For fashion lovers, the idea of restricting one’s style to fit a singular definition can seem both daunting and unnecessary. After all, who can distill themselves into one thing? This idea is comparable to how non-white people in America can be boxed into preconceived notions or stereotypes and how immigrants from all over the world are forced to assimilate into a single culture in order to survive. For Asian Americans, their nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and even styles have been distilled into one description that’s deemed acceptable (or what’s been coined as “ the model minority myth ”) in a social hierarchy based on white supremacy.
If you’re wondering how this is related to fashion, then allow us to use our platform to remind everyone that fashion has always played a role in both maintaining and disrupting the fabric of society.
In fact, clothing has been a political tool used by groups such as the suffragettes and the Black Panther Party to amplify descent and intention beyond their words and actions. Simultaneously, the fashion industry has upheld xenophobia and racism, with examples including caricature fashion campaigns around Chinese people and Black stylists being unable to pull clothing for their clients. In an industry that has the power to influence the status quo, it’s more important than ever for brands to take a stand to stop anti-Asian hate crimes and recognize the full scope of the humanity, richness, and beauty that exists within these multifaceted communities.
As history has shown us, change won’t happen overnight, but a few designers are putting in the work now and speaking out in an effort to break this devastating trend of violence. Ahead, you’ll hear from seven designers of various descents about the work they’re doing to uplift and change the lives of fellow community members within the fashion industry and beyond.
WHO: Yoon, Owner and Creative Director of Rōnin. How did you get into the fashion industry? What led you to do what you’re doing today? I was obsessed with streetwear culture in my early to late teens and found an opportunity to start Rōnin while finishing my second year in college. I had no prior fashion background, so I spent days and hours on Google teaching myself how to design and start a business. Eight years later, with hard work and overwhelming support from fans and family, I’m now able to create collections freely today.
How has your identity informed your approach to style, if at all? I was born in South Korea and immigrated to New York when I was 7 years old. My family and I had to adjust to Western society slowly, and my parents made sure I “fit in” with the American kids by giving me an American name so I wouldn’t get bullied for being different. As I grew up, I was compelled to find my individuality and found that expressing it through fashion was my calling.
What role do you think the fashion industry should have in addressing the widespread increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes? The fashion industry influences our generation; it represents the current times we’re living in. So why can’t we prioritize that influence to uplift social justice and our values? The fashion industry would not be what it is without the contributions and leadership of minority creators. We should and must be at the forefront of addressing our social issues creatively to spark and build that conversation through fashion—not a quick, performative action on social media and calling it a day.
When the COVID-19 crisis first began, fashion brands from major houses to independent labels banded together to make PPE and help. Why do you think the industry is slow to address racial inequities with the same zeal? At the end of the day, the fashion industry is a for-profit business, so addressing any political issue could turn away potential customers. The more established a brand is, the more they’ll prioritize maintaining their image and profits first before deciding to “condone” or “stand by” with any real issues and action at hand.
In what ways do you think the model minority myth has contributed to the silence around the increase in hate crimes against the Asian community? The model minority myth paints East Asians as successful, highly educated, law-abiding citizens, which intentionally confines us to a narrative that we aren’t facing any form of oppression or racism. It downplays the severity of these hate crimes currently happening and keeps victims and Asian Americans from speaking out against them. We need to push for a change by recognizing that the model minority myth exists and how it negatively affects us and has been weaponized against other groups of people in this country.
What inspired you to dedicate your most recent collection to addressing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes? My recent capsule drop in partnership with Send Chinatown Love was dedicated to supporting mom-and-pop shops and restaurants in NYC’s Chinatown that are struggling to stay open since the pandemic steered people to avoid Chinatown in early 2020. Misinformation spreading regarding COVID-19’s origin affects all Asian-owned businesses and directly causes the rise of the egregious anti-Asian hate crimes we see happening now.
I took it upon myself to help in the efforts to raise money for affected businesses because I knew there were many out there like me that wanted to help. We need to unify and express our demands for change through multiple mediums, and I knew I could tap into my platform and network to make this collection happen.
What do you hope to achieve with your work? What do you hope it says to the world? I hope to keep resonating with my supporters through my work, whether it be the references I make or through similar values we share. I hope that the Rōnin family can find mutual connections with others worldwide and blossom new relationships in the same way I do with them.
