Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Phillip Lim, Doo-ri Chung, Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, Richard Chai are among some of the most well-known names in fashion today. Even those who are less diligent about reading industry rags like WWD will recognize their names from widely publicized events such as the Democratic National Convention in which the future First Lady wore Panichgul’s raspberry and black floral silk dress or the Inaugural Ball in which she wore Wu’s white chiffon asymmetrical gown (beautifully!) or from two of the most popular fashion documentaries, Seamless (2005) and The September Issue (2009) in which Chung and Panichgul were separately featured. All of these designers, moreover, have won prestigious awards and recognition from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year – for the first time – all three awards given by the CFDA went to Asian Americans Chai, Wu, and Wang.

But what conditions led to the phenomenon of the rise of the Asian American designer? And what does the success of Asian American designers have to do with Asian markets, Asian consumers, and Asian immigrant labor? Finally, is there such a thing as an Asian American aesthetic – if so, what is it?

These are just some of the questions Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu explores in her new book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press 2011). While numerous lay and professional journalists have written about this phenomenon, Tu’s is the first book-length study devoted to the topic of Asian American designers in fashion. Masterfully drawing  together historical, ethnographic, and visual analyses, The Beautiful Generation is an incisive and elegant examination of “design as an Asian American practice and Asianness as a fashionable commodity.”

Throughout her book, Tu takes great care in tracing the complex tensions and intimacies between “a host of domains imagined as distinct”: Asian American designers and Asian immigrant sewers; transnational labor and consumer markets and local ones; and the symbolic and the material realms of fashion. As she points out, “The presumption of distance and disconnection has had the effect of obscuring the circuits that have always linked together culture and labor, material and immaterial, here and there.” The goal of Beautiful Generation is thus to tease out the institutional and informal exchanges and coalitions that constitute the art and practice of Asian American designers.

The Beautiful Generation is divided into two parts. It begins with a study of the material production of fashion – how Asian American designers have come to fashion and how they understand its nature. Tu’s discussion draws from interviews she did with designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists over the course of eight years. What is revealed in her interviews is “an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy” between fashion designers and garment manufacturers that disrupts common understandings  that pit these forms of labor as separate and distinct from one another.

Asian American designers have been able to navigate the demands of the fashion industry in part by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow them to access important resources and, in so doing, to transform what are usually considered market relations into intimate relations (of kin or culture) . . . These are acts of intimacy not just in the sense that they are private – though certainly they rely on and reconstruct the private domains of the family, with all its attendant problems – but also in the sense that they acknowledge proximity, contact, and affiliation between domains imaged as distinct.

In the second half of the book, Tu shifts her attention from the material production of fashion to its symbolic production. Specifically, she considers how the fashion industry frames ideas of Asianness. Analyzing more than 500 issues of fashion magazines published between 1995 and 2005, Tu argues that the aesthetic popularly known as Asian chic has fostered “in the fashionable public a sense of their distance from and superiority to Asia.” Tu contends, though, that Asian American designers who entered the industry during these peak years of Asian chic occupy a unique position.

While Asian American designers certainly contributed to the production of Asian chic, they failed to hew entirely to its economy of distance, struggling at times to forge connections to Asia (and beyond) and to assert the types of transnational intimacies that it precluded.

The author in 3.1 Phillip Lim.

The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides. More than that, it demonstrates how some designers have imagined “a world of intimacies” among designers, manufacturers, and government elites; political histories and cultural icons; and Asian diasporas and “other streams of internationalism” (a phrase Tu borrows from Lisa Lowe).

It’s an absolute pleasure to recommend this brilliant, timely, and wholly approachable book to Threadbared readers! And it’s not just because we have buckets full of love for Thuy Linh N. Tu but because her book exemplifies precisely the kinds of critical discussions about fashion, culture, politics, and economies that Threadbared is all about.


It’s Happening, Butterflies!  It’s Happening!

Our much-anticipated promotional giveaway of this fabulous book is here, is now! We’re thrilled to offer 3 lucky readers a free copy of The Beautiful Generation, courtesy of Duke University Press! To enter our drawing, leave a comment below telling us who your favorite Asian American fashion designer is and why – no later than Saturday, December 4. We’ll choose from commenters at random and announce winners via Facebook and Twitter on December 6. Good luck!




47 responses to “Why Have Asian Americans Become Such an Influential Force in Fashion? (Find out – and Win a New Book!)

