Exhibition spotlights Asian Americans in fashion

A new exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City highlights the contributions — many of them unrecognized — of Asian Americans at all levels of the fashion industry, from garment factory workers to high-end designers.

In doing so, “Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation” reflects the economic diversity of the Asian American community, which according to the Pew Research Center has the biggest wealth gap of any racial or ethnic group in the US

“The goal with fashion designers is to show the wide range in which Asian Americans approach design and show that not every Asian American will approach designing something the same way,” Maurizio Marrero, an FIT graduate student who helped organize the exhibition, told NBC Asian America. “With the topic of labor, we as a class felt like that topic was overlooked in exhibitions, and it’s something that we felt very strongly about including in the show.”

The exhibition, which runs until March 27, was curated by FIT graduate students as a response to the rise of anti-Asian hate since the pandemic.

“Chinese Garment Workers at East Broadway Factory” by Harvey Wang, New York City, circa 1983.Courtesy Harvey Wang

One section of the exhibition is dedicated to labor. It features a video of garment workers on strike in 1982 in New York City’s Chinatown, where over 20,000 garment workers, most of whom were women of Asian descent, went on strike to protest what they considered unfair working conditions. The strike was a major victory for garment workers and a turning point for their union, which began working more closely with the Asian American women it represented.

“A lot of the time, labor sectors get overlooked when it comes to fashion and exhibits,” Sophia Daniel, another FIT graduate student who helped organize the exhibition, said. “Especially when it comes to communities that are working hard within their communities to promote workers’ rights, fair wages and working conditions, it’s important to highlight that and acknowledge the hard work that those people have done for future generations and themselves.”

Another section displays materials about how Asian Americans in the fashion industry have promoted sustainability, innovation, minimalism and generational connections. Another shows different pieces from Asian designers, such as the Thai American designer Thakoon Panichgul and the duo Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony.

One of the pieces on display is a 1997 brown jacket with gold sequins by Yeohlee Teng that features the designer’s label above another label with the name of the seamstress who sewed the garment, “Sue.” Highlighting both tags in the exhibit points to the invisibility garment workers faced in their work.

Ruben Toledo, "Tug of War Continue..." illustration in Paper Magazine, December 1997.
Ruben Toledo, “Tug of War Continues…” illustration in Paper Magazine, December 1997. Courtesy Ruben Toledo

A dress by Naeem Khan features an embroidered bodice, a key feature in his designs and an homage to his parents’ embroidery company in India.

The exhibition concludes with a section displaying the wide range of prominent and lesser-known Asian designers from the last 60 years and their collections. A black denim jacket with bright green paint commissioned by designer Shail Upadhya “bridges fashion and art,” according to the exhibition’s brochure, while a green coat with brass buttons and horse details by designer Gemma Kahng “shows the contrasting role of mass-produced design in the New York fashion industry.”

A strapless navy blue evening gown from the 1950s by designer Linda Kinoshita was a favorite among the graduate students, Daniel said. “It was just this really special piece and no one had ever heard of her. So we got to research her more and just confirm that there has been this impact and design from earlier years that has gone unrecognized.”

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