In the United States, the month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The University of Fashion would like to take this opportunity to highlight and celebrate some of the most influential Asian fashion designers, both in the U.S and around the globe.
THE HISTORY OF ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH
Before we focus on the work of these multi-talented designers, let’s take a look at how the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) helped shape our history and our identity from the first wave of Asian immigrants in 1763 to the present day.
According to the U.S. Government: the term “Asian American” includes persons having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” includes persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
We could easily fill an entire volume listing the contributions made by the AAPI community, from the building of the transcontinental railroad to major breakthroughs in the world of science and technology. According to History.com, “Though the Gold Rush triggered the first major wave of Asian immigrants to the United States in the 1840s, their presence in America predates the country itself. For example, in 1763, facing a life of forced labor and imprisonment during the Spanish galleon trade, a group of Filipinos jumped ship near New Orleans and established the settlement of Saint Malo, forming one of the first documented Asian American communities in North America.”
More than 2.5 million Chinese citizens left their country and were hired in 1864 after a labor shortage threatened the transcontinental railroad’s completion (Chinese immigrants made up 90% of the workforce).
In the field of science, Chinese-born female physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Ph.D., was instrumental in the developing field of atomic science in the 1940s and 50s, which included the Manhattan Project: the code name for research into atomic weapons during World War II.
Philippine-born Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 and began working as a laborer. In 1930, he joined striking lettuce pickers in Washington and eventually became a union leader, forming the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956. Together with Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez from the National Farm Workers Association, they formed the United Farm Workers.
Having spent two years in internment camps during World War II, Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama’s would dedicate her life to civil rights work that extended to causes impacting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples, as well as Asian American communities. Together with her husband Jerome, she campaigned for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American interned during World War II. Their work became a reality in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law.
Indian American computer architect Ajay Bhatt not only had a hand in developing a range of computer-related technologies, but the one he’s best known for is the Universal Serial Bus—better known as the USB.
Taiwanese American Steve Chen and Bangaledeshi-German American Jawed Karim, were among the core team that co-founded YouTube.
And the list goes on and on…
In June of 1977, Representatives Frank Horton, and Norman Y. Mineta, introduced a U.S. House of Representatives resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week in recognition of Asian Pacific Americans. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate a month later by Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga. The month of May was chosen for two reasons: the first, because on May 7, 1843, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the United States; the second, because on May 10, 1869, the golden spike was driven into the first Transcontinental Railroad. On October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint motion for the celebration. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to extend Asian-American Heritage Week to a month and May was officially designated as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month two years later.
Although progress has been made with regard to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities throughout the United States, sadly, anti-Asian attacks across the America have been on the rise, spurred on by the COVID-19 crisis and hateful speech by some of our nation’s politicians and media.
(Photo credit: CFDA.com)
In solidarity, the fashion industry is using its clout to stand up for the AAPI community, as demonstrated by the CFDA’s statement on their website. Brands like Valentino, Nike, and Adidas have been very outspoken in denouncing the violence and are donating proceeds to AAPI organizations. But, this it is not enough. We all need to do our part to support the AAPI community in any way we can.
Join us in celebrating some of the talented designers who have made innovative and groundbreaking contributions to fashion in the global community.
Yohji Yamamoto is a Japanese fashion designer based both in Tokyo and Paris. The 77-year-old designer is considered a master tailor and known for his avant-garde tailoring, featuring Japanese design aesthetics. His fashion continues to influence the way we dress through his deconstructed androgynous pieces since the 70s.
Yamamoto debuted his collection in Tokyo in 1977 and in Paris for the first time in 1981. His first women’s collection under the label Y’s, mirrored typical men’s garments, cut in uncluttered shapes, in washed fabrics and dark colors. In an interview with The New York Times in 1983, Yamamoto said of his designs, “I think that my men’s clothes look as good on women as my women’s clothing […] When I started designing, I wanted to make men’s clothes for women.” More recently he has explained: “When I started making clothes for my line Y’s in 1977, all I wanted was for women to wear men’s clothes. I jumped on the idea of designing coats for women. It meant something to me – the idea of a coat guarding and hiding a woman’s body. I wanted to protect the woman’s body from something – maybe from men’s eyes or a cold wind.”
