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.

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Miss Couturable

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

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