Designers Share the Realities of Fashion and the AAPI Experience

Growing up Chinese American, Derek Lam didn’t think there were a lot of opportunities to express himself creatively. 

“I wanted to express my individuality as a person,” the designer and founder of Derek Lam 10 Crosby said during a Facebook Live event in partnership with WWD Thursday, “The Foundation, The Future and The Stories Between: Fashion and the AAPI Experience,” honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “Fashion was a place where I could be Chinese American and be myself and control how I wanted to be represented. So it gave me the platform to do that.”

Lam hopes, he said, that “more people can recognize [the role fashion plays] rather than just a red carpet moment or as a celebrity moment. That [fashion] really is an art. It’s a form of communication that’s very important.”

Of course, growing up Asian American came with its own unique caveats and not all of them were positive. 

“I did have some occasions where people said to me, ‘Well, you’re Asian American, but I don’t see that in your work,’” Lam said in a conversation with fellow Asian and Asian American designers Josie Natori and Andrew Kwon. “And your [feeling] is kind of like, ‘Well, I’m American. I have more in common with just being from San Francisco than actually being Asian. And my work doesn’t necessarily have to be Asian.’ Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Well, I’m representing myself.’”

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As Lam alluded to, the Asian American experience can be like straddling two worlds: not always being considered American in the West and, at times, not being seen as “Asian enough” in the East.

“So when someone says something like, ‘Your work doesn’t seem very Asian, or maybe you need to tap into more of an Asian aesthetic or persona,’ he said, “to me it’s not racism, but it’s just kind of no, you don’t really understand what I’m about.” 

For Natori, founder and chief executive officer of luxury innerwear and ready-to-wear brand The Natori Company, who hails from the Philippines, it has been about leaning into all that’s beautiful in the East. 

“Our defining characteristics are dragons and the kimono and I flaunt it,” said Natori, who came to the U.S. at age 17. “It has become our differentiating factor. It’s been a great asset for us. From far away you know [a garment] is Natori. And I’m very proud of it. I don’t hide under it. The culture of where I come from is just amazing. And to have it so accessible, you don’t have to wait or view it in a museum. You can just live in it — wear it. 

“Being Asian, even if you’re born here, that culture brings richness [to your designs],” she continued. “Because you’re bringing another perspective.”

The trio of designers shared their histories and experiences during Thursday’s video experience. And while all three come from very different backgrounds, some recurring themes played out across each narrative. 

Need for More Representation

Names like Vera Wang and Phillip Lim continue to surface in conversations about AAPI designers. But it’s hard not to notice that there are still so few Asian designers who can be considered household names. 

“There’s been progress,” Natori said. “I do believe there’s a lot more than when we started four decades ago. People say it’s not enough, but it’s getting there. [But] it should be faster than it is.”

And, as Lam added, it’s not just a matter of simply hiring Asians and Asian Americans, but it’s key to consider what roles they’ll play within each company. 

“I think that it’s so important that there’s more representation, diversity in seats that are powerful, that really are going to be heard and the work that they do is going to be activated,” he explained. “And you also don’t want to feel like you’re there just to fill a quota, just to fill a seat because someone said we need to check these things off and then that’s it, that seat is taken and then we’re no longer [hiring more diverse candidates]. We’re done. And then also it’s, like, I don’t want to just be a statistic for somebody.” 

Kwon, who is Korean American, and grew up in various places across the U.S., said seeing other Asian or Asian American designers inspires him to reach for his own dreams. 

“They’re paving the way for a lot of Asian Americans,” he said. “I can see that their dreams have come true. So it pushes me and inspires me to really go for my dreams and to achieve what they’ve achieved.” 

Eliminating the Model Minority Myth

Belonging to any group comes with its stereotypes and cognitive biases, and for many Asian Americans that means being labeled as the “model minority,” something that doesn’t always come with positive connotations. 

But, “No one wants to be typecast, especially someone who is creative,” Lam said. “You’re an individual.”

“Even for myself, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a model minority,’” Lam said. “You feel like someone is giving you a very nice title and badge to wear. But at the same time, maybe you’re not equal. You’re still being put in a place that is not at the same level as the majority. That’s what’s amazing about fashion: you don’t have to be stereotyped.”

Rise in AAPI Hate Crimes and Need for Activism

As Asian and Asian American hate crimes continue to rise across the nation, the designers all agreed it’s important for companies and brands to be part of the conversation. 

“This pandemic has caused so much craziness with people,” Natori said. “Because of the internet and social media, companies cannot help [taking a stand]. They are on the radar there. It’s a very important not just talking point but action point for a lot of companies. Not just lip service but doing something. The consumer is the king. He is really voting for the end use that you have to follow. In this kind of environment, the consumer has choices and if you’re not that kind of company, you will not be there. 

“For me, it’s exhausting to have too much of something. I hope the day will come where we don’t have this rhetoric,” she continued. “But on the other hand, like the women’s movement, I understand coming from the Philippines where I didn’t have those [social justice] issues I understand why it was in this country. And I think if the women didn’t do all that stuff which [at the time] I did not understand, because I come from another culture we wouldn’t have the progress that has been made. So I guess that’s what’s happening. It’s just a cycle now.” 

As a member of Gen X — the cohort after the Baby Boomers but before Millennials Lam said his generation’s response to not trusting big companies was to simply opt out of buying from them or engaging with them.  

“But it was a very passive aggressive way of protesting,” he said. “Now I think it’s a much more activist situation. That’s encouraging and brings a lot of people along for change.

For now, though, Lam lamented the current rise in hate crimes.

“It makes me reconsider what it means to be safe,” he said. “It’s understanding, Asian Americans are amongst the wealthiest in America, but also among the poorest. This disparity. You’re talking about a lot of people being attacked who are in that poverty level. And it’s heartbreaking.” 

Need to Educate Others About Asia and the Asian American Experience

Part of the beauty surrounding Asia and Asian cultures is the diversity in the region. But too many have lumped Asia and people of Asian heritage into one cohort.

“When people think of Asians they think it’s very monolithic,” Lam said. “But actually there’s so much diversity in the cultures, whether you’re talking about Zen Japanese or Imperial Chinese, or the beauty of Southeast Asia. There’s a lot of diversity that we can tap into. It drives peoples’ curiosity to look for differences within a culture and makes it kind of exciting.”

Kwon added that growing up in an Asian American household, openly discussing his experiences — and his differences — wasn’t always encouraged. 

“And if we did talk about it, it would only be to our community,” Kwon said. “I think that’s how a lot of Asian Americans are taught. To keep things to themselves, not really cause much fuss about it. 

“Sometimes it starts with the households and the parents really have to understand that there’s more than just a few countries in Asia, what’s OK and what’s not OK,” he continued. “Kids learn a lot from their parents. And to really get more people involved in it, it has to be taught in the school systems, too. And maybe even in the work environment. That has to be some type of lessons, maybe once a year or so. Something to really have people learn about other cultures and Asia.” 

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