By Jeff Yang
Model Liu Wen, left, attends Fashion’s Night Out at Calvin Klein Boutique on September 6, 2012 in New York City.
New York Fashion Week is over, the glamazons and fashionistas who fab up drab midtown have moved along to the next stage of their annual transnational migration, and Gotham can finally breathe easy and let its collective gut go slack.
From all reports, it was a pretty good show — and one that seemed to underscore the growing globalization and multiculturalism of the rag trade. The new-jack generation of Asian-heritage designers like Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and reigning runway king Alexander Wang grabbed both headlines and celeb attention away from the Euro-American old guard; meanwhile, the catwalks showed more color than ever before, with Asian models leading the diverse pack, as Ray A. Smith reported for the Journal on Friday: “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.”
As Smith also noted, the rise of Asian designers and faces tracks the emergence of Asian markets as the world’s most lucrative markets for luxury goods and aspirational brands — with over half of all global luxury purchases now being made by the status-hungry new consumers of China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.
And yet, even as the industry celebrated the continued “rise of the Asian American designer” (as proclaimed in 2010 by the New York Times, and repeated faithfully every year since) and the concurrent “rise of the Asian American supermodel” (as proclaimed in 2010 by Vogue), and repeated faithfully every year since), it’s clear that fashion hasn’t quite resolved its endemic racial issues.
“What worries me is that the success of Asian American designers and models are becoming fashion’s alibi for its continued problems with race,” says Minh-Ha Pham, assistant professor in Cornell University’s history of art and visual studies department and curator of the online multicultural style history archive “Of Another Fashion.” “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?’”
A few recent incidents occurring away from the bright lights of the Bryant Park tents provide apt answers to that question.
On August 30, California surf-fetish apparel brand Hollister Co. continued its Asia expansion with a flagship store in the IFC Mall in Seoul, Korea. To promote its grand opening, the company flew in a quartet of American male models to serve as living embodiments of the brand’s sexy-lifeguard essence, showcasing the chain’s clothing (well, the pants, anyway) and posing for portraits with fans.
Sadly, as first reported by the blog KoreaBang, several took the opportunity to insult the very Asian consumers they were supposed to be welcoming — secretly flipping them the bird in snapshots, and, in the case of one model, uploading a picture of himself pulling a squint-eyed, bucktoothed face while waving peace symbols, the latter being a gesture often sported by Asian girls in photographs. When a friend commented on the male model’s Twitter feed that it was “impressive” that a number of Asians had favorited the offensive image, the model responded by saying “Hahahaha they ruhhvvvv itttt!!!!” — a remark invoking cliche depictions of Asian accents.
As the negative PR mounted, the models in question were ousted, and Hollister issued a hasty apology: “Hollister….value(s) diversity and inclusion. In a recent incident in South Korea, a couple of associates did not adhere to these values. As a company, we do not tolerate inappropriate or offensive behavior. We terminated the associates involved as a result of their actions. On behalf of our more than 80,000 employees around the world who cherish our core values and our culture of diversity and inclusion, we sincerely apologize for the offense caused by these unauthorized, ill-considered actions.”
But the damage to the brand has been done. Korean netizens have continued to call for boycotts and protests, while here in the U.S., Asian Americans have drawn uneasy parallels to an earlier incident associated with Hollister’s parent company Abercrombie Fitch , which in 2002 raised hackles with a line of t-shirts featuring cartoon caricatures of Asians with slogans like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White.”
A similar embrace of stereotypical imagery caused a flap in another wing of the global mall, when ladies’ undergarment giant Victoria’s Secret drew flak in August with its latest lingerie line, “Go East,” whose tagline promised women the ability to “indulge in touches of eastern delight with lingerie inspired by the exquisite beauty of secret Japanese gardens.” Putting an exclamation point on the collection’s hanamachi fantasies: A “Sexy Little Geisha” mesh teddy featuring “flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals,” accessorized with a miniature fan and a kimono-esque obi sash.
Mimi Nguyen, associate professor of women’s and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign and cofounder with Minh-Ha Pham of the Threadbared fashion blog, flags the collection as a set of “stereotypical images that use racist transgression to create an exotic edge,” pointing out that all of the models wearing the Go East lingerie are non-Asian. “Asians can’t wear things like the ‘sexy little geisha’ outfit without looking ridiculous,” she says. “But it’s a way for white women to borrow a racially exotic edge for a moment’s play.” Or, as, Phil Yu, the inimitable voice behind the AngryAsianMan.com blog, puts it even more simply: “Hooray for exotic orientalist b——-.”
Following this uproar, Victoria’s Secret promptly yanked the Sexy Little Geisha outfit, and then obscured access to the whole Go East collection, with publicists now saying that the line has “sold out,” an assertion belied by the fact that the items have been purged from the website’s very database: Searches for “Geisha” or “Go East” now come up as errors. (Though no longer accessible directly, the line can still be seen, sans sexy geisha outfit, at this link.)
Hollister and Victoria’s Secret have a number of things in common. Both brands represent the wide end of the fashion funnel. They’re two of the biggest and fastest-growing mass-market apparel firms in the world, with Hollister generating $2.02 billion in annual sales (far outstripping its parent AF), and Victoria’s Secret pulling in over $6.12 billion, making it the retail beauty conglomerate Limited Brands ’ single biggest source of revenues.
