“Front Row: Chinese American Designers” exhibition.
THROUGHOUT THE RECENT and meteoric rise of Asian-Americans in fashion, there have been numerous milestones, as when Alexander Wang was named the creative director of Balenciaga last year, or when Jason Wu designed Michelle Obama’s first inaugural gown in 2009 (and her second one this year). Before them, beginning in the 1980s, came a handful of pioneers, like Vera Wang and Anna Sui.
Underscoring their rapid ascent is a pair of fashion exhibitions opening Friday at the Museum of Chinese in America. One shows the influence of Western dress on Shanghai fashion from the 1910s to 1940s, a period before designer names were established in China; the other focuses on designers of the last 30 years, who are now stars in the United States, and increasingly so in China. The change in perception is all the more impressive when you consider that the museum’s last exploration of fashion was a history of Chinese laundry workers organized by the New York Chinatown History Project in 1983.
“Now you don’t think of Chinese-Americans in fashion in terms of laundromats,” said Helen Koh, the museum’s executive director. “You think of fashion designers.”
Front Row traces and celebrates the rise of Chinese American designers who decided to make their marks in New York. In the 1980s, designers such as Anna Sui, Yeohlee Teng, Vera Wang and Vivienne Tam emerged in the New York fashion scene just as the city was transforming its identity from a garment center into one of the fashion capitals of the world. Curiously, the growth of New York’s Chinatown, the preponderance of Chinese manufacturers (tailors and seamstresses) in the city’s garment district, and the increased outsourcing of garment manufacturing to China, occurred alongside the rapid growth of fashion’s creative industries and a broader shift towards creative driven production in New York.
Since then, a new generation of young designers, from Derek Lam to Phillip Lim, have gone on to build global enterprises alongside established figures in an international fashion world. The diversity of their aesthetics, their individualized approaches to branding, and their varying personal relationship to cultural identity has shaped what we now understand as not only New York fashion, but an American sense of style.
This exhibition, guest-curated by designer Mary Ping, features the unique visions of 16 designers amidst a larger narrative of social and cultural forces that accentuated and cultivated this group’s rise. Front Row will feature designer assemblages of signature looks while drawing on personal reflections that speak to unique artistic visions and entrepreneurial paths. From the origins of their careers and development of signature styles, to understanding their own complex relationship to the concepts of New York and Asia, the exhibition will explore the rise of these Chinese American designers and their relationship to New York City.
Guest Curator: Mary Ping
Exhibition Design: Rebecca Shea