WHO: Sheena Sood, Designer and Founder of Abacaxi. How did you get into the fashion industry? What led you to do what you’re doing today? I studied visual art, and my love for color, print, and pattern led me to textile design. After working as an intern, assistant designer, freelance and full-time textile and print designer, and color specialist, I eventually started Abacaxi. It began as a creative project on the side, with a desire to utilize some beautiful vintage embroideries I had collected while traveling in Rajasthan, India, but has grown far beyond that.
How has your identity informed your approach to style, if at all? My South Asian heritage has always been the most significant source of inspiration for me. When I was young, I was inspired by the small ways in which my mother would incorporate touches of Indian style into her everyday wear. Our culture has such an incredibly rich depth of textile and garment design to pull from. Traditional fabric manipulations and traditional silhouettes very much inspire me. I’m always playing around with both in my collections and designs.
What role do you think the fashion industry should have in addressing the widespread increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes? The fashion industry can play a pivotal role by spreading awareness about the rise in hate crimes and increasing Asian Americans’ visibility in the industry.
Fashion has a long history of mitigating and erasing the contributions of BIPOC across the globe. What do you hope the industry takes away from its conscious awakening to its faults? The fashion industry does have a history of exploiting cultures and traditions without giving credit to the source of inspiration and creatives from said cultures. It’s another form of colonialism, where the more privileged can profit from others’ labor and innovation. I still see examples of blatant appropriation happening all the time. As this conscious awakening is happening in the industry, I hope that BIPOC people are given the credit they’re due and that it becomes no longer acceptable to steal and appropriate.
In what ways do you think that the model minority myth has contributed to the silence around the increase in hate crimes against the Asian community? The model minority myth only further attributes to the lack of awareness about racism against Asian Americans. It’s a false message that groups all Asians and all of our diverse, varying backgrounds, income levels, and experiences into one idea that we are all successful, therefore minimizing the role that racism plays in society. I think a part of our communities either don’t want to acknowledge the rise in hate crimes or still don’t believe it is happening with that myth.
What inspired your most recent collection? Why is it important in your eyes? With my two most recent collections, I wanted them to come from spiritual concepts and be uplifting. Everything Is Within You S/S 21 is inspired by the celebration that happens within. I tried to remind myself and everyone during a challenging time of this message of abundance.
Plants as People F/W 21 came about via my curiosity about how current science meets ancient, indigenous wisdom about plant intelligence. Plants live in deeply intertwined communities; they listen to and make sound, learn, and make decisions. On a daily basis, we forget how interconnected we are to other humans and the plant world, so I wanted my collections to be homages to that.
What do you hope to achieve with your work? What do you hope it says to the world? I hope to share more and more untold stories, to add another perspective to the way we can dress, to continue to play with color and texture, and to work with incredibly talented textile artisans around the world. I also hope Abacaxi can eventually become a brand that opens up more paths for South Asians in the fashion industry.
WHO: Christina Tung, Founder of House Of PR Agency and Svnr. How did you get into the fashion industry? What led you to do what you’re doing today? I had initially thought I would follow in my parents’ footsteps and go into medicine, so I attended undergrad at Johns Hopkins University. While I was there, it became more apparent that wasn’t my path. My auntie had suggested I pursue public relations, and to be honest, I had no idea what it entailed. I googled agencies and applied to every one of them. After eight years of working for different agencies and even being let go, I realized that I loved being able to support independent designers and help make their dreams come true. Svnr came about after making jewelry for a friend.
How has your identity informed your approach to style, if at all? Growing up in a tiny town in Massachusetts, I constantly balanced my Chinese background with the New England culture where I was raised. I understood style as a partial expression of identity and part showing respect for what is socially and contextually appropriate. I also grew up with a mindset to recycle, reduce, reuse, as my hometown was pretty progressive in environmental consciousness. That echoed my grandma’s values, as she was never wasteful and would repair, reinvent, and reconstruct items rather than throw them away. I found so much of my creativity through upcycling and reimagining existing pieces.
What role do you think the fashion industry should have in addressing the widespread increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes? The fashion industry has been vocal in supporting marginalized communities and social issues from climate justice to police brutality and LGBTQ rights—this is no different. Through amplifying a plurality of voices, we can hopefully create understanding and empathy for the community, not as a monolith but as united individuals.
