If you weren’t that well versed and someone asked you what you knew about the influence of Asian culture within the fashion industry, you look to the label on the back of your shirt that says “Made in China/India/Thailand.” But the truth is that the influence of Asian heritage and Asian designers in the fashion world goes beyond a label on the back of a T-shirt. Some of the most prolific designers in the industry have been of Asian descent, and if you were to go back even further, some of the greatest technological advancements, like the discovery of silk, have come from Asia. But it comes as no surprise that Asian as a descriptor fails to represent the vast array of nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and even style within it, which is why, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting some of the designers both from the United States and abroad who show the full spectrum not only of fashion design but of humanity. Keep scrolling to learn more about them.
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.
Let it be made clear that no one quite does it like the beloved iconic Japanese designer, Yohji Yamamoto. He is a master of tailoring, and in many ways, his avant-garde designs have expanded the way we dress through deconstructed, androgynous pieces since the '70s. What other designer has the ability to take a traditional piece and make it camp without it having to be worn to the Met Gala? In truth, Yamamoto’s work (though often in black) is the most provocative, for his tenure of work has made us continuously ask ourselves about not only what constitutes a quality piece but also what our clothing really says about us.
Born in Hiroshima, Japan, Issey Miyake in many ways 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 is now retired, these pieces and his legacy of being a maverick continue on.
It’s hard to imagine what the industry would be like today if Kenzō Takada had listened to what society said and chose not to design. Growing up in Tokyo, it was taboo for a man to work in the fashion industry; Takada wasn’t even allowed to attend design school. But that did not stop him from moving to Paris and starting his own brand. From there, cultural norms were not the only thing Takada disrupted. He created ready-to-wear collections 45 years before it became widely adopted within the industry. He was also the first designer to have his groundbreaking, over-the top floral patterns splashed across the European-dominated couture space at the time. While he’s handed the helm over to Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, his legacy will be that of one of the first “outsiders” to bring Asian design to the cultural forefront.
If there were such a thing as a fashion power duo, then Humberto Leon and Carol Lim would be that. While they’re not the traditional power couple, their friendship and work have changed the industry. It was rare in the 2000s to find a brand that gave voice to designers from around the world. Leon and Lim really dedicated themselves to making fashion exploratory and creating space for emerging artists through Opening Ceremony. So it came as a surprise to many in the industry when they choose to become creative directors for LVMH’s brand Kenzo. In retrospect, though, it makes sense for them, as they’ve always had a knack for creating work that not only uplifts and honors the voices of other designers but explores new territories as well.
No one has quite perfected feminine yet tailored pieces like Joseph Altuzarra. Raised in Paris, with experience working at multiple household names—like Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler—the multicultural designer’s work has come to embody the French aesthetic with a pinch of American-girl pragmatism. Basically, he's an Asian designer who creates the kind of clothing anyone, of any background, would want to wear, and that in and of itself is what makes him so special.
If you think of the coolest woman you know, she without a doubt owns something from Alexander Wang. Raised in San Francisco by Taiwanese American parents, the designer success can be attributed to his ability to be at the forefront of what’s cool. Just look to his larger-than-life shows or how he led the charge for collaborations with sportswear brands like Adidas. In truth, Alexander Wang’s work has taken the art of high-low dressing and given us all permission to play.
When we think of designers who not only tap their cultural roots to inspire their work but also choose to use their work to uplift communities, we think of Prabal Gurung. The Nepalese American designer may be based out of New York, but he continuously uses his work to raise awareness of what’s happening around the world. Look to his S/S 19 collection, inspired by the foothills Nepal. Beyond creating beautiful clothing, Prabal has started a foundation to help undereducated children in Nepal and is dedicated to creating sustainable jobs and income. Basically, this designer is changing the world one piece of clothing at a time.
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.
Anyone who dreams of having a wedding at some point in their lives 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, you can guess, was history. While Vera’s journey to becoming the iconic designer was tumultuous, her path since then has been showered with accolades and has expanded beyond wedding dresses to becoming a cultural icon in her own right.
Look up the word polished in the dictionary, and a piece from Derek Lam’s collection should be pictured. But before the American-born designer became known for his work, or before he established his spinoff brand 10 Crosby Street, and even before winning the CFDA Swarovski Perry Ellis Award; Lam started his career in the '90s working for Michael Kors. One could say, his coming of age in a time of uncertainty in the fashion world has lead him to create pieces that stand the test of time.
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 and Bergdorf Goodman and even recently has created another plus-size line with Eloquii. Basically, Wu is one for the history books.
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 Phillip Lim.
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.
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. His last showing for S/S 19 included a collaboration with artist Vivien Zhang to create unique, printed pieces that feel as if they exist both in the past and the future. While he might pay tribute to the past through silhouettes and themes, Huishan Zhang is definitely the future of fashion.
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?
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?
No one quite does evening wear like Bibhu Mohapatra. The Indian-born designer specializes in the type of exquisitely detailed and colorful evening gowns that make jaws drop. Hence he sits on the CDFA board and continues to be one of India’s most beloved designers. But he’s not just admired abroad; even Michelle Obama has worn his work. While his designs are only available online and in certain Bergdorf Goodman locations, his ability to showcase a part of the budding talent coming out of India is felt everywhere.
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 onto 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.
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.
While Anaïs Jourden Mak may be one of the emerging designers on this list, her ability to get her work across 18 cities in a matter of five years has earned her this very spot. The Hong Kong–born designer has really become a sensation, with her work spotted on Ariana Grande in the "7 Rings" video as well as on Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski. It makes sense that the designer has blown up so quickly. Her work feels like a fresh take on femininity, glossed over with a pop of pizzazz.