Yamamoto won notable awards for his work, including the Chevalier/Officier/Commandeur of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon, the Ordre national du Mérite, the Royal Designer for Industry and the Master of Design award presented by Fashion Group International.
Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons
Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, is a Japanese fashion designer who is also based in Tokyo and Paris. Her experimental creations have forever transformed the way women dress and given females the power to explore the boundaries of gender, body, and femininity through vanguard, deconstructed pieces. On May 5, 2017, in tribute to her notable design contributions, Kawakubo was only the second living designer to be honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an exhibition entitled, Rei Kawakubo/Commes des Garçons, Art of the In-Between.
Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons Co. Ltd in Tokyo in 1969 and opened her first boutique there in 1975. She launched menswear in 1978 and presented her collection in Paris in 1981, where she would open a boutique a year later. By 1980, CDG was on the global fashion map, with her signature color palette of black, dark grey and white. The emphasis on black clothing led to the Japanese press describing Kawakubo and her followers as ‘The Crows’. Her fabrics were often draped around the body, with frayed, unfinished edges, some with intentional holes. Kawakubo was part of the ‘decontruction’ movement, popular in the 80s, that followed the traditional Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, an acceptance of the beauty of imperfection.
Kawakubo continues to be hailed by other major designers for her originality and her impact on fashion. In a broadcast interview with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Company), Alexander McQueen stated: “When Kawakubo designs a collection, it seems kind of absurd, not just to the general public. But when you watch someone’s challenging themselves like she does every season, it makes you understand why you are in fashion in the first place because of people like her.” During the same broadcast, Viktor & Rolf added: “The first time we became aware of Comme de Garçons was in the 80s. I think we were 12 or 13. It made a very strong impression because fashion in general was something that we were starting to discover and Rei Kawakubo was part of this … an enormous outburst of creativity in the beginning of the 80s. So for us she was part of the way we started to think about fashion.”
Two other early supporters of Kawakubo were Jean-Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan. During the NHK broadcast for Kawakubo, Gaultier stated: “I believe that Kawakubo is a woman with extreme courage. She is a person with exceptional strength. Moreover, she has a poetic spirit. When I see her creations, I feel the spirit of a young girl. A young girl who still has innocence and is a bit romantic. Yet she also has an aspect of a fighting woman, one who fears nothing as she thrusts forward.” Donna Karan added: “Rei Kawakubo is a very interesting designer to me as a woman and a female designer. As a person, she is very quiet and rather withdrawn, yet her clothes make such an enormous statement.”
Japanese designer Issey Miyake began his career working at Givenchy Paris before launching his own brand in the 1980s, Miyake Design Studio. He is most known for his technology-driven clothing designs, such as his signature iconic thinly pleated pieces, that would allow both flexibility of movement for the wearer. His garments are cut and sewn first, then sandwiched between layers of paper and fed into a heat press, where they are pleated. The fabric’s ‘memory’ holds the pleats and when the garments are liberated from their paper cocoon, they are ready-to wear.
As a child, Miyake dreamed of becoming a dancer, and so he extended his talent in creating costumes for Ballett Frankfurt. Made from permanently-pleated ultra feather-polyester jersey, he designed hundreds of garments for dancers to wear, a different one in each performance of ‘The Last Detail.’ This led to the development of his very popular label Pleats, Please.
In March 1992 Miyake was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying, “Design is not for philosophy—it’s for life.”
In 1994 and 1999, Miyake turned over the design of the men’s and women’s collections respectively, to his associate, Naoki Takizawa, so he could return to research full-time. He was one of the pioneers of creating innovative, technological advanced pieces.
Japanese-born Kenzo Takada was always inspired by Paris, especially designer Yves Saint Laurent, and moved to the French city in the early 60s. But working in the fashion capital was not easy and he struggled by selling sketches of designs to fashion houses for 25 francs each. After only a few months in Paris he planned to move back home to Japan, but he was determined to open a fashion boutique first.
In 1970 the late designer’s dreams came true and he opened a small shop in the Galerie Vivienne. Takada hardly had any money to work with, so he mixed and matched fabrics from the Saint Pierre market in Montmartre, creating an eclectic and bold first fashion collection. The designer presented his first collection but without any money to afford professional fashion models for the event, let alone hair and makeup professionals, Takada and his friends decided to paint the pimples of an acne-covered model, green. Making quit a splash.