When the COVID-19 crisis first began, fashion brands from houses to small labels banded together to make PPE and help. Why, in your opinion, do you think the industry is slow to address racial inequities with the same zeal? No one person can speak for the industry as a whole; we can only be held accountable for each of our actions. My guess as to why more people haven’t stepped up is partly the feeling that it may not be their fight to fight or that this is an issue that is not as straightforward on how to be helpful. Whenever there are issues of race, there are sensitivity and fear around doing the wrong thing, which can be paralyzing.
In what ways do you think that the model minority myth has contributed to the silence around the increase in hate crimes against the Asian community? Most, if not all, Asian cultures have a mindset that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Individuality and whistleblowing are viewed so differently in Western cultures. Many of us raised with the immigrant perspective may see speaking up against wrongs committed against us as self-indulgent, complaining, ungracious, or even a sign of weakness. There is a sense of pride in the strength and self-sufficiency and, conversely, a sense of shame attached to not taking care of oneself or perceived failure. The fewer people share their experiences, the less other people will want to because it’s not normalized or seen as systemic or a behavior pattern.
What inspired you to dedicate your most recent collection to addressing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes? Why is it important in your eyes? These recent attacks are so upsetting for me, as I imagine my parents or family being confronted this way. It’s heartbreaking. I feel so strongly about bringing attention to these violent acts’ reality by supporting local organizations fortifying the community. A portion of proceeds from Svnr will be donated to Send Chinatown Love and Stop AAPI Hate.
What do you hope to achieve with your work? What do you hope it says to the world? I hope that Svnr can foster curiosity about genuine engagement with different cultures and places, empathy, and appreciation for our differences as well as our similarities.
You work with so many different indie brands. Can you share fellow designers whose work inspires you? I have so much respect for those designers employing artisans from their heritage land and incorporating traditional techniques and silhouettes in their work in modern, relevant, and wearable ways, including YanYan and Rastah.
WHO: Haoran Li and Siying Qu, Founders of Private Policy. How did you get into the fashion industry? What led you to do what you’re doing today? HL: We dreamt of being fashion designers since we were kids growing up in China. To pursue that dream, we traveled across the world to make it a reality. I traveled alone to Canada, and Siying traveled to the United States as young teens for high school, and then we studied fashion design at Parsons School of Design, which is where we met and started our fashion careers. . SQ: We saw a need for fashion that expresses people’s beliefs on sociopolitical and environmental issues, which we are personally passionate about. We decided to model Private Policy after newspaper outlets, talking about one sociopolitical topic per season through our collections to raise awareness on important issues and start conversations for solutions.
How has your identity informed your approach to style, if at all? Our aesthetic is related to Eastern philosophy, and our identity is rooted in Chinese culture. It is in our blood, without us even noticing it. We feel the responsibility to show contemporary Asian culture instead of the antiquated stereotypes. As “third-culture” kids blending and experiencing Eastern and Western cultures, we find a new perspective.
What role do you think the fashion industry should have in addressing the widespread increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes? One way for the fashion industry to address the current increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric is to continue and strengthen its efforts to celebrate diversity and empower different ethnicities. By educating the public about other cultures through the fashion lens, we believe we can decrease xenophobia. It is wonderful to see Asian designers and industry leaders coming together to bring attention to this matter, and we would love to see more non-Asian voices within the industry show their support. We believe every fashion company should have internal policies to nurture open discussions about racial issues, diverse hirings at the executive level, and funds reserved for ethical and positive impacts.
Fashion has a long history of mitigating and erasing the contributions of BIPOC across the globe. What do you hope the industry takes away from its conscious awakening to its faults? We hope the fashion industry learns to be respectful of different cultures, increase diversity, acknowledge and repair systemic issues, and recognize that all faults will come to light. Just as a safety pin can only hold a ripped seam for so long, we must be brave to reflect and take actual actions for long-term benefits.
In what ways do you think that the model minority myth has contributed to the silence around the increase in hate crimes against the Asian community? HL: As we researched for our S/S 19 collection about the stereotypes of Asian youth, we found that our ethnicity is being simplified and confined into a singular image, the model minority image. Since the “model minority” masks all Asian struggles, it makes it more difficult to explain without being perceived as mindless complaints or trying to compete with other issues in other minority groups. SQ: And it is so deeply embedded in our society, even within the Asian community. Many people are unaware of the truth, as there are few conversations about how these struggles are due to systematic racial oppression. We have to break from a prominent stereotype from years of distortion and propaganda while solving the immediate crisis that requires a fast response.