  1. Christina

    I was actually clicking over to Amazon to buy the book before I finished your review hahaha! But my personal favorite is Phillip Lim because I would wear literally everything that he makes. I’m always on the lookout for the classic pieces that have just a little something extra, and he just delivers over and over again, every season.

  2. Phillip Lim gets my vote too. Clean lines, feminine details, day-to-night friendly. LOVE.

  3. Emma

    alexander wang. hands down. there’s few things i love more than semi-sheer cotton tanks tops.

  4. I may not be eligible to win but I can still vote – I love Lim and Wang and Thakoon (all now have moved decidedly from “emerging” designers to “established”) but I got a Thuy dress a few months ago that I absolutely LOVE. Her construction is meticulous – and once I read the last chapter of The Beautiful Generation, I appreciated it a million times more. If you don’t know Thuy Diep, GET TO KNOW HER.

  5. nancy

    Richard Chai — love the sense of ease his clothes present, even though he styles things in a fairly complicated, layered way. Light fabrics, slightly eccentric cuts, lack of overt embellishment: absolutely my favorite by far. I don’t like to wear a “total look” — and his things never have that overdone sensibility. Also easy to combine with other designers or vintage pieces.

  6. Paul J.M.

    Phillip Lim is currently in the lead for me. Primarily because I’m an avid wearer of the cardigan and I have been coveting the men’s zebra print one for a bit now. (Not to mention that great simplicity of his other cardigans and sweaters!)
    Alas, my grad student budget does not match my sweater lust.

  7. Diana

    I’m going to have to go with Phillip Lim right now. His looks are so easy and that’s what I need right now.

  8. Ohmygosh! WANT this book! Ditto what Christina said^^.

    If I could afford designer fashion, I would spend some money on DooRi. Her draping is so houglass-shape friendly. Her Fall 2010 collection makes delicious use of color and shine, but balanced well with dark neutrals.

  9. minerrva

    The book looks really interesting.

    As for fav designer, let me bring up my friend Le Sang de Betes, a young up-and-coming designer who’s doing really original stuff.


  10. Amy

    it’s a toss-up between phillip lim, peter som, and richard chai. i’ve liked almost all of lim’s collections, and i would wear EVERYTHING.

    i’m so excited about the book! even if i don’t win, i will be buying a copy 🙂

  11. My first instinct is Philip Lim–I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s kind of everything great about American fashion’s silhouettes and sportswear and use of reference and nostalgia with complete freshness.

    But I admit I have a thing about Alexander Wang–even when he drives me nuts, I always find myself defending him against his haters. Because his cheap or ugly partygirl thing, as they say, is endlessly compelling and relevant to me, personally. And again, that American zeitgeisty thing–good or bad, he has it!

  12. Amanda

    Alexander Wang – for the edginess.

    “The scholarly field of fashion studies is growing by leaps but it still tends to separate aesthetic considerations from material considerations, design from manufacture, culture from economy. The Beautiful Generation shows us the fiction of these divides.” <– How Exciting!! I can't wait to get my hands on this book.

  13. LN

    thuy diep, because minh-ha said so.

  14. hahahachu

    hmmm…. i don’t mean to be a trend-humper, but hands-down: Prabal Gurung!! he counts as AMERICAN, no?? his spring 11 collection is diabetes-inducing-fruit-flavored-popsicles…licious!!!

  15. Tomp

    Alexander Wang – sexy androgyny! And very wearable.

  16. Vera Wang for her longevity, a concept Asian culture puts premium on.

  17. tcjane

    Nagi Noda, for her hair sculptures… incredible.

    • tcjane

      Oops, while Nagi Noda is Japanese, she’s not considered Asian-American… in that case, I’d say my favorite is Angie Wang, illustrator and fashion designer.

  18. val

    Derek Lam because his clothes look comfy & casual but sexy

  19. Oh, goodness. I would dress in Phillip Lim every day if I could. If I could ever dress in his clothes for just one day, though, I would be happy. Cannot wait to have a chance to read Tu’s book!

  20. Steve Sun

    Chan Luu- her beaded wrap bracelets are amazing and a staple, and her RTW are simply timeless!

  21. I am assigning this book is both my classes next semester! Obviously not eligible either, but I can’t think of a designer I actually follow of any kind anyway…. (Though I have been thinking about Kurt from Glee as a sartorial example lately!)

  22. oh, i was hoping to get schooled in Asian American fashion, since i barely know anything about any flavor of fashion! i could fake it and learn a little about fashion to answer the question and be eligible, but the truth is, I probably don’t know any american designers at all (except the mass mass marketed ones). I know of Vera Wang, but don’t think i’d rank her style too highly. The closest figure I have good knowledge about and like as a persona is British, and not strictly a designer – Gok Wan.

