Photo:Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic;Photo by SAVIKO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
When someone asks about the influence of Asian culture on the fashion industry, it's common to point to the label on the back of your shirt reading "Made in China/India/Thailand." But the impact of Asian heritage and Asian designers in fashion goes far beyond clothing labels. Some of the most prominent designers in the industry are of Asian descent, and Asia has also been the birthplace of many important technological advancements, such as the discovery of silk. Although Asia has contributed greatly to the world of fashion and technology, the term "Asian" fails to capture the diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and styles within it.
The fashion industry has a long history of failing to represent marginalized groups, and it's crucial that we continue to be allies, particularly to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. This is especially important in light of the recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.
While some brands are donating proceeds to AAPI organizations, it's important to recognize that this is not enough. As fashion lovers, the easiest way we can actively fight racism is by learning about and shopping for pieces from the AAPI community. Ahead, we're highlighting some of the designers, both from the United States and abroad, who showcase not only a range of fashion designs but also humanity. Keep scrolling to discover more about them.
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No one does evening wear quite like Bibhu Mohapatra. The Indian-born designer is known for his exquisitely detailed and colorful evening gowns that make jaws drop. His talent and contribution to the industry have earned him a seat on the CFDA board, and he remains one of India's most beloved designers. Mohapatra's designs have even caught the eye of former First Lady Michelle Obama. While his pieces are only available online, he continues to showcase India's budding talent and leave a mark on the global fashion industry.
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Let it be known: Nobody quite did it like the late and beloved Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. His mastery of tailoring and avant-garde designs has expanded the way we dress through deconstructed androgynous pieces since the '70s. Which other designers can take a traditional piece and make it camp without it having to be worn to the Met Gala? Yamamoto's work, though often in black, is the most provocative. His tenure has continuously made us question what constitutes a quality piece and what our clothing says about us.
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Born in Hiroshima, Japan, Issey Miyake was one of the original designers who paved the way for Asian designers to take center stage in the international fashion world. Miyake began his career working at Givenchy and then started his own brand, Miyake Design Studio, in the '80s. Through experimentation, he became known for his iconic thinly pleated pieces. While he passed away on August 5, 2022, his pleated pieces and his legacy of being a maverick continue to inspire the fashion industry.
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It's hard to imagine what the fashion industry would be like today if Kenzō Takada had listened to society's expectations and not pursued a career in design. Growing up in Tokyo, it was taboo for a man to work in the fashion industry, and Takada wasn't even allowed to attend design school. But that didn't stop him from moving to Paris and starting his own brand. He disrupted cultural norms and created ready-to-wear collections 45 years before they became widely adopted in the industry. Takada was also the first designer to feature his groundbreaking, over-the-top floral patterns in the European-dominated couture space at the time. Although he passed away in October 2020, his legacy as one of the first "outsiders" to bring Asian design to the cultural forefront lives on.
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If there were a fashion power duo, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim would undoubtedly fit the bill. Though not a traditional power couple, their friendship and work have made a significant impact on the industry. Back in the 2000s, it was rare to find a brand that committed itself to making fashion exploratory and creating space for emerging artists, as Opening Ceremony did. While Leon and Lim's careers have since evolved—they've stepped down as creative directors for LVMH’s Kenzo brand and shuttered their retail stores to focus solely on their own label—there's no denying the enduring impact they've had on the fashion world.
Photo:Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; PICTURED: Awkwafina
Few designers have mastered the art of creating feminine yet tailored clothing quite like Joseph Altuzarra. Born and raised in Paris, with a professional background that includes stints at fashion giants like Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler, this multicultural designer's creations exude a blend of French sophistication and practical American-girl charm. What's truly remarkable about Altuzarra is that, as an Asian designer, he creates clothing that appeals to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds. This quality is what sets him apart and makes his work so special.
Photo:Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Prabal Gurung
When we consider designers who not only draw inspiration from their cultural roots to inspire their work but also leverage their creations to uplift communities, Prabal Gurung comes to mind. Despite being based in New York, the Nepalese American designer consistently uses his work to raise awareness for global issues. In addition to crafting stunning, consciousness-raising clothing, Gurung established a foundation to support underprivileged children in Nepal and is committed to generating sustainable job opportunities and income. In essence, this designer is transforming the world, one garment at a time.
Photo:Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs
Unlike some other designers, Anna Sui isn’t afraid to do things differently. In fact, her entry into starting her own line was spurred by getting fired and having savings of $300. But with friends like Pat McGrath and Steven Meisel encouraging her and models like Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell walking her runway, Sui was bound for success. Her success, however, didn’t come from stars like Madonna wearing her looks (though, that helped). In truth, Sui was unafraid to dip her toes into grunge or into trends people would consider “ugly.” She carved out a niche for herself that allowed her to break through the noise to make the world more colorful.
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Anyone who dreams of having a wedding one day has probably heard of Vera Wang. But what many don’t know is that, unlike other designers, her first career wasn’t in design. In fact, she wanted to be a figure skater. But after not making the Olympic team, she went on to work at Vogue. Shortly after that, she designed her own wedding dress, and the rest was history. Although Vera's path to becoming the iconic designer she is today was tumultuous, her journey since then has been showered with accolades. She has expanded beyond designing wedding dresses and has become a cultural icon in her own right.
