This first week of AAPI Heritage Month, we focus our discussion on issues relating to Asian American culture and fashion. Over the last year, there has been a terrible spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Asian women have been especially affected – they are more than twice as likely as men to report experiencing a hate incident.
One of the most devastating recent attacks, the massacre of six Asian women in Atlanta, forced people to recognize the clear connection between these hate crimes and the racist fetishization and exoticization of Asian women in Western culture. Hollywood is often referenced for its key role in establishing these problematic tropes. But fashion has played a part too – from its complex historical entwinement with imperialism and Orientalism as seen in the works of designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, and John Galliano, to more recent examples, like Vogue’s 2017 ‘Geisha inspired’ editorial featuring Karlie Kloss or Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 ad campaign mocking Chinese culture. 

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.

Image of women at the Stop Asian Hate Rally in March 2021 in DC. They hold up signs, one reads #hateisavirus and the other reads Stop Asian Hate
“Stop Asian Hate” by Victoria Pickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Design & Imagemaking

When it comes to design, we often see racism manifest in the form of cultural appropriation. From the qipao to the kimono, the Áo Dài to the bindi, key elements of Asian cultures are constantly being appropriated and misrepresented. In an essay on the cheongsam published by The Fashion & Race Database, Alex Perry determines that one of “the problematic aspects of the West’s appropriation…[includes] the hyper-sexualization of the cheongsam.” 

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.”

Designer Prabal Gurung
“Prabal Gurung” by S Pakhrin is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Collage image of Phillip Lim next to an image of Clare Ngai
Left: Phillip Lim (Courtesy: Phillip Lim). Right: Clare Ngai (Image: Maegan Gindi)

Business & Retail

Following the spike in attacks over the past few months, Asian fashion industry leaders took action – speaking up, providing resources, sharing their experiences and perspectives, and coordinating donation efforts. Philip Lim helped organize the Running For Protest march and hosted a virtual community solidarity gathering, while more than 20 beauty industry leaders shared their experiences with racism in the industry on Byrdie

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.

A black and white image of Bryanboy
“Bryanboy” is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Dress Politics

In the midst of the #StopAsianHate movement in March, the fashion world had its own racism spotlighted on the part of Michel Gaubert, a DJ and longtime fixture of the industry who has worked with brands like Chanel, Dior, Valentino, and Fendi, was called out. Gaubert posted a video from a dinner party with guests donning offensive paper masks with slanted eye cut-outs and shouting, ‘Wuhan girls, wahoo!’ Although he quickly deleted the post and apologized, the incident went viral, drawing the ire of fashion influencers like Bryan Yambao (Bryanboy) and Susanna Lau (Susie Bubble), who condemned the masks as “patently racist.” As Diet Prada noted, “This is how centuries of imperialism and Orientalism manifests itself.”
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Labor Issues

While there has been much writing and discussion about intersecting issues of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in the context of domestic anti-Asian sentiment, there has not been as much exploration of how this relates to global dynamics. In an essay for Roar magazine, Mark Tseng-Putterman explores this “strange contradiction: the relative visibility of anti-Asian violence in the US has been accompanied by the quiet expansion of the US military footprint in Asia.” He reframes the context of these issues by considering international histories as well, accounting for events that took place on foreign soil, like the 1906 Moro Crater Massacre in the Philippines and the My Lai massacre of 1968. Tseng-Putterman argues that “to return imperialism to the frame is to…expose the inextricable global circuits of racism, imperialism and capitalism at the root of racial violence.”

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.

Image of a woman using an embroidery loom
Actions to Support:
For those interested in donating towards on-the-ground crisis efforts in India, this comprehensive document of mutual aid organizations is a great starting point.
Interested in learning more and supporting efforts to put an end to hate crimes against AAPI communities? Visit Stop AAPI Hate.