By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly
During Lars Lee’s sophomore year at the University of Washington, the Chinese American student met classmate and future fashion business partner David Fung.
They spent hours in the library discussing their hopes for the future when they discovered a common goal: to begin a fashion line. They decided that there wasn’t a better time than “now.” As a result, the People’s Republic of Clothing (P.R.C.) was formed.
Lee and Fung serve as co-founders and owners of P.R.C. Lee’s father, Justin Lee, is the collection designer.
Pui Changpoon traveled a different path to her career in fashion.
Changpoon is from Thailand and has a bachelor’s degree in textile design. She hopes to graduate with a master’s degree from a college in the United States. She attended the Art Institute of Seattle where she earned her associate’s degree in fashion design. Changpoon currently works in fashion merchandising and product development for sportswear company Duo Wear in Bellevue.
What Lee, Fung, and Changpoon share is that all three are a part of a rising group of Asians and Asian Americans in the fashion industry.
On the national level
In 2007, 34-year-old Thakoon Panichgul, a Thai American, was selected by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour to design a line for Gap. The next year, Taiwanese-born designer Jason Wu became a household name when First Lady Michelle Obama wore his white one-shoulder gown to the Inauguration Ball.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has honored designers of Asian descent, including Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai, Phillip Lim, Derek Lam, Doo-Ri, and Vera Wang, four out of the past five years.
Finally, The New York Times reports that 23 percent of students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) are of Asian descent. Seventy percent of the international students at Parsons School of Design are from Asia.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Women’s Wear Daily have all identified this rise as a phenomenon. New York University (NYU) professor Thuy Linh Tu is publishing her findings regarding this occurrence in her forthcoming book, “The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.”
In the past
However, in the 1980s, designers such as Issey Miyake, Anna Sui, and Vera Wang rose to fame. Sui was a CFDA award winner in 2009 and was recognized with a lifetime achievement award.
Dr. Connie So, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Washington, sees a long history between Asians and the fashion industry.
“Asians and Western fashion have been connected for a very long time, at least since the advent of Chinoiserie in the 17th to early 19th century,” she said. “Among the first that I’m aware of was the House of Natori (the fashion line of Josie Natori) — that was back in the 1970s — after [which] more Asians came to America because the 1965 immigration law was established. Then there were Vera Wang Bridals in the 1990s, skate outfits, and Jimmy Choo shoes.
Things have changed, and So sees it as well.
“My feeling is that there has always been a number of Asian Americans in the fashion industry (workers as well as designers), but they were working for others,” So said. “Now that they have gathered more experience, they are creating their own names.”
Lee sees the global and information age as contributors to the movement.
“I feel like the current age we live in where resources are, in a very real sense, global and completely accessible for anyone who cares to look, allows Asian Americans to take a chance and enter the fashion industry feeling, at the very least, that they can know what to expect,” Lee said.
The cultural influence in Lee’s company is obvious: it’s in the name.
“The one thing that tied us all together was the fact that we were Chinese American, so during a brainstorming session, one of the acronyms that came to mind was P.R.C., or as it is commonly known to the rest of the world, Peoples Republic of China,” Lee said. “P.R.C. turned out to be quite catchy, and a simple switch from China to Clothing was how Peoples Republic of Clothing was formed.”
For Changpoon, her life experiences show in her work.
“Thailand is more about harmony and curve,” she said. “I can use [my culture] as an inspiration. I think it’s quite unique. I have something to present, not just continue doing the same thing that customers are used to seeing.”
This concept (of fashion designers of Asian descent) often groups Asian and Asian American designers together. Minh-Ha T. Pham, of Thread Bared, an academic blog about the politics of fashion, beauty, and dress, finds this particularly disconcerting.
“What we’re seeing is that we have to be careful about understanding who these designers are,” she said. “Some are from Asia and come here to study and stay, and some are Asian Americans. We’re lumping together someone like Alexander Wang, who’s from San Francisco, and someone like Thakoon, who moved here.”
Changpoon feels the pain of the language barrier and thinks it gives Asian Americans an advantage when it comes to presenting themselves.
“Communication is important,” she said. “They definitely have some advantages like knowing the culture and the way they look at things. I come directly from overseas. I have my experiences from what I grew up with, but language is something that gets me stuck sometimes.”
The nice thing about the non-business aspect of fashion is that art requires no words. ♦
Ninette Cheng can be reached at email@example.com.