It’s hard to believe that it was just five years ago that designer Phillip Lim launched his own fashion label, 3.1 Phillip Lim. Already, both he and the brand have become international household names with anyone who knows anything about fashion. This year his label is slated to bring in $60 million in profits.
Lim, a Cambodian-American who’s ethnically Chinese, was recently interviewed by CNN, which deemed his designs ‘a staple of the young and fabulous,’ that are ‘revered by celebrities and critics alike.’
And interestingly, the interview starts off on the topic of the ‘impossible to ignore’ fact that there’s currently a wave of Asian-American designers climbing the fashion ladder, of which Lim and others, like Jason Wu and Alexander Wang, are a part.
‘What do you think that is? Is it something about the Asian work ethic? What is it?’ the interviewer asks Lim, to which the soft-spoken and personable designer responds:
‘I think that the Asian work ethic definitely plays a part…but Asian society and Asian culture, it’s very aesthetically driven. I think we’ve always been in fashion—just behind the scenes. It’s interesting, because I’m always getting this question too, and we (Asian-American designers) come from such different paths. We took different roads to get there, and it just so happened to be coincidental in the timing for this rise, if you will. I think it’s deep-rooted in a culture that places visual aesthetics as a priority—face, as they say.’
When asked whether Asia stirs something in him, Lim, who grew up in California after his family fled Cambodia when he was still a child, answers:
‘Yes, it’s so emotional…I grew up in a duality where day was Western culture and night was completely Eastern culture. I grew up fighting my Eastern heritage, my Chinese side. As I get older I have this innate yearning to realise my roots and get deeper in touch with them.’
This all reminded me of when I recently spoke to NYU professor and author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, about the topic of ‘Asianess’ in fashion.
Tu herself is a Vietnamese-American who was doing her graduate work in New York back in the 1990s. She told me that back then, she’d be walking around ‘downtown New York in neighbourhoods like the East Village and Nolita’ and noticed ‘all of these stores opening up with Asian designers—just very small-scale little boutiques.’ At the time, she says, ‘it occurred to me that it was an interesting phenomenon since fashion isn’t necessarily what we associate with Asians.’ Tu asserts that since ‘we tend to associate Asians with lower-end, mass-produced clothing and not the kind of high-end high-fashion that we’re seeing today,’ she thought it was ‘a very interesting question, about how these people got here,’ and started researching the topic.
We also spoke about how Asian-American designers incorporate ‘Asianness’ (read the article ‘Asianness in Fashion’ for more on what exactly Asianness looks like in fashion) into their fashions and how it might bring up deep personal issues of identity for them. On this, Tu had some interesting insights to share. She suggested that for Asian-American designers in particular ‘it’s really difficult because they don’t want to be seen as just recycling old Asian motifs.’ She told me that’s because it’s simply ‘not the kind of identity they’re projecting as designers,’ and that rather they are ‘kind of hip, downtown, high-fashion designers.’
But at the same time, Tu says they are ‘for many reasons also drawn to these motifs whether there’s just a cultural link or there’s a market niche or you know there’s just a kind of expectation.’
Tu, wrapped up by telling me that in her opinion, it’s all a very ‘tricky line’ for Asian designers to walk, ‘because on one hand people are like, “well you’re Asian but you’re not doing anything ‘Asiany,’” so somehow you don’t seem authentic, and on the other hand the designers don’t want to lose credibility as creative people, who don’t just draw from their own whatever imagined cultural backgrounds but actually are influenced by many other things.’
The link between identity and culture continues to have numerous layers and has touched many people in our increasingly globalizing world. It’s something I’ll continue to touch on throughout our in-depth arts and culture series in 2011.
Images: Vivienne Tam on the runway, by Max Talbot-Minkin (top), Phillip Lim by Ed Kavishe (bottom).