It's Time for Better Asian Representation in the Fashion Industry

A who's who list of fashion insiders put on a special screening of "Crazy Rich Asians" to celebrate seeing diversity on-screen.
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From L-R: Phillip Lim, Fei Fei Sun, Michelle Lee, Radhika Jones, Prabal Gurung, Carol Lim, Joseph Altuzarra, Kathleen Hou, Diana Tsui, Eva Chen, Laura Kim, Dao Yi Chow. Photo: Max Lakner/BFA.com

From L-R: Phillip Lim, Fei Fei Sun, Michelle Lee, Radhika Jones, Prabal Gurung, Carol Lim, Joseph Altuzarra, Kathleen Hou, Diana Tsui, Eva Chen, Laura Kim, Dao Yi Chow. Photo: Max Lakner/BFA.com

It seems that, on any given night in New York City, there's a fashion party happening somewhere. But the intimate event thrown at Metrograph on the Lower East Side last Thursday felt different, namely because it wasn't celebrating a collection, an ad campaign or a new collaboration — in fact, it wasn't about fashion at all. Instead, the party was all about screening the movie "Crazy Rich Asians," which hits theaters on August 15.

"This movie, when I walked away, I felt something," explained Prabal Gurung, one of the evening's hosts. "I started reaching out to my other friends, designers and editors; I was like, 'You know, we have to show up.'"

And show up they did. The list of hosts alone read like a Who's Who of the fashion industry: In addition to Gurung, Kathleen Hou and Diana Tsui of The Cut, Phillip Lim, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony, Hanya Yanagihara of T Magazine, Michelle Lee of Allure, Eva Chen, Joseph Altuzarra, Dao Yi Chow of Public School, Laura Kim of Monse and Oscar de la Renta, Tina Craig, Radhika Jones of Vanity Fair and model Fei Fei Sun were all on the event invite. 

Many, like Tsui, had been fans of Kevin Kwan's book series and were following along throughout the film's process, from casting to press tours, trying to find as many opportunities to support the movie as possible. "When I found out it was going to be a movie, I was super excited and I wanted to do as much as I could," she said. "I just felt I was at a point in my career working in media where I could really make a difference in terms of how [The Cut] covers this, how representation matters." Between Tsui and Gurung, a movement to screen the movie for friends within the fashion industry started, and the group of co-hosts was quick to grow.

"It was really important for me to co-host this event because I feel like I've been watching Asian representation in Hollywood, and this culture in general, my whole life, and I feel like when I was younger, we had so little representation that it really affected me, I think for my entire life," Lee said. "I think it's really important that we as Asians within the fashion community, within beauty, within everything else ... if we can help lend a voice to that, and just say, 'These projects can be really successful,' it's really awesome."

It's undoubtedly a big moment: "Crazy Rich Asians" marks the first major studio film with Asian-Americans in the lead roles since "The Joy Luck Club" was released over 25 years ago, something noted by every host. Of course, as in Hollywood, the topic of diversity within the fashion industry has reached fever pitch in recent years. While the runway and editorial worlds have made great strides forward from their once-whitewashed past, there's still a lot of room to grow — especially when it comes to the Asian community. 

"When it comes to Asians, and just people of color in general, I feel like there's still a lot of tokenism," said Lee, who put three Asian models on the cover of Allure's Hair Issue in June. "If you had a grouping of 20 models, there are a lot of people right now who still think that by putting one person of color within that mix, 'Oh, great, I've checked off the diversity box!' It's like, 'I've got my one Asian girl. We're all good.' [...] A lot of people think about East Asians, but then it's like, 'Wait, but where's your South Asian representation?'"

Something crucial for the fashion industry to remember as these conversations take place is that people are not boxes to tick off; to make things better, it's vital to give everyone a seat at the table. The Asian community, long stereotyped as the "model minority," can often be left out of discussions regarding race and representation. Those at the screening are hopeful that's changing. 

"I would like fashion to also be conscious about the power that we have, the visual power of changing the world," Gurung added. "For centuries, we've made women feel bad by telling them if you don't buy this product you're not worthy. I'm a firm believer that we have the power to make them feel better. Every group, every minority — women, transgender [people], Asian, Black, Latino — everyone by saying, 'You're part of our conversation.'"

For the hosts, the "Crazy Rich Asians" screening was about celebrating a visually stunning, deeply entertaining movie, yes, but it was also about seeing an entire community represented on screen as white people have been for decades: Encompassing the whole of the human experience, rather than pigeon-holed into specific boxes. The next step is harnessing the power of that visual representation and bringing it into the fashion industry.

"The whole reason that 'Crazy Rich Asians' struck a chord, it's all about inclusiveness and giving a voice and a vision to people who have had none, and I think the fashion community stands to go a long way in terms of giving that same idea to women," Tsui said. "I think this is, like Prabal said, just a tip of the iceberg of us figuring out that, hey, people get excited when they see themselves represented across the board. We just need to make a better effort."

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