My 75-year-old Nepalese mother, who lives in New York, takes a walk every morning and night. I send her in disguise: I bought her a blonde wig, and I tell her to wear it under a hat, glasses and a mask. “Maybe then they’ll leave her alone,” I think. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s my survival instinct that comes into play.
“I understand your worry and worry,” my mom told me, as I like to call her, the other day.
“But I’d rather have a cane or a cane, just in case something happens. I can fight,” she assured me, adjusting her wig and hat.
This is how she is: resilient, fearless and an image of grace under pressure. I admire his strength but I continue to worry about his safety. I constantly check in to know where she is at all times.
That’s what he came to. A fear so constant it is crippling.
“Using terms like ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Kung flu’, Trump gave the coronavirus a face, an Asian face, and for that we have all suffered.”
Here is where we are:
They can be found in all sectors. For example, when it comes to my world – fashion – the consequences of systemic racism happen daily. And not just in the form of microaggressions.
As a person who has a platform, who has weight, I have always felt that it was my responsibility to speak up.
“Who happens to be American?”
Fashion in its purest and simplest form is a reflection of the world we live in. It does not operate in a vacuum but influences – and is influenced by – music, culture, social movements and politics.
Whatever your views, everyone is interested in fashion on some level. For most of us, it’s one of the first decisions we make every morning. I believe in its main purpose – as an empowerment tool. But as much as fashion projects its power outward, behind the scenes, it can be a very different story.
I was born in Singapore, grew up in Nepal, and lived in India, and in those countries you face issues like colorism, caste discrimination, and hierarchical social structures. When I launched my brand 12 years ago, I wanted it to show marginalized people that they are seen and that they matter. But until recently, it was an uphill battle.
“I was advised to limit the diversity of my shows because clients would not be as receptive to non-white models: ” ‘Two black women, two Asian women – OK that’s enough.’ ‘
The question of who dictates style, or what we consider tasteful or chic, is always viewed through a colonial lens, shaped by centuries-old Eurocentric ideals. Unrealistic standards of beauty are often elitist, discriminatory, and ultimately built to maintain a closeness to whiteness that makes those in power feel important and secure. The decision-makers are predominantly white.
This is played out in several ways.
At the start of my own career, I was advised to limit the diversity of my shows because clients would not be as receptive to non-white models: “two black women, two Asian women, okay enough”.
I also remember wanting to open a collection with Korean model Ji Hye Park, and that sparked such a big discussion with other brand stakeholders. “Should we? Shouldn’t we? Is that cool? Does that make sense? Is this idea… luxury?”
These types of conversations were shocking at first. But I got used to seeing microaggressions or blatant discrimination against the few Asians who, like me and other people of color, have been able to break into this industry. Yes, fashion continues to move in the right direction, but we still have miles to go. Today, I still see Black, Latin American, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ peers being symbolized by the industry, called upon to achieve inclusiveness.
Models walk the Prabal Gurung catwalk during New York Fashion Week on September 8, 2019. Credit: Mike Coppola / Getty Images
I have often been challenged about my “Americanness”. At a planning meeting for my brand’s 10th anniversary collection in 2018, an investor asked me to express how I feel about my brand.
I started to explain that the American style had always been seen through a white lens. But as a first generation Asian immigrant, as a minority, as a queer person of color, I wanted to redefine the style of the country because our experiences were under-represented. The way I see this country is an amalgamation of different cultures, races, ethnicities, religions and sizes, and it should be celebrated.
He, in turn, asked, “Well you don’t look American, how can you define American style?”
It was clear to me what he meant by his statement: I was not white, so I had no authority to shape the American ideal. And this despite being an American citizen who owns a business in this country – one that employs Americans and immigrants, adopts a “Made in America” production philosophy and pays taxes. For some people, this is never enough.
I ended up turning this collection into a celebration of American identity and belonging, sending in a diverse cast of denim models, white short-sleeved shirts, pink prints, and, in the finale, scarves bearing the question: “Who happens to be American?”
While the show had a lot of positive feedback and started a healthy dialogue about identity, some felt it was too much on the nose. This is how privilege works. It was a luxury to be able to say it was “too” or “too direct”. However, when it comes to fighting for basic human rights, it is never too much. It’s never too strong.
We have to tell our stories
It is clear that the road to a more equitable fashion industry is a long one. Until brands truly diversify their decision-makers and boards – not just with token hires, but with people genuinely willing to engage in difficult and uncomfortable conversations that challenge biases – that won’t change. And, let’s be honest, brands’ efforts to embrace Asian culture have been driven by the purchasing power of countries like China, India, and South Korea, not a moral awakening.
But, cynicism aside, much like the conversations sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests, the Stop Asian Hate movement invites a renewed examination of the role of fashion in perpetuating racism and discrimination – of the parades and the collections to the workplace culture.
“We have to be in every corner and exist in every space.”
It’s not enough. It’s time to speak up and mobilize.
The demonstrations of solidarity in recent weeks have been extremely heartwarming. I have demonstrated alongside my peers, activists, community leaders and regular New Yorkers, telling our truths and, among other minorities and marginalized groups, finding support and common ground.
The “End Violence Against Asians” March in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on February 20, 2021. Credit: Robert hamada
We have to be in every corner and exist in every space. The more our stories are told, the more our faces, experiences and humanity will be not only normalized but embraced.
We must claim our legitimate seats at the table, and then use those positions to empower other marginalized groups. Visibility is essential and we need to create our own stories and tell our own stories.