  23. Phillip Lim because he’s actually fun and creative, which isn’t something you can say about all classic designers. As a graduate student that did her thesis about fashion is very exciting to see new academic texts about fashion.

  24. TT

    Another vote for Philip Lim because his clothes are cool and sophisticated! Looking forward to reading the book!

  25. ME! Ha, just kidding.

    I can’t believe no one is giving love to Jason Wu. He just seems to have a great energy in all his interviews and he’s got assymetrical eyes, like me. And I love his little owl mascot. And his clothes are fun but sophisticated and the prints and colors are pretty.

    • I think “Me” is a perfectly reasonable answer – thanks for sharing your site!

      • I don’t fully consider myself a fashion designer, so the “me” answer is a little silly in that sense.

        But anyway, I’m a huge fan of threadbared. Sorry I don’t comment alot… but I tend to think of insights to add to your guys’ posts way after I read them.

  26. Oh man, so difficult to choose! I adore Derek Lam, Anna Sui, and like Alexander Wang a lot. But the favorite is Philip Lim, for his classic and yet fashion forward silhouettes. I have a pair of his wide-legged trousers and they’re just sublime.

  27. Si Jia

    Anna Sui. Full stop.

    I love her utter craziness and mashing up of all these bohemian/lolita/punk-rock /flapper styles into something that is incredibly fun and extravagant. Simplicity and minimalism is great, but…frills and odd shapes and bright colours are cooler.

  28. rachel

    Thakoon. Maybe because of his prints, or because of how sweet he was in the September Issue.

    But mostly :

  29. s.u.m.

    doo. ri, cause its pretty

  30. em

    i’m voting for my grandmother…though not a designer in the manner of all those guys or anywhere in their league of personal aesthetics, she was the one who instilled in me the eye for craftsmanship and a respect for the skill that goes into making a garment from scratch. it was from this humble beginning, from someone who made her own clothes out of necessity, that i have the appreciation for the construction and artistry that is behind the clothing, beyond the mere look of what designers create, to see the legwork and understanding that makes the sublime possible.

  31. Anna Sui for her creativity, humor and longevity!

  32. I have a serious crush on Derek Lam’s Spring collection, particularly the dresses. They look like just the kind of thing I would want to wear with sandals in a breezy field somewhere.

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  34. JennC

    First person that comes to mind is Alexander Wang. I love the simple clean lines of his clothes, but what I love even more are his handbags. I just saw the new Spring stuff and the colors are amazingggg.

    I also have to say Vera Wang because I’m currently in the market for a wedding dress 😉

  35. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee

    As a grad student, I ‘design’ my own ‘designer outfit’ from nondescript labels. But prior to being a grad student, and as a Malaysian, I used to buy Malaysian designer pret-a porter clothes during saletime, so they qualify as Asians but not Asian-Americans. I like to go and see what’s new on the rack in design in @ Barneys and Bloomingdales. I recently saw Thakoon’s design in the “September Issue” docu about Wintour and Vogue and got to like his designs. But I guess the one that I have found fascinating for the longest time is Vera Wang, in terms of her non wedding-related designer outfits. Not sure if I would wear them if I could afford them, but I like the way they look in photography.

  36. joanna

    mmm Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzzarra (but I guess he’s really Italo-Asian or Asian-Italian)

  37. joanna

    oops, I forgot Joseph Altuzzarra was born and raised in France …

  38. Mai

    I love the printed fabric work that Alice Wu does with Feral Childe.

  39. what a wonderful post and the book looks so fascinating! i’d save my pennies for anything from the label Wayne – the designer, Wayne Lee is a girl after my own heart, and i love her easy chic-edgy style philosophy.

    keeping my fingers crossed! 😀

  40. absitively

    Jason Wu. My first instinct was actually Phillip Lim, like everyone else, but really, I think he’s very much more classic and mature that what I can relate with in my everyday wear. But Jason’s Wu’s clothes, I think, are all about the energy, the color, the fun. I always feels more perky after watching his runways.

  41. Clara

    My favorite is Thakoon Panichgul because is clothing is accessible — had a line at Target, can’t get more accessible than that!

    Also, Thuy Tu was my professor! She taught Intro to Asian American Studies at Cornell and it was one of the classes that really shaped the rest of my academic life in my undergrad years. (Prof Tu if you’re reading this, hi!)

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