New Emissary

‘Asianness’ in Fashion

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New Emissary

‘Asianness’ in Fashion

Will the ‘Asian Look’ have staying power with Asians themselves now they’re poised to become top consumers?

In the first in a new arts and culture series about Asia and fashion, The Diplomat looks at the long-running ‘Asian Look’ trend in fashion, and asks whether it’ll have staying power.  

A couple of months ago, the Wall Street Journal covered the Marc Jacobs’ spring/summer 2011 collection for Louis Vuitton show in Paris and reported that the Asia-themed collection—which consisted of ‘a parade of kimono sleeves, silk prints and mandarin collars’ offered up by the renowned American fashion designer—was widely regarded by critics as a flop. (Perhaps the appearance of a sequined panda shirt didn’t help it earn any extra points for class.)

But more interesting than the blasting that Jacobs got are some related points raised by the writer of the piece, Amy Ma. First, Ma notes that despite the panning of Jacobs’ latest collection, the ‘Asian look’ has in fact proven to have real appeal for consumers in the past, and still continues to—take Karl Lagerfeld’s spring/summer 2010 ‘Shanghai’ collection for example.

Too ‘China’ for Chinese Tastes?

But then she raises another interesting issue in light of this: Do Asian consumers want to wear such clothing? That is, would a fashion-forward woman in Shanghai for instance, walk the city’s streets donning a silk printed top with a mandarin collar just because it was featured on this season’s hottest runway show?

This question is going to matter more and more in terms of the bigger fashion picture, with the region becoming a major market for fashion.

According to Hong Kong image consultant Tina Liu, as long as a collection is creative or appealing (Jacob’s latest was neither, she says), there’d still be a market amongst Asian consumers for Asian-inspired fashions. She suggests, however, that ‘small accents work far better’ than ‘heavy-handed’ doses of Asian flair for accessible wear. In this way, says Liu, Jacobs’ most recent endeavour was simply ‘too “China” even for Chinese tastes.’

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 this topic in more detail.

The ‘Asian Look’ in Fashion

First, Tu, who while researching her book studied hundreds of fashion advertisements and collections from between 1995 and 2005 to look for patterns, distinguished for me some specific examples of what ‘Asian’ might actually look like in fashion designs. She told me that a few things that come to mind are ‘the stereotypical use of Chinese characters, or dragons and lotuses’ and such motifs and symbols in fabrics, or the use of silk. She also said colour is important, and red has been very big in representing the East along with gold, as they’re shades that tend to give off certain ‘opulent’ feelings.

Tu also mentioned some examples of the ‘Asian look’ that were especially popular in the 1990s in the United States, which she said included items such as the retooled cheongsam, ‘a lot of fabrics using lotus prints,’ elements like frog closures and reworkings of typical traditional Asian shapes, such as of the kimono, cheongsam or salwar kameez. ‘All of the major designers were using some elements of that, like Tom Ford used a lot of the kimono shape in Gucci and we saw it in YSL, Prada did it,’ she explained.

Asianness in Fashion

Furthermore, Tu added that one thing to remember is that the popularity of the Asian look in fashion wasn’t limited to the couture runways, with popular mainstream US clothing retailers like Urban Outfitters and even the more lower-end Target department store chain also having sold similarly inspired items of clothing. ‘It kind of straddled both ends,’ she pointed out.

As for Tu herself, whose family immigrated to the US from Vietnam when she was eight years-old, she said she wouldn’t wear any of these Asian-inspired looks, but she says only because she’s not personally drawn to them, with her own minimalist and simple style.’

But for other Asians based in Asia and in the West, she told me that in her opinion theywear these clothes for many different reasons,’ that can include being attracted to the aesthetic qualities of certain characteristics of the fashions or because it simply ‘looks good.’ However, she also suggested that sometimes there are deeper or more meaningful reasons: ‘Sometimes Asian people will wear it as a sign of ethnic pride, or national solidarity…’

It seems that for now, the Asian trend in fashion will still have room to thrive. Still, it’ll be interesting over the next few years to see how they’ll be received by emerging fashionistas in the East. Will they, if done subtly enough, catch on big time? Or will Asian consumers shun them to look for more ‘exotic’ offerings of the West?