As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month came to a close in the U.S., WWD commemorated the impact of AAPI designers with an interview with fashion designers Josie Natori, Derek Lam, and emerging talent Andrew Kwon.
The three designers reflected on their evolutions within the industry, as well as their influences, challenges, and hopes for the future.
Natori noted that her four-decade-plus career in the industry began largely by accident. The designer had never intended to launch the eponymous line of lingerie and sleepwear that now graces shelves at department stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. However, after spending nine years in investment banking, she was craving a pursuit that would allow her to showcase her creative side while honing her business skills.
When buyers began to take interest in her makeshift line of women’s intimates, one insisted that the collection needed to be branded, and that it should be named after the designer herself. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” the Filipina designer said of her thinking at the time. But the move paid off, and the upscale line of lingerie has become a household name. In 2018, Forbes named Natori one of the 50 wealthiest Filipino citizens with a net worth of $150 million.
“I honestly I am excited to see the number of Asian designers that have emerged,” Natori said, noting that industry stalwarts like Vera Wang have paved the way for young Asian creatives to gain traction and recognition. “Today, the entry to this industry is tougher in one some ways,” she conceded, due to the influx of talent from all walks of life. But the rise of the internet and digital platforms has also created new ways to do business. “It’s a very, very different world,” she added.
While Lam noted that there are—and have been—many Asian designers at the heart of the industry, he noted that few have enjoyed fame or notoriety in their own right, operating largely behind the scenes instead. “We never really highlighted the individual as the creator,” he said. “There are many Asian designers, but not necessarily the format of how the West thinks of fashion designer.”
Lam never thought of himself as having been disadvantaged by his race in his quest to break into the industry, however. “Maybe it was timing and wanting to represent myself not only as an individual, but as an Asian American, in a very public way,” he said.
“We don’t always present our personal culture as the signature for what we create,” he added, noting that the advancement of Asian representation in fashion shouldn’t depend on a reliance on specific motifs. “I did have instances where people would say, ‘You’re Asian American, but I don’t necessarily see that in your work,’” he said. While he wouldn’t characterize those comments as racist, he said they underscore a pervasive failure to see Asians and Asian Americans as individual creators, and an insistence on viewing them as representatives of Asian culture at large. He also noted that there is a “very monolithic understanding” of Asian culture, even though there is “so much diversity” within the region.
Bridal and haute couture designer Kwon said that growing up in different locales across the U.S., from Pennsylvania to Colorado and California, made him feel less than at home much of the time. His family often found themselves to be the only Korean American family in the small towns they lived in during Kwon’s youth. “Fashion was my escape,” he said.
But the experience also taught him that fashion should be accessible not just to elites in big cities. “For the women that I grew up with, their red carpet moment is really their walk down the aisle,” he said. That revelation prompted Kwon to launch his own bridal line in 2020.
Kwon said he has also struggled with a push and pull between representing himself and his culture through his art. “Of course… my heritage and culture are so important to me,” he said. “But when I design, I design with what I’m feeling—with my memories and my emotions.”
Every designer, regardless of race or cultural background, pulls from their own experiences in creating their work, he said, and being raised in the U.S. means that the American point of view also informs his creative outlook. He does not strive to incorporate Asian motifs into his designs when it doesn’t feel natural, he said.
Natori, for her part, pulls much inspiration from many Asian cultures, reveling in design elements that she believes make her products recognizable. She embraces kimono style robes and dragon imagery, she said by way of example. “I have archives from 50 years from traveling, and the cultures of where we come from are amazing, whether that’s Japan, China, or other places—the culture is so enriching,” she said.
Amid the pandemic, Lam said he did not realize that anti-Asian sentiment would rise to such an extreme. “We started seeing that it was a pattern,” he said of the rise in crimes and violence against Asian people in the U.S. “It made me reconsider what it means to be safe—I always considered the United States to be an equal playing field and a meritocracy.”
At the same time, “Asians have been considered a model minority,” he said. “You feel like someone has given you a very nice title and badge to wear, but at the same time you’re not equal. You’re still being put in a place that is not at the same level as the majority,” and that has created expectations and generalizations that he believes Asian designers and others in the industry have been forced to contend with.
“No one wants to be typecast, or to feel like you’re there to fill a quota” or check a box, he said. “I don’t want to be just a statistic for somebody.”
As AAPI individuals play a larger and more visible role in the industry, Lam believes “it’s important for us not to depend on someone to give us the chair.” Rather than be invited to take a seat at the table and add their voices to the mix, “You have to work for it” or “create” the opportunity, Natori added.