The growing success of Wu, whose perfectly tailored, ladylike dresses are now favored in Hollywood by stars such as Natalie Portman and Diane Kruger, marks a larger cultural trend: Asian-American designers are having their moment. And their rise, according to Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu (GSAS ’03), NYU assistant professor of social and cultural analysis and the author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke Univ. Press), is part of the story of immigration in New York City.
Perhaps the best evidence that these designers have reached the top of the field was made clear last summer at Lincoln Center, when the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) presented its annual awards. For the first time, Asian-Americans took the top three prizes for best new designers: Wu won for womenswear; Korean-American Richard Chai won for menswear with his grunge-meets-military style; and Chinese-American Alexander Wang—who has redefined downtown cool with slouchy knits and studded handbags—won for accessories. Tracey Lomrantz (GSAS ’05), contributing style editor at Glamour magazine and a graduate of the journalism master’s program at NYU, says the importance of that night cannot be overstated. “People call the CFDA awards the Oscars of fashion,” she says. “They have the ability to make or break a designer’s career, and for Asian-Americans to sweep the awards was huge.”
Their growing prominence is not limited to high-end fashion. In the past few years, a number of Asian-American designers have created lower-priced, limited-edition collections for mass-market retailers. Thakoon Panichgul, a Thai-American designer known for distinctive, colorful prints, and Chai both released widely popular, diffusion clothing lines for Target, while Wang, Panichgul, designer Phillip Lim (a Cambodian-American of Chinese ancestry), and Doo-Ri Chung (a Korean-American designer) created limited-edition clothes for the Gap.
This success, according to Tu, follows an historic pattern. “Fashion grows out of processes of immigration and labor,” she says. “The first set of people who worked in the garment district were Jewish immigrants, and then we had a generation of Jewish designers,” she adds, noting the prominence of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, and Marc Jacobs in the 1980s. Tu attributes this current rise in Asian designers to the Immigration Act of 1965. At that time, laborer positions in the garment district were filled by a wave of new immigrants from Asia, she says. And now, a generation or two later, the figurative heirs of those workers are behind the designs that others will stitch.
A significant influence on this cohort, Tu notes, were Japanese designers Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto, who took Paris runways and the fashion world by storm in the 1980s with avant-garde, deconstructed clothing that some journalists called “anti-fashion.” In addition to their aesthetic importance, the assistant professor adds, they “introduced the idea that there could be such a thing as an Asian designer. It wasn’t even a concept that we had floating around until then.”
This Asian-American moment is no passing trend. Glamour’s Lomrantz notes that several of the young designers, particularly Wu and Wang, have already shown signs of longevity. “Of course it’s fashion, so there are always going to be casualties, and not every one of these designers is going to be a long-term success story,” she says. “But just as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein have all evolved into real powerhouses, I think this group of young Asian-Americans has the same potential. It’s the classic American success story.”
“Just as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein have all evolved into real powerhouses, this group has the same potential,” editor Tracey Lomrantz says.