When was the last time an Asian person was on the cover of a non-Asian magazine? Our invisibility is real. Our invisibility is a fact. The fashion industry has failed to represent us on so many levels, but more than that, it’s just unaware. People have this preconceived notion about the Asian community as a largely successful community. The term “model minority” exists in order to homogenise us and create the illusion that we are always doing okay, but this is not the case. We struggle. In every nook and corner of the industry – from the decision-making tables and executive positions to the runway – we struggle. In a world where people from Asian countries represent about 60 per cent of the global population, Asian people are rarely, if ever, the leading cast.
I will never forget casting the Asian model Ji Hye Park to open my autumn/winter 2013 show. There was collective scepticism about whether this symbolised “luxury”. This kind of micro-aggression and micro-racism is so implicitly built into the system that fashion doesn’t even know it is doing it. There is a deeply embedded colonialism and tendency towards othering. It feels like we are there for the larger population’s entertainment – and the nuances between Asian Americans, East Asians, Southeast Asians and brown Asians are lost constantly. It is important for people to realise that all our stories matter, and that they are all unique.
It is also important to recognise the intersectionality of this anti-racism movement: every marginalised group should be included in these “woke” conversations. Our voices should not be confined to a specific month, like Asian heritage month or Black history month. Seeing marginalised communities come together – and the Black community saying “Asian lives matter”, and vice versa – at the recent anti-Asian violence protests gives me hope. There is a history of solidarity between the Black community and the Asian community, but there have also been problems within the Asian community regarding anti-Blackness and anti-brownness, so we’re working to dismantle this. Individually, you can create noise, but collectively, we can create a revolution. Hope is the ultimate form of resistance to hate.
I didn’t think these difficult and vital discussions would happen within my lifetime. I have constantly been checked about my values and my integrity. On the 10th anniversary of my brand, I met with potential investors to discuss my vision for presenting the America that I live in – the one that is colourful, that is full of different races, genders, sizes and ages; the one I didn’t see being represented. The white executive in the boardroom table said to me, “How can you define America when you don’t even look American?” What he was implying is that I don’t look white. There was complete silence as I explained that I have been living in America for over 20 years, I own my business, I pay my taxes and I make 90 per cent of my clothes in New York. What this man failed to recognise, is that my perceived “otherness” is as American as it gets. I didn’t get the investment and I will never forget that moment, because it hurt my very core. I went back to my office in tears and changed the concept of my spring/summer 2020 show to one that challenged: “Who gets to be American?”
After presenting my autumn/winter 2014 collection, inspired by the peaceful and beautiful Mustang region of Nepal, a white, female director of a retail platform came to my showroom and screamed: “If we want to see something like that, we can watch the History Channel. We don’t need anything cool from you, we just want something pretty”. That time, I could not fight back. I never match harsh words with harsh words because my mother always taught me, “Grace under pressure”. I lost that business account.
The Atlanta killings were exhausting, heartbreaking and devastating because they were triggering. These hate crimes have been gaining momentum since President Trump called coronavirus the “China virus” and gave permission for all the racists and bigots to go full force and attack our community. The women killed in Atlanta, those working class matriarchs of families, are familiar faces. The older folks who are being attacked in the streets feel like family to me, because they could easily be my mother.
When I speak out, it’s not because I can’t fight my battles, it’s because the generation before us didn’t speak up. They showed up, did their work, and I have tremendous respect for that because everyday was a fight. But for the next generation, it’s my responsibility to speak up and provide them with support, so that they don’t always look around every room and count how many people of colour there are.
Asking the industry to show up and do the right thing by not being complicit in all the biases, racisms and micro-aggressions that we’ve been dealt all our lives is important, because at the moment it is predominantly independent, smaller, or younger brands who are speaking up. The minute we are gone, the conversations and the questions, which will lead to solutions, will disappear. For businesses reading this: ensure your team is diverse from the top down, not just in front of house roles where they can be seen.
Check your eye. The things that you call chic, the music that you love, the food that you savour; how is this opinion informed? The industry and the world suffers from having a Eurocentric, patriarchal, colonial point of view. Anything that is not within that sphere is labelled as “exotic” and then fetishised, suggesting that minorities are only good enough for certain kinds of roles, or that we are supposed to perform. We are stronger when the world is colourful – visually and metaphorically.
Being an ally means showing up consistently, and not just in times of crisis. It means making a consistent commitment to deconstruct biases, to have difficult conversations, to be unafraid to say I don’t know, and to be prepared to hear, “Well, Google it,” from a marginalised person, because they are exhausted explaining. Practise your activism – not just in spaces where you feel comfortable, but where you will make an impact. Do not get frustrated and give up, because the road to anti-racism is a lifelong journey. Have hope. Take action.