Front Row with Chinese American Designers at MoCA

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

NEW YORK - Ancient China was known as the “Kingdom of Clothing and Hats” (yiguan wangguo), with great attention paid to all aspects of garments as unfailing indicia of social hierarchy and propriety. But for the better part of the twentieth century, China’s most memorable contributions to the history of fashion were cheongsam and some of its characteristic attributes. After the Maoist revolution, fashion took a back seat and for a while the rest of the world saw the Chinese only in identical blue suits, with bicycles as their sole accessories. And Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist movement initially made China a giant machine churning out low-quality copycat clothing. So where is the Kingdom of Fashion? Can the Chinese create original designs?

Skeleton print stretch netting cheongsam with black satin piping detail, Vivienne Tam, Fall 2007 collection.

Silk Party dress from Anna Sui’s Spring 2007 Pirate Collection.

As Chinese fashion designers from China gradually come to the international scene, their U.S. counterparts are grabbing the headlines and becoming their inspirations. “Front Row: Chinese American Designers,” which opened last week at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York, gives a long overdue stage to the Chinese American designers by chronicling their emergence as a group of disparate backgrounds, trainings, inspirations and influences. Tracing thirty years of design against a backdrop of New York establishing itself as a fashion capital, Chinese immigrants buying garment factory production in the 1990s and American designers defining an aspirational lifestyle, the show gives a deeply personal voice to each of the Chinese American designers represented. 

Grapefruit embossed overcoat with multi-textured pullover, shirt and skirt from Phillip Lim’s Fall/Winter 2013 collection.

One should note that the style of the “Old Shanghai,” referring to Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s (see my related blog “In the Mood for Cheongsam: New Women in Old Shanghai”), was the last pinnacle of  “Chinese fashion.” But the “Paris of the East,” as Shanghai was known at the time, unlike its Western counterpart, did not pivot its fashion industry around established couture houses or organized industry, but thrived through numerous tailors who followed the dictate of “the vast, unaccountable waves of communal fancy,” to quote Eileen Chang.

Actress Gong Li wore this Chinese folk art-inspired lacquered red knit gown from Zang Toi’s Spring 1991 collection to the Oscars.

If the history of Chinese fashion was not accustomed to producing great arbiters/masters of taste such as Chanel, Vionnet and Poiret, what does it mean to be a Chinese fashion designer? In the wake of the “Japanese Revolution,” counting designers with distinctive styles such as Issey Miyake, Takada Kenzo, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, that took Paris, and then the international fashion scene, by storm, Yeohlee Teng, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam were setting up their shops in the 1980s. By the time Zang Toi was named one of the “New Faces of the Nineties” by Vogue Magazine and Vera Wang opened her bridal house in 1990, designers of Chinese descent had yet to reach a critical mass to be labeled with a “group identity.”

Cardinal strapless ball gown with hand-rolled floral detail skirt and horsehair trim, Vera Wang, Spring 2013 collection.

In recent years, Asian American designers, and Chinese American designers in particular, are getting into the forefront of our fashion vocabulary. Endorsements by celebrities and notables, as well as by prominent awards, also help propelled these designers into the forefront of the media’s consciousness. This years’ Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) alone, Alexander Wang is a leading contender for womenswear designer of the year award, after having previously received the Swarovski Award for emerging talent in women’s design; Vera Wang will receive a lifetime achievement award; and Phillip Lim is a candidate for accessory designer of the year award.  And who other than Jason Wu could have even dreamed about having Michelle Obama wear his designs twice to two inauguration balls?

Navy silk tulle embroidered harness gown, Jason Wu, Spring 2013 collection.

Although they shared the Chinese roots, their upbringings were as diverse as their styles: Zang Toi grew up in Malaysia, Anna Sui is from Michigan, Vivienne Tam from Hong Kong, David Chu from Taiwan, Derek Lam and Peter Som grew up in San Francisco, Phillip Lim in Thailand, and Jason Wu grew up in Vancouver by way of Taiwan.

Me, in a number by Derek Lam, attending a New York fashion show (Photo credit:

How has their Chinese “heritage” influenced their designs? This is a loaded question—how often have you seen a French designer (say, Coco Chanel) or an Italian designer (say, Miuccia Prada) being asked how her French or Italian heritage influenced her designs? Presumably, it is taken for granted that a French or an Italian designer would be part of the international “main stream” that is beyond ethnic identities.

A view from the exhibition.

In fact, most of the pieces included in the show do not incorporate any familiar “Chinese Element” traditionally associated with the Chinese attires, e.g., Mandarin collar, cheongsam (qipao) or silk embroidery, except for the Chinese folk art-inspired lacquered red knit gown from Zang Toi’s Spring 1991 collection and the skeleton print stretch netting cheongsam with black satin piping detail from Vivienne Tam’s Fall 2007 collection.

In an interview included in the catalogue that accompanies the show, Phillip Lim said: “I’m not creating qipaos or dragons embroidered on satin, you know? What I do is just create clothes . . . The Chinese influence is through the thought. Through humility, integrity, tenacity. In the culture, what’s more important is the stuff that’s not said.”

When I asked Anna Sui how her Chinese heritage plays a role in her designs, the designer with proclivity to recurring romantic and rock-and-roll themes replied: “I give my parents a lot of credit for my success. . . .  Growing up and learning about Chinese culture from my parents, and hearing them talk about all the different places they had lived . . . prepared me for thinking globally. Their experiences were a gift to me. I inherited a distinct open-mindedness. This perspective took away any fears of being able to function in a foreign country. I intuitively understood that you can do business everywhere, you’re not limited to where you live.”

Designer Zang Toi attending the show with his girls.

Conspicuously missing from the show is Alexander Wang, who could not participate due to his other commitments. The first designer of Chinese descent to take the design helm of a (former) couture house, Alexander Wang has made “models off-duty” his signature looks for his eponymous label and has garnered all spotlight and great expectation of what he would do at Balenciaga. When the news broke late last year about his new Paris-based gig, media went into frenzy about whether his Chinese background, presumably an advantage in the largest growing luxury market in the world, had something to do with the new assignment. When was the last time that you heard that a Chinese background was actual a plus on a designer’s resume?

Jason Wu, during his speech as the Honorary Chair for the Asia Society’s 2013 gala, thanked his mother for fulfilling his wish to have a sewing machine as his first Christmas gift. He also mentioned that last year when he gave a speech at a university in Taiwan, 500 students turned up for what he expected would be a 30-person affair.  Fashion has become a viable vocational choice in a culture where traditional parental expectation had been built around a career for lawyers, doctors and accountants. 

Thanks to the new ground broken by these Chinese American designers, more young designers in Greater China are dreaming about the world as the stage for their designs.


Museum of Chinese in America

21 April  – 29 September 2013

215 Centre Street

New York City

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