In a Glamour Magazine article on the topic, advertising expert Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai, Ph.D., explains, “Overall, the ‘Asian look’ in fashion and beauty advertising has been primarily used to signal something exotic and different.” This dynamic is discussed in depth in Suren Lavani’s paper, “Consuming the Exotic Other,” which explores how “the colonial representation of Otherness operates in a manner analogous to the psychoanalytic fetish.” And yet, the othering we see in media portrayals only scratches the surface of the anti-Asian racism that permeates other aspects of the fashion industry as well. In the following sections, we examine how this shows up in spaces of contemporary design, business, dress politics, and labor issues.
Design & Imagemaking
This exoticization of Asian clothing and culture also has implications for Asian fashion designers. Often, their perspectives on their own culture are not respected or deemed aspirational. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung recounts his experience after presenting a collection inspired by Mustang, a historic district in Nepal. A retail fashion director reacted dismissively, saying: “If I want to look at that collection, I can look at a History Channel. We don’t want anything cool from you. We want pretty.”
Essentially, Gurung was told that drawing upon his own cultural heritage was not ‘cool.’ In this simple encounter, it is clear that the Orientalist frameworks entrenched within the industry remain intact. In the interview, Gurung points out: “We have to really ask ourselves: Things we consider beautiful, things we consider chic, food we like, music we listen to, where is it coming from? It’s a very Eurocentric, colonial point of view, and we have to dismantle it.”
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Business & Retail
But the wider industry did not seem to respond with as much fervor. As described by Bryan Yambao (Bryanboy) in a Daily Beast article, “The response has been quite bleak, but it’s better than none.” In the same article, Clare Ngai, founder of emerging accessories brand BONBONWHIMS, expressed her disappointment in the industry’s broader response: “A lot of the big brands are in a position of power and resources where they could make a difference to help the AAPI community. It’s easy to put out a statement on Instagram saying you stand with the AAPI community, but then not do anything tangible. It’s very disappointing. These brands make a lot of money from our community, but they won’t stand with us. Brands aren’t standing up for us or doing what’s needed. Hate crimes against Asians weren’t even considered worth talking about until the shootings in Atlanta.”
Perhaps proving Ngai’s point, most fashion brands or retailers have not yet launched major activations or campaigns honoring AAPI Heritage Month. So far, Nordstrom has announced a one-time donation commitment, and Shopbop has hosted a single Instagram live conversation spotlighting Self-Portrait designer Han Chong. The beauty space has been more active: Sephora is using social media to highlight the AAPI-owned brands in their stores, while Ulta has launched one of the only holistic campaigns making a strong statement in support of the AAPI community.
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Explore the concept of “Racial Plagiarism,” which aims to “chart a path out of the stultifying binary oppositions of ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘cultural appreciation’”
Learn more about the cultural context around Susanna Lau and Bryan Yambao, who called attention to this issue.
In a practical application to the fashion industry, while there’s been a focus on the issues of anti-Asian racism that exist within the Western fashion system, the global nature of the industry is often forgotten. Most of our clothes are manufactured in Asia, and the fashion industry plays a key role in perpetuating those same “global circuits of racism, imperialism, and capitalism” outlined in Tseng-Putterman’s essay.
Unfortunately, we are seeing this play out in real time as India grapples with a devastating new wave in the pandemic. In a New York Times Fashion piece last week, Elizabeth C. Paton documents the “extreme distress” currently faced by karigars – the highly skilled Indian artisans who specialize in handicrafts like embroidery, beading and appliqué for couture and luxury labels like Dior and Gucci. And yet, these big brands have not offered their artisans any support during the crisis.
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