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Prabal Gurung: Anti-Asian sentiment runs deeper than you think

Written by Prabal Gurungnew York

Prabal Gurung is a Nepalese American fashion designer based in New York City. All opinions expressed in this article are the property of the author. The feature film is part of CNN Style’s new Hyphenated series, which explores the complex issue of minority identity in the United States.

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.”

Prabal Gurung

Here is where we are:

A torrent of anti-Asian hate crimes has been committed, including the brutal assault of elderly Asian men and women in broad daylight. Among them, Vilma Kari, 65, who, last week in New York, was told “F ** k you, you don’t go here, you Asian”, according to the criminal complaint, before being pushed to the ground and repeatedly punched by his attacker. The shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left six Asian women dead. So far, nearly 3,800 hate incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate over the course of a year. It is as if there is an open season for violence against Asians.
Using terms like ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Kung flu’, former US President Donald Trump gave the coronavirus a face, an Asian face, and for that we have all suffered. While his damaging rhetoric has undoubtedly fueled these hate crimes, their roots run deep into the underlying racist currents that have long affected our communities in the United States.

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.’ ‘

Prabal Gurung

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.

Fashion inspired by minority cultures, or rooted in the heritage of a minority designer, can be characterized as “exotic” or “ethnic”, or quietly decried as “tacky and garish”. Tone deaf campaigns and racist clothing are often created because there are no people of color in the room who feel empowered enough to stop them from moving forward.

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.”

Prabal Gurung

Asian Americans in the industry should recognize that we have an important role to play. Overall, more than 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, according to the United Nations. Asians are the biggest consumers of clothing in the world, and we manufacture most of them as well. Still, we said our voices didn’t matter, we mostly played supportive roles, quietly and obediently responding to business needs.

It’s not enough. It’s time to speak up and mobilize.

Take the time to donate, develop your skills by participating in harassment intervention training, and support existing social justice organizations and initiatives such as Stop AAPI Hate and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). Familiarize yourself with nonprofits like Gold House and Define American that shape culture, shape solidarity through intersectionality, and create lasting, impactful long-term solutions for the challenges our communities face.

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.

Prabal Gurung: Anti-Asian sentiment runs deeper than you think

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.

Image caption top: Prabal Gurung captured during the “Black and Asian Solidarity” march in Union Square in New York City on March 21, 2021 by a photographer Robert hamada.


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