As fashion labels see increasing opportunities for sales growth in Asian countries they’re filling up runways with Asian models. Early reports from New York Fashion Week held earlier this month show a striking rise in the number of Asian models on the runway but insiders warn the industry is still very racist.

The unprecedented number of Asian models at New York Fashion week comes two-years after American Vogue forecasted the “new wave.” Despite the fact the magazine has never featured an Asian women on it’s cover in the 40-plus year plus history, it proclaimed Asian models are “redefining traditional concepts of beauty.”

Jenny Shimizu in a 2005 CK One commercial.

Asian models on runways isn’t anything new, Marie Helvin, born to an American GI father and a Japanese mother, walked the runways in the seventies. Jenny Shimizu was all over the place in in the 1990s. Most recently Liu Wen became the first Asian face of cosmetics giant Estée Lauder and also Victoria’s Secret first Asian Angel.

What’s news here is that now you can’t have fashion show without an Asian model.

“Five seasons ago, you would be hard pressed to find one show or one season, one complete season in New York, that used even one Asian girl. And now you just wouldn’t have a show without one. And we’re actually, you know, fighting over them,” casting director Andrew Weir told Reuters in a video interview.

Ray A. Smith, tallied up the numbers for the Wall Street Journal and echoes what New York runway casting directors are saying: “While it has been rare for designers to feature more than two Asian models in a show, several this year, including Michael Kors and Jason Wu, used three or more. Overall, at 10 major brands’ shows, there were 26 Asian models, eight more than those brands used in the previous New York Fashion Week in February.”

The rise of Asian models on runways comes just a few years after Asian designers started making international headlines and winning highly coveted recognition.

In September 2010, The New York Times proclaimed Asian designers “the future of fashion,” and if you look at the number of the highly regarded Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Emerging Talent Awards that have gone to Asian in the past few years, it’s true.

Asian designers have taken the award that anoints the next “it” designer since 2005, with the exception of 2008. The list of winners is below:

2012: Phillip Lim, Cambodian-American
2011: Prabal Gurung, Nepalese-American
2010: Jason Wu, Taiwanese Canadian and Alexander Wang, Taiwanese-American
2009: Alexander Wang, Taiwanese-American (Anna Sui also won a lifetime achievement award.
2007: Phillip Lim, Cambodian-American
2006: Doo-Ri Chung, Korean-American
2005: Derek Lam, Chinese-American (Vera Wang also won the womenswear award in 2005.)

Still some insiders worry that pervasive racism within the industry that still exist will be overlooked because of the success of Asian designers and models.

“What worries me is that the success of Asian American designers and models are becoming fashion’s alibi for its continued problems with race,” Minh-Ha Pham, assistant professor in Cornell University’s history of art and visual studies department told the Wall Street Journal this week. “It’s like the industry is saying, ‘How could we possibly be racist if we’re giving Jason Wu and Alexander Wang tons of awards?’”

Video from 2008 with Dominique Apollon, Ph.D., Research Director at the Applied Research Center addresses the post racial coverage after the election.

All of this may sound familiar to you if you were following post-2008-election coverage that labeled the country post racial when Barack Obama was elected president.

But recent fashion controversies show we’ve got a long way to go.

Most recently the California “surf brand” Hollister, which is owned by Abercrombie and Fitch, flew several male models to a store opening in Seoul, Korea only to have them mock the Korean customers. As first reported by the blog KoreaBang, some of the models were caught secretly flipping Korean customers the bird in snapshots, and, in the case of one model, uploading a picture of himself pulling a squint-eyed.

Thuy Linh Tu, associate professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, calls this a “schizophrenic” moment for fashion. “We’re seeing a moment of profound transition, where the industry knows where it needs to go and doesn’t know how, or won’t admit what it’ll take, to get there,” she told the WSJ. “They want to appeal to the Asian consumer, but they actually have quite a low opinion of that consumer — they know Asians buy brands but don’t believe that they really have a sense of style: ‘Oh, they just buy whatever’s in the magazines.’ Is it any wonder they’re making all these missteps when they have that kind of a perception of their consumer?”

Fashion Week in Paris and Milan come at the end of September and historically both cities are hosts to the biggest fashion houses and the whitest runway shows in the world. Keep your eyes open for Asian models there.

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