What inspired you to dedicate your most recent collection to addressing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes? SQ: Observing society and the world around us is a big part of our research and design process. We felt the rising anti-Asian sentiments, from people staring at us wearing masks on the subway and friends encountering racial slurs on the streets to Chinatown stores closing down before the quarantine started, so we knew we had to do something to bring attention to this critical issue.
HL: In our research, the epic stories of the 19th-century Chinese transcontinental railroad workers resonated with us—with their phenomenal contributions to building modern America but also how their experience with anti-Asian racism parallels today. We decided to bring attention to their stories, which were hidden for over a century until historians recently shed light on this critical historical period. We aim to inspire pride among Asian decedents and invite all to learn about the history and Asian culture.
What do you hope to achieve with your work? What do you hope it says to the world? We hope our work can challenge people to think deeper and seek solutions to their passionate issues. As first-generation immigrants, we paved our path of combining fashion and social consciousness, showing it is possible to have the two worlds thriving together. We want to tell the world that fashion is more than just clothes. Natural beauty comes from within, and everyone is unique and beautiful in their way. Apparel just helps to express what is already there.
WHO: Ophelia Chen and Abi Lierheimer, Co-Founders of Bobblehaus. How did you get into the fashion industry? What led you to do what you’re doing today? AL: I studied mathematics before transferring to art school and getting into fashion full-time. I graduated with a BFA in fashion design and then went straight into the industry. I felt like each place I worked at essentially felt the same. I had a personal narrative that I eventually couldn’t hold in anymore.
How has your identity informed your approach to style, if at all? AL: My immediate environment heavily influences my style. It’s constantly changing based on my utility preference. OC: I shop in menswear all the time. I used to only wear black, but I felt I cheated fashion because black goes with everything. Now, I like wearing colors. I don’t mind walking down the street in our hot-pink Tencel set looking like a bubblegum disco ball.
What role do you think the fashion industry should have in addressing the widespread increase in anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes? AL: I think every brand’s approach is different, just as every person’s approach is. The more personal and intimate a brand can be in voicing its stance, the better. At the end of the day, we all have a responsibility to use our platforms that we’ve created to help educate, fundraise, and advocate to stop Asian hate.
When the COVID-19 crisis first began, fashion brands from houses to small labels banded together to make PPE and help. Why do you think the industry is slow to address racial inequities with the same zeal? AL: Because there is no direct and personal benefit for these brands. There also isn’t a direct product that can be made to help solve the problem. Brands have to be more creative.
In what ways do you think the model minority myth has contributed to the silence around the increase in hate crimes against the Asian community? OC: Simple—because it’s perceived as “it’s not as bad.” I watched a video from Wong Fu Productions a long time ago, and there was a quote engraved in my brain: “Asians, we get a sample platter of racism from everywhere.” Manhattan Chinatown was hit the hardest when COVID broke out in January 2020. When I started wearing masks, people avoided me on the street and left the elevator when I entered, but I was trying to keep everyone around me safe. Imagine an entire district doing so but being punished because of racism.
What inspired you to start Bobblehaus? What do you feel the brand is bringing to the table? AL: Bobblehaus brings fun, utility-focused, and sustainable clothing to an already-growing artist-and-designer community and collective. OC: Bobblehaus was created to throw away the traditional fashion “rules.” It’s a space to be the outlier. We use 100% deadstock fabric, certified eco-friendly fabrics only, which is one-third of the industry average standard MOQ, and every style, every collection, is a genderless fit. We want to include Asian American women’s voices in the streetwear world.
What do you hope to achieve with your work? What do you hope it says to the world? AL: I have a voice. I need to be empowered to use it and encourage others to listen. I want other young girls and designers to feel the same empowerment much earlier in their lives than when I found it.
OC: When I was in high school in Missouri, on the weekends when my mother and I went into the mall, there were incidents when people would yell at us to go back to our country. I didn’t yell back or react; I simply tried to protect my mother by pushing her behind me and reporting it to the store manager. I hope to inspire those similar to the old me to speak up and even help them find the courage to do so.
Next: 10 Ways to Shop to Support AAPI Organizations