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Asian-American designers storm the fashion industry

The face of fashion is changing.

Doo Ri Chung
Doo Ri Chung

In the last ten years, a distinct demographic shift has taken place as Asian-American designers have ascended to the top tier of New York fashion.

The the influx of Asian talent is manifest even to me — a recreational follower of fashion trends.

I’ve never formally studied design or fashion and have never worked in the industry, yet when asked recently for examples of popular Asian-American designers, I quickly rattled off over a dozen:

Yuna Yang,
Alexander Wang,
Vera Wang,
Jason Wu,
Park Choon Moo,
Susan Woo,
Thakoon Panichgul,
Phillip Lim,
Derek Lam,
Vivienne Tam,
Peter Som,
Doo Ri Chung,
Prabal Gurung,
Andrew Gn,
Anna Sui,
Koi Suwannagate,
Richard Chai.

I’ve heard these names so often, I even know how to pronounce them correctly.

Phillip Lim
Phillip Lim

Given a couple minutes to search my brain, I come up with a handful more:

Cho Cheng,
Tadashi Shoji,
Jen Kao,
Yeohlee Teng,
Zang Toi.

The ease with which the designers’ names roll off my tongue is evidence that there’s a new guard in American high fashion, where the last notable influx of design talent consisted largely of Americans of Jewish heritage.

In the 1970s and 80s, Jewish-Americans such as Alber Elbaz, Diane von Fürstenberg, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Micheal Kors, Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi ruled the New York runways.

Although Vera Wang and Anna Sui — who are both Chinese-American — broke barriers and gained prominence in the 1980s, the swell in successful Asian-American designers didn’t take place until the mid-to-late 2000s.

Over the past decade, prestigious schools such as Parsons The New School for Design and New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology have been flooded by students of Asian descent.

Fashion giant Gap has partnered with Asian-American designer labels Doo.Ri (2007), Thakoon (2007), Phillip Lim (2008) and Alexander Wang (2009) to design collections.

This year — by my count — an astonishing 31 designers of Asian descent are holding shows during fall Fashion Week.

Not surprisingly, Asian-Americans swept the 28th annual CFDA Awards in June. 

(For those of you who don’t know, the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards are like the Oscars of fashion. Times three. The glory and prestige of film honors are divided among the Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards. The CFDA Awards are unrivaled.)

Jason Wu, Richard Chai, Alexander Wang
Image via
Jason Wu, Richard Chai, Alexander Wang

For the first time ever, all three recipients of the CFDA Best New Designer awards were Asian-American.

Jason Wu, who was born in Tiawan, won Best New Designer for womenswear; Richard Chai, of Korean descent, won for menswear; Alexander Wang, of Chinese descent, won for accessory design.

The largest scholarships given by the CFDA — each for $25,000 — also went to student designers of Asian heritage: Carmen Chen Wu, Jusil Carroll and Nicole Goh.

The CFDA itself, which had fewer than a dozen Asian-American members 15 years ago, now boasts 33 members of Asian descent.

The ultimate endorsement
Since the kick-off of the 2008 presidential campaign, Michelle Obama has increased the profile of Asian-American designers by wearing Prabal Gurung (born in Singapore), Thakoon and Jason Wu.

Thakoon designed the red-and-black dress she wore for the Democratic National Convention acceptance speech; Jason Wu designed her one-shoulder white silk chiffon inaugural ball gown.

In fact, the First Lady has worn Thakoon and Jason Wu so often, she’s made them household names.

(Michelle Obama has given a boost to other lesser-known American designers such as Narcisco Rodriguez, Barbara Tfank and Isabel Toledo.)

As New York Fashion Week begins this Thursday, Sept. 10, with Fashion’s Night Out (yes, it’s back!), Asian-Americans lead the throng of promising new designers.

Tell us your favorite up-and-coming designers in the comment section below.

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