Photo:Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Athleta
Look up the word "polished" in the dictionary, and a piece from Derek Lam’s collection should appear. Before the American-born designer became known for his work, established his spinoff brand 10 Crosby Street, and even won the CFDA Swarovski Perry Ellis Award; Lam started his career in the '90s working for Michael Kors. His coming of age during a time of uncertainty in the fashion world may have been what led him to create timeless pieces that continue to endure.
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If you can remember that stunning white dress Michelle Obama wore the night of the inaugural ball in 2009, that was by none other than Jason Wu. Since that moment, Wu has become a force in his own right, including having his work featured in the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But don’t be fooled; that’s not all he’s been up to. He’s had collaborations with Target, Bergdorf Goodman, and even Eloquii. Basically, Wu is one for the history books.
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It should be noted that Phillip Lim did not even think being a designer was an option. In fact, he started his journey by studying business and economics. The call to design eventually lead him to start 3.1 Phillip Lim in the fall of 2005, and while some designers work under the helm of other houses, Lim jumped right in and has only designed for himself throughout his career, which makes his work so sincerely his. After all, no one quite nails the balance of duality quite like Lim.
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Sandy Liang may be a newcomer to the game, but don’t get it twisted. You need to keep your eyes on this young designer. She started by interning under Jason Wu, Phillip Lim, and Opening Ceremony but eventually took the leap and started her own brand. Since then, her granny-chic aesthetic (inspired by her grandmother) has garnished a unique following. While her work pays tribute to her roots, ultimately she designs the type of clothes you find any New York girl wearing on the subway: a little bit practical, a little bit quirky, and totally chic.
Photo:Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Moda Operandi
Some of the greatest talent in the industry is coming from China at the moment, and Huishan Zhang is one of them. While newer to the industry, the London-based designer has become known for his ability to meld Eastern and Western styles to create feminine, classic pieces inspired by history. While he might pay tribute to the past through silhouettes and themes, Huishan Zhang is definitely the future of fashion.
Photo:Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait has become a beloved brand by many in recent years, including Beyoncé and the Duchess of Sussex. Started by Malaysian-born designer Han Chong in 2013, the brand had a rapid rise to success, which can be attributed to the fact that his work fills a gap within the industry. His designer pieces are achievable both in the fiscal and physical sense, and who doesn’t love a brand that you can wear to a royal wedding or your best friend’s wedding?
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While Guo Pei was well-known among the Glimmerati of China, she wasn’t a player on the international stage until Rihanna came out stunting her stunning yellow gown at the Met Gala in 2015. Honestly, we’re so grateful to Rihanna for it because Guo Pei is the couture designer of our dreams. Finding inspiration from embroidery, fairytales, and painting traditions that date back thousands of years, Guo Pei’s work is always larger than life and embodies what couture is. The question is, will she create a ready-to-wear collection in the future? And if not, how can we get away with wearing one of her pieces to Trader Joe’s?
Photo:Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows
Early on in her career, Korean designer Laura Kim was someone everyone knew to keep their eyes on. Not only did she win scholarships from the CDFA, but she was also asked by Oscar de la Renta himself to join the team after interning. Her decade tenure as studio director allowed her to meet Dominican-born designer Fernando Garcia, who became a close friend and eventually a partner. Together, they went on to launch their first brand, Monse, and after two years were brought back to the helm of de la Renta. While Kim co-designs for both brands and her partnership with Garcia defines what it means to be a power couple, let it be known that Laura Kim is a badass in her own right. This woman continuously shows her ability to shift from brand to brand and that her talent cannot be limited.
Photo:Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Chitose Abe has been in the design game for a minute, but she’s not quite followed the same path as her popular Japanese predecessors. She began by working as a pattern maker at Comme des Garçons until giving birth to her child. From there on, she was slow to grow her brand, Sacai. While most would assume this is a terrible strategy to keep her brand under the radar by not immediately opening stores or showing in Paris, it’s paid off. Not only does Abe approach the growth of her business differently, but she also designs pieces that combine the discipline of textural Japanese pieces with the practicality of everyday life.
Photo:Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic; PICTURED: Rihanna
It would be a travesty to define Rei Kawakubo just as a Japanese designer. While she did grow up in Tokyo and rose to the international stage around the same time as some of her counterparts, this woman would detest such an unoriginal definition of her, and it does not behoove her influence. Her work can be viewed at the same level as Coco Chanel—forever altering the way women dress and giving us permission to explore the boundaries of gender, body, and femininity through vanguard, deconstructed pieces. No other designer has really ever pulled off the extensive amount of changes and exploratory work that Kawakubo has from season to season. After all, it doesn't get more exploratory than Rihanna's Met Gala look. Kawakubo has become known for her ability to not only rebel against the norm but to make us question it as well.
And isn't that the mark of a designer that's truly changed the fashion industry? One that's able to design pieces that are not only seared into the cultural zeitgeist but deeply moving? There's no denying their impact, it's in every stitch.
This post was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.