By Alex Jung
Inconstancy, rather than a vice, has long been a strength of fashion. Empire waists, shoulder pads, and bubble skirts have all come in, out, and back again. Designers, too, fall in and out of favor with editors and the shopping elite who patronizes them. But lately, there has been a noticeable sea change, too strong to be a 15 seconds type of thing: Asian American designers.
The emerging designer award, known officially due to corporate sponsorship as the Swarovski Award (also formerly the Perry Ellis award) for women’s wear, is in many ways the most watched because it anoints the next “It” designer.
Notably, four of the past five winners have been Asian American. Since 2005 when Derek Lam won the award, an Asian American has won every year with the only blip coming in 2008 when the Mulleavy sisters, Kate and Laura, won for their line, Rodarte. Their competition? Alexander Wang and Thakoon Panichgul. Alexander Wang went on to win the following year. Poor Thakoon, though, is something of a Susan Lucci of the competition, having been an also-ran for four consecutive years. At least Michelle Obama loves him.
Cathy Horyn of the Times has forecasted the next fashion darlings: Alexander Wang, the 25-year old wunderkind who has already built a $25 million business (duh, Cathy); Prabal Gurung, an immigrant from Nepal who creates gorgeous curves on his clothes; and Joseph Altuzarra, a Swarthmore-educated designer. That mix alone represents the diversity of the Asian American community nicely: second generation, 1.5er, and hapa, respectively.
The cause is difficult to parse. The Wall Street Journal made multiple conjectures (lifting the quotas on Asian immigrants, the Asian immigrant mentality: the drive towards perfection must get A pluses, must be the best!) but the ability to acquire capital is clearly a deciding factor. If it’s one thing Asian immigrants are sticklers about, it’s amassing wealth. Phillip Lim, winner of the 2006 emerging designer award, got a business degree from Boston University at the behest of his parents. Doo-Ri Chung, the 2007 winner, got some seed money from her i-banking brother. Jason Wu, a 2009 nominee and another Michelle Obama-anointed designer, used family money.
Alexander Wang has made his business an entirely family affair. There are no external investors, just himself, his mother, brother and sister-in-law. Says Wang, “If we can keep one hundred percent of our ideas about how to grow the business, then why not?”
While I harbor my own skepticisms about this American Dream storyline (and fashion in general) my heart can’t help but puff up a little at the sight of Asian Americans, male and female, gay and presumably straight, recognized for their talent and innovation. And sometimes that alone is reason enough to celebrate.
Alex Jung is a frequent contributor to ColorLines. He most recently reviewed Glee.