Mar 23, 2021
journalist and original style blogger writes on Fashion’s Oft-Obscured “Bamboo Ceiling” for Vogue UK
“We need to look at the things we have suppressed,” writes journalist and original style blogger Susie Lau, as she reflects on East Asian representation in the fashion industry
In the wake of the murders in Atlanta last week of Hyun Jung Grant, Sun Cha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Ae Yue (yes, we should say their names), a tidal wave of visceral emotion has reverberated across AAPI (Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders) communities in the US and the Asian diaspora around the world. As we universally condemn these crimes, regram the resources and statistic slides, donate to funds, and rightly learn more about why the #StopAsianHate movement has come about, so too must we look within our own spheres of influence, at the race problems that exist under our noses.
A few weeks ago in Clubhouse, a group of Asian-American friends in fashion and I were trying to unpick the hidden issues of discrimination in the fashion industry. They are hard to divorce from the roots that have lead to the rise in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic. The issue is complex, layered and oftentimes contradictory.
Ostensibly, in the Western-lensed fashion world, East Asians have enjoyed an immense amount of success and visibility. Or more specifically, Asian-Americans have. More than a decade ago, the likes of Phillip Lim, Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung built sizeable businesses on contemporary luxury fashion not rooted in an “Asian” aesthetic. Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the founders of the store Opening Ceremony, later became the first Asian creative directors of the esteemed French house Kenzo, itself founded by a barrier-breaking Japanese designer. In the media, you have editors in chief in Michelle Lee at Allure magazine, and Eva Chen heading up the fashion division at Instagram. And in the influencer sphere, my own path as a 1.0 fashion blogger starting out in 2006 – with peers like Bryan Boy already on the scene – was followed by waves of Asian-American fashion influencers like Chriselle Lim and Aimee Song, who now have millions of followers collectively.
The most visible proof of representation, of course, is on the runway. Established supermodels like Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun, and the likes of He Cong and Yoon Young Bae are regularly seen on catwalks and in editorials, with new faces coming into the fold all the time.
And yet, whilst acknowledging that visible “success”, we also need to look at the things we have suppressed, because of the unspoken pressure to show gratitude for simply being allowed into an industry that embraces the appearance of inclusivity, but is still largely anchored on the idea of exclusivity. In our Clubhouse chat, former model and brand spokesperson Tao Okamoto described the feeling of being interchangeable with her other Asian peers at castings. Phillip Lim, despite his success as a designer, spoke of a “bamboo ceiling”, and being pitted against his Asian peers by largely white gatekeepers in the industry. “Being an Asian-American designer today still holds a confusing place in the fashion ecosystem,” Lim told me. “You are acceptable but not universally marketable.”
This interchangeability and invisibility also plays into the harmful appropriation of aesthetics by non-Asians. Just a year ago the girl group Little Mix collaborated with fast fashion brand Pretty Little Thing on an “Oriental” – itself a deeply offensive and loaded term – partywear collection that overlooked the cultural origins of their sexualised qipao dresses. The backlash was barely detectable. Time after time, clichéd tropes of niponism (the fetishisation of Japanese culture) such as geishas are routinely used as themes in editorials, thus eliminating other Asian cultures. The American comedian Ali Wong jokes in her Baby Cobra Netflix special that the Chinese and Japanese are often thought of as the “fancy” Asians, and Vietnamese and Filipinos the “jungle” Asians. In fashion, representation of Asian culture seems to be geared only towards the “fancy” Asians – the latter are entirely invisible.
Perhaps the most notable addition to the exhaustive list of tropes and stereotypes is the “crazy rich Asian”, expounded by the 2018 film and more recently the Netflix reality series Bling Empire. Whilst their populist representation of Asians in mainstream media is to be applauded, in fashion, it adds to the image of Asians being rabid shoppers and living extreme luxurious lives, which obviously is a wholly inaccurate reflection. According to a Bain & Company report from 2019, the spending power of the Chinese consumer both domestically and abroad accounts for more than RMB500 million – which is almost a third of the global luxury market and is set to grow further. China – or anyone who merely looks Chinese – becomes synonymous with consumerism. A walking sales commission. Or, to quote Clueless, “a ditz with a credit card”.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone into an office of a luxury fashion house to interview a designer and been asked if I’m looking for the flagship store. Or gone to a Bond Street store to attend a press day (previews of collections for fashion professionals), only to be told, “We’re closed. This event is for press only.” The trigger action is almost undetectable, but the cumulative effect is that you come away feeling like you don’t belong in your professional field, or that you’re lesser than your white peers. Our creative contribution can, at times, feel stifled by the appearance of looking like the “buying power”, which isn’t necessarily clout when you’re trying to forge your way in creative roles behind the scenes in fashion.
The model minority myth that is used to pit one minority against the other is closely linked to the docile stereotype that is particularly levied on Asian women in the professional world. That we’ll say nothing, won’t complain and will just put our heads down to work. Minimising. Invisibility. Quietness. These are the same words that crop up time and time again when talking about our ESEA/AAPI experiences in general and in fashion. A British-born Chinese fashion stylist, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me of haunting experiences in the industry. Of a magazine editor she once worked for, she said: “I had to be quiet and a wallflower so I wouldn’t upset her. I couldn’t wear something weird or wild – she would pick it apart. So I became nothing and asked for nothing. When anything came up about my culture, they wouldn’t really listen.”
Perhaps we were complicit in that process of wanting to assimilate, sacrificing our identity in the process. But I can already see a collective desire to speak up, encouraged by the #StopAsianHate movement.
Just as Black Lives Matter prompted a positive movement to amplify melanated voices, we, too, want our creative authorship in fashion to be seen and understood, and not brushed with a homogenous image. And now we can look to designers to take ownership of their culture and reshape those stereotypes in an outward way. Samuel Guì Yang is from Shenzhen but based in London, and uses the mandarin collar or facets of Chinese traditional dress in nuanced, modern ways. A Sai Ta, the British-born Vietnamese-Chinese designer, reclaims the language surrounding the humble Chinese takeaway with his hot wok tops and “spicy” aesthetic for his brand, Asai.
But in terms of representation at senior levels of fashion companies, as evidenced by a recent New York Times report which suggested that – after a wave of pledges to do better prompted by 2020’s examination of systemic racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd – very little progress has actually been made in the industry in terms of hiring Black people – in senior positions, on the board, and in the general workforce. The same fate is likely to befall ESEA/AAPI people wanting to enter fashion.
Just as fleeting black Instagram squares and performative allyship are not good enough, we all need to take these learnings on board. To listen and shift attitudes; identify and root out the unconscious biases in the industry. And also be bold enough to amplify our cultures on our own terms. That also extends to other minorities that are not represented in their countries – namely South Asians in the UK, or Latinx communities in the USA. We are just beginning to break the cycles. Permanent change will be harder to achieve. “Personally I feel my work in the industry has shifted from making beautiful clothes to making sure I am working in the grace of purpose,” said Lim. “Purposely aligning the values of who I am with what I create, in order to cement the narrative that true beauty is a purposeful one.”
Originally published in Vogue UK on Tuesday 23rd March 2021.