In June 0f 1970, Elle magazine featured one of Takada’s looks on the cover. As his success grew, he moved his shop from the Galerie Vivienne to the Passage Choiseul and presented his collection in New York and in Tokyo in 1971. By 1976 he opened his first flagship store in the Place des Victoires. Kenzo had a flare for the dramatics and has even had shows in circus tents with performers.
Since 1993, the Kenzo brand has been owned by the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, but in 1999 Kenzo announced his retirement to pursue a career in art. On June 2, 2016 Takada was given the Knight of the Legion of Honour and was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 55th Fashion Editors’ Club of Japan Awards in 2017. Sadly, he died of Covid-19 in 202o.
Anna Sui is a Chinese American designer that hails from Detroit, Michigan. She was named one of the “Top 5 Fashion Icons of the Decade.” In 2009 she earned the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), joining the ranks of Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren, and Diane von Furstenberg. In addition to her clothing brand, Sui has added footwear, cosmetics, eyewear, accessories, and home goods to her brand portfolio.
Upon graduation from Parsons, Sui began her career designing for several sportswear companies in the NYC garment center. It was at one of these firms, Charlie’s Girls, that she reconnected with fellow friend and classmate Steven Meisel (famous photographer). Sui’s work as a fashion stylist for Meisel’s photo shoots were featured in the Italian magazine Lei, and were very well received.
Shortly after Charlie’s Girls shuttered, Sui began designing and making clothes out of her apartment inspired by a desire to dress rock stars and people who attended their concerts. With an initial investment of only $300, she brought her collection of five pieces to a New York trade show where they caught the attention of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. A few weeks later, her clothes were featured in an advertisement in The New York Times.
During the 80s Sui was one of the few designers who distanced themselves from traditional fashion houses and explored the grunge fashion scene, together with designers such as Marc Jacobs, Daryl K and Todd Oldham. Sui managed to carve out a niche for herself that allowed her to break through the noise and as a result, gained a global cult-like following. She expanded her brand in the mid 90s, thanks to a partnership with the Japanese fashion powerhouse, Onward Kashiyama.
Sui held her first New York Fashion Week show in 1991 at the persuasion of her high-power friends: Steven Meisel, Paul Cavaco (fashion editor/stylist) and supermodels: Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista. The show was the biggest breakthrough of Sui’s career, with The New York Times commenting, “That those beauties [Campbell and Evangelista] were then at the height of their fame helped stoke the reception Sui got from buyers and the news media.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt her career either, when Madonna wore one of her looks in Paris to a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show and then again wore the same outfit for Meisel’s photoshoot for Vogue.
Anna Sui opened her first boutique in New York City’s Soho neighborhood in 1992 and received the CFDA’s Perry Ellis Award for new talent later that year.
Bibhu Mohapatra grew up on the East Coast of India in Rourkela, Odisha. In 1996, he moved to America and earned his master’s degree from Utah State University in economics, however, he always had a love for fashion. So in 1999, he moved to New York City and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology where he won the 1997 Critics’ Award for Eveningwear Designer of the Year.
Upon graduation, Mohapatra worked for prestigious brands such as Halston and J. Mendel, but in 2008 he decided to launch his namesake collection of evening dresses and ready-to-wear looks. One of his biggest honors was dressing former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Mohapatra has presented his collection of luxury women’s ready to wear, couture and fur, in New York, Mumbai, Frankfurt, Beijing, and New Delhi. His collections are sold around the world at stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom and in China at Lane Crawford. His work has graced the pages of many fashion magazine’s including Vogue, New York Magazine, Time, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, and Gotham magazine.
In 2010, Mohapatra received the “Young Innovator Award” from the National Arts Club and the same year was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
We would also like to applaud the work of other AAPI designers: Hanae Mori, Vera Wang, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurung, Naeem Khan and the countless other Asian and Pacific Islander designers who continue to make an impact on the fashion industry!
So tell us, which Asian or Pacific Islander designer do you think had the biggest impact on the fashion industry?