And yes, both chains celebrate a physical and social ideal that is overwhelmingly and anachronistically white. Opening a Hollister catalog reveals page after page of toned and sculpted Caucasian models; the occasional light-skinned African American afterthought doesn’t change the sense of having tumbled into a parallel Southern California that’s missing over 60% of its real-world population. In a similar vein, Victoria’s Secret has boasted very few Asian models in its 35-year existence, and only one, China’s Liu Wen, has walked the runway as part of their official “Angels” supermodel team. (V.S. has featured a number of blond Latin American models.)
On the one hand, Hollister and Victoria’s Secret are openly banking their futures on their ability to export their norms of beauty and aspirational youth beyond America’s borders. On the other, there’s the basic fact that these norms are in stark — some might even say contemptuous — contrast to those found in much of the rest of the world, including brand-hungry Asia.
Hollister didn’t hire local models for its Seoul opening, or even ship Asian Americans to Seoul: It chose to export a four-pack of American male models overseas instead. The decision by Victoria’s Secret to pick Liu Wen as its first Asian Angel seems more motivated by her rising fame (she’s now number five on Model.com’s global list of top models, the first Asian to ever rank that high) than how well she fits their brand aesthetic; her lean and slender build seems jarringly out of place amidst the uniformly voluptuous V.S. girls.
“It quite boggles my mind that these brands are so clearly evoking a very particular white sensibility in appealing to Asians, in the U.S. and in other places,” says Thuy Linh Tu, associate professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU and director of the school’s American Studies program. “You want to think that it’s an aggressive assertion of white American middle-class dominance, but I actually read it as the opposite — that the decision to use this kind of imagery is the result of anxiety over the decline of that era.”
Tu is the author of “The Beautiful Generation,” a book that brilliantly explores the ascent of fashion’s Asian/American young guns and anchors their success in how they’ve made resourceful use of their connections to the bottom of fashion’s pyramid — the cutters and sewers who assemble the clothes imagined in couture’s luxe halls. “There’s a racial capitalism in this industry,” says Tu. “If you look at the pyramid of fashion production, the lowest paid on the bottom are a certain color, and they’re the majority of the industry’s workers. Meanwhile, the small number of people at the very tip are another color.”
But many designers of Asian heritage have been able to use shared language, family connections or other ties to garment workers to their advantage, sourcing better-quality work or implementing innovative designs at a lower cost. Their links to the bottom have ironically allowed them to compete effectively as they’ve risen toward the top.
Tu points out that those at the fashion’s apex aren’t designers, however; they’re the top buyers and owners of global retailers, who ultimately control what consumers have access to purchase. “And regardless of how successful Asian designers have been, the people in those positions are still white,” says Tu — like AF CEO Mike Jeffries, Victoria’s Secret CEO Lori Greeley and Limited Brands founder and CEO Leslie Wexner. This isn’t to say that any of those individuals are racist. But not having people of color at fashion’s highest level can certainly mean that racially and culturally insensitive decisions could be less likely to be caught before they hit the marketplace.
The stakes at risk in such choices are becoming greater than ever. “The fashion industry’s growth isn’t coming from the U.S. and Europe anymore,” says Tu. “That’s why so many are trying so desperately to set up their presence in the next great consumer markets of Asia. And not just Korea or China — I was in Vietnam this summer, and there are giant malls going up with flagship stores for Givenchy, Chanel, Marc Jacobs. Everyone is saying, ‘This is the next next market.’”
Minh-Ha Pham concurs. “The fashion industry is in the throes of recognizing that their new consumer is not the white middle class — it’s multiracial, it’s international, it’s transcultural,” she says. “They’re beginning to sense that they have to court a whole new set of tastemakers to reach these markets. But they’re not ready to go there yet. They’re still stuck a few decades in the past.”
Tu calls it 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 says. “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?”
In short, that Hollister model who posed for pictures with Asian customers while secretly giving them the finger may have been more symbolic than he realized.
Janet Liang, RIP; “170 in 7” bone marrow registration drive
Before jumping into the Index, I’d like to take a minute to note the sad passing of Janet Liang, a 25-year-old UCLA grad and advocate for Asian American bone marrow registration who lost her battle last week with leukemia after running out of time and failing to find a perfectly matched marrow donation. This is one area of science where race absolutely matters: The likelihood of marker matches rises exponentially with donors of your own ethnicity. A group of prominent Asian American blogs is hosting “170 in 7,” a weeklong online awareness drive in her honor. It’s too late for Janet, but there are many leukemia patients — like two-year-old Jeremy Kong — who are still looking for a match. Click on the following link to Be the Match in order to request a free, do-it-yourself cheek swab kit to register as a potential donor. And spread the word.
The Tao Jones Index
Must-click quick-hits from across Asia and Asian America
The Real Bodies Manifesto: Fashion’s problems don’t begin and end with race. There’s the unpleasant fact that mannequins who adorn runways and clothing ads don’t exactly resemble, you know, actual humans. Check out this body-affirming alternative lookbook, courtesy of Retrofit Republic and the blog Thick Dumpling Skin.
First Sister Maya Soetero-Ng was kind enough to share what it was like backstage during her brother’s big speech last week: And apparently, the President is a killer Scrabble player.
Jeremy Lin Update: Even after a new multi-million dollar contract, he’s still trying to sleep on his teammates’ couches. (We don’t waste time or money, yo.)
I can haz Pinyin humor?: I’m taking Chinese classes, because it’s embarrassingly hypocritical to speak at a third-grade level while I send my kids off to Saturday morning lessons. While reviewing my Pinyin, I ended up doodling this cartoon. Mandarin 101 jokes, yes!
And because there’s never enough Gangnam Style: Korean American dancer/choreographer Mike Song taught his Moms the Psy swag dance, and the results are…awesome.