Asian Americans and the fashion industry

A September 5 article in The New York Times offers an interesting take on the rise of Asian American fashion designers. Maybe it’s because I don’t have time to focus on what I’m wearing these days, or maybe it’s because I’m simply grateful that the sweater I am wearing is not stained with toddler snot or food. But when did Asian Americans suddenly become so prominent in the fashion industry? Obviously, I’m out of it. Besides Jason Wu, I haven’t heard of Richard Chai or Alexander Wang. And I never heard of Jay Nicolas Sario until recently, either.

But what is notable in this piece is that it situates the recent success of Asian American fashion designers within the labor history of Asian garment workers. It also highlights the parallels between early Jewish immigrants working in the garment industry and the subsequent rise of designers such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors. And if there ever was a model model minority, then it would be Jewish immigrants. The stereotypical narrative that describes putative Asian American success and assimilation often parallels the stereotypical narrative of Jewish immigration and assimilation.

I know it makes for a good story–children whose parents or grandparents once worked in sweatshops now designing high-end clothes. But in highlighting the success and gains of Asian Americans in the fashion industry, the story potentially rehearses the same upward-mobility-model-minority narrative we’ve heard many times over.

Moreover, there seems to be an undertone of anxiety regarding the large “waves” of fashion students coming from Asia to study at prestigious New York design schools.  As Gary Okihiro notes, the stereotype of the yellow peril and model minority are two sides of the same coin.  And in touting how some Asian Americans are “climbing the fashion industry ladder,” the implication is that there are even more from Asia who are poised to dominate the fashion industry. But in singling out the success of a select group of designers (and its example of Lam is hardly representative–his grandfather owned a bridal gown factory), the article also seems to suggest that sweatshop exploitation of Asians is a thing of the past.

Just once, I’d like to be surprised.

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