Photo caption: Maiden Noir is a menswear line with roots in the Northwest. Shown here is a summit down parka, with a big camo service shirt jacket, and a plaid flannel shirt, a classic staple of Seattle style.
On Jan. 19th, the Wing Luke Asian Museum of the Pacific American Experience hosted a runway show to accompany their exhibit, “Fashion: Workroom to Runway.” It was a festive, lively evening with more than 200 people crammed wall-to-wall inside the museum. The works of eight designers were featured: Gei Chan, Lady Konnyaku (Malia Peoples), Maiden Noir, Devonation (Devon Yang-Berrong), Gary Tang, BD Homme (Banchong Douangphrachanh), Luly Yang and Chrissy Wai-Ching, along with selections from the Momo boutique in Japantown. The show was a reminder of how fashion is more than just clothing. It’s a way for people to display personal style, or a way to transform one’s mood.It’s a way to become someone else for a day, or to bring out a personality that’s within you that you weren’t aware of before. Or simply, fashion is a way to look your best, to accentuate your body — even when you’re wearing something as utilitarian as hiking pants.
All fashion show photos by Soyon Im.
Chances are, that the shirt, pants, or the pair of shoes you’re wearing now, was made in Asia, assembled by factory workers in Bangladesh, China or Vietnam, where ready-to-wear clothing dominate the region’s exports. But who are the designers that originated the ideas, bringing together considerations of cut, color and fabric into each piece? Are they also Asian? That’s becoming more likely, as Asians and Asian Americans are taking firm root in the fashion industry.
The current exhibit at the Wing, “Fashion: Workroom to Runway,” charts the history of Asian American fashion and highlights the work of more than a dozen contemporary designers. It’s a delightful show that celebrates the glories of fashion, while pondering the challenges of working in the creative field. The display runs the gamut from couture to everyday wear, from Luly Yang’s exquisite Monarch butterfly dress that looks like something out of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to BD Homme’s insulated vest made for a weekend in the mountains.
The exhibit is both educational and fun. It includes a tribute to the Sunohara Dressmaking School started in the 1920s by an Issei woman. It highlights the personal bios of designers such as Gei Chan, who got her start in the ’70s working for the Gunne Sax label. There’s a replicate of a design studio by Malia Peoples of Lady Konnyaku clothing, whose post-college internship with human rights group Chinese Labor Watch made her acutely aware of the injustices of sweatshops. For do-it-yourself types, the exhibit includes a station where you can sketch your own designs and another area where you can try on clothing and pose for the camera.
Some of the text panels in the Wing’s exhibit acknowledge the difficulties of choosing a fashion career, posing the question that Asians commonly hear from parents: “Why don’t you go be a doctor?” Designer Banchong Douangphrachanh of BD Homme attests to the challenges of owning her business: “It takes so much work, effort and time. … I have to build my boat, row my boat. … I feel like I’m in an ocean on my own.”
Another panel shows the growing prominence of Asian designers, referring to a 2010 New York Times article, “Asian-Americans Climb Fashion Industry Ladder.” If you look up the complete article online, you’ll learn that major design schools around the world have seen an influx of Asian-American and Asian-born students. At Parsons The New School for Design, the alma mater of Jason Wu, the designer favored by Michelle Obama, roughly 70 percent of its international students studying fashion now come from Asia. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, 23 percent of the student body are either Asian or Asian American. Much of this growth is due to the changing attitudes about fashion, and perhaps shows like “Project Runway” that demonstrate the high levels of artistry, determination and ambition needed to succeed in a volatile industry. “Fashion: From Workroom to Runway” is an homage to those who’ve had the courage to forge their own paths, and an encouragement for more young people to enter the creative field.
“Fashion: Workroom to Runway” will exhibit through April 13, 2013. Details: www.wingluke.org/exhibitions/special.