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Ralph what? Donna who? Move over Marc Jacobs, because the next generation of high-end designers may be dominated by names such as Peter Som, Derek Lam, and Doo-Ri Chung. The winds of change are coming from the East, and these young Asian designers will change the way you dress. Forever.
The biannual New York Fashion Week is certainly a sight for sore eyes, with the angelic, statuesque models, socialite and celebrity-ridden sidewalks, perky paparazzi, and of course, the dazzling but ridiculously expensive ready-to-wear. In an industry dominated by New York’s big three (that would be Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein, for the fashion-unconscious), it came as quite a surprise when Time Magazine declared that four young Asian designers stole the show at New York’s Spring 2005 Fashion Week last September. Adding to the buzz, three of the ten young designers nominated for the Vogue and Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Fund award were Asian. Coincidence? I think not.
High fashion from 20th century was governed by the great ready-to-wear and haute couture designers of Milan, Paris, and New York. When people think of fashion, they think of the Italian powerhouses like Versace, Gucci, and Prada, or the Parisian couturiers like the houses of Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent. Americans broke into the scene when worldly socialites turned their attention to the timeless but fresh designs of Lauren and Klein in the 1970s, and Karan in the 1980s. All this left little room for young visionaries to break into the business.
The first Asian designers to emerge in the high-end fashion scene were Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake, circa 1980s Paris. The radical runway designs of this pioneering "big three" pushed the boundaries of fashion and truly reinvented the term "avant-garde". The term "Hiroshima-chic" transpired, in regards to their dark and sometimes all-black palettes that complemented the fine tailoring and bold silhouettes. After these Japanese success stories (who still remain influential today), fashion shifted its eye for innovation to the then up-and-coming New York designers Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors. It seemed as if the window of opportunity for new Asian designers had passed -- the only new, prominent Asian name to emerge in ready-to-wear was the spunky Anna Sui.
So why the halt in the flow of talented, innovative Asians? There is certainly no definitive rhyme or reason as to what or who will become fashionable. After all, clothes don’t make the man, right? To many older-generation Asians, dreams of becoming a fashion designer were equivalent to dreams of being a small-time seamstress, many of whom ended up working in sweatshop-like conditions once they immigrated to the United States. Asians in general are known to place considerable emphasis on education, scholarship, and financial success. Chinese designer Peter Som, 33, said, “My parents had more pressure on them to become doctors or lawyers. With this generation, there is an open-minded feeling in terms of what you can pursue as a career.” So maybe "this generation" of parents have changed --hence the remarkably high numbers of Asian students currently attending famous design schools such as Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Peter Som was one of the first of the new wave of Asians on the scene. This San Francisco native launched his first women’s ready-to-wear collection in 1999, and since then, has become a favorite among socialites, celebrities, and anybody else who can afford high-end fashion. It didn’t hurt that his designs were featured on HBO’s fashion fanatic series Sex and the City. Som’s upbringing -- he's the son of Hong Kong-born architects -- is visible in his collections. You certainly won’t see dragons splashed across the clothes, but you will notice the clean, traditional lines and vibrant sense of color.
At this time, we also saw the rise of Andrew Gn, a poster boy for Singaporean talent, in Paris. He began at the house of Emanual Ungaro in 1992, but was hired to direct French fashion house Balmain in 1999. Gn was unfortunately terminated after one season, but what first seemed like humiliation turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The termination allowed him to focus on his own line, which quickly became the next hot item for New York socialites. While most designers only dress the socialites for their soirees, Gn was given socialite status with invitations to attend.
Next on the scene was Korean born Doo-Ri Chung, whose collection debuted in 2001. Chung was no amateur -- she had spent six years alongside the late, great Geoffrey Beene and before that, designed for Banana Republic. Her collections are amassed in the most unlikely of places: a studio beneath her parents’ dry-cleaning business in New Jersey. In spite of the lack of glamour in her workplace, her collections have been described as nothing short of heavenly. Her jersey dresses drape perfectly on a woman’s body, regardless of her shape or size.
Cut to 2003 -- the explosion of Takashi Murakami at Louis Vuitton. Japanese pop artist Murakami had been well known in Japan throughout the 1990s, but became celebrated worldwide for his collaboration with Marc Jacobs on Louis Vuitton’s ubiquitous accessory line. Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti prints on the LV monogram were so passé; it was now all about the cherry blossom and the multicolor monogram. Murakami infused a stuffy, age-old line with a beautiful color palette and quirky cartoon prints. Murakami’s limited-edition bags were sold out everywhere, prompting desperate Vuitton fanatics to pay double or triple the price (i.e. several thousand USD) for the pieces on eBay.
That year also marked the beginnings of Derek Lam’s solo ready-to-wear line. This New York and Hong Kong-based designer was also no newcomer; he had spent 12 years working with Michael Kors. Lam’s brand-name resume didn’t give him much of a head start though, which was made obvious when not one retailer bought his Fall 2003 collection. Lam worked for everything he has become today, and describes his clothes as having elements of Asian propriety, restraint, and rusticity.
2004 was a great year for Asian designers. Last year, we saw the arrivals of ready-to-wear collections from Jeffrey Chow, Thakoon Panichgul, Richard Chai and wedding virtuoso Vera Wang. Hong Kong-born Chow was an industry veteran, having worked at Perry Ellis and Emilio Pucci for the past decade. Thakoon Panichgul’s line of modern minimalism, Thakoon, evokes the glory days of minimalist master Calvin Klein. A former Harper’s Bazaar editor, Panichgul draws inspiration from both his Thai background and his Nebraska upbringing. Richard Chai was responsible for revamping the luxury label TSE as its former creative director, and has also worked closely with Marc Jacobs. And if you haven’t heard of Vera Wang, please check your vital signs, because you may have been unconscious for the past decade. No wedding is a real wedding unless you have a Vera Wang gown -- there was no fashion in bridal until she came along. This former Vogue editor and Ralph Lauren design director is the granddaughter of a Chinese warlord. Wang began her luxury bridal collection in 1990, but became an industry mogul with the launches of her fragrance, fine jewelry, eyewear, footwear, home collection and -- just last year -- ready-to-wear.
Jeffrey Chow, Thakoon Panichgul, Peter Som and Derek Lam were named by Time Magazine as the four designers who stole the spotlight at New York’s Spring 2005 Fashion Week. In the September 27, 2004 article "Visions from the East", Kate Betts writes, “You could call it an Asian invasion, except that none of these designers would classify his look in such confining geographic and cultural terms, even though each admits that his work is informed by his roots in unexpected ways.” But the publicity didn’t stop there -- the Spring 2005 collections of Som, Lam, and Doo-Ri Chung were nominated for the Vogue and Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Fund award. Som, Lam, Chung, and Chow also received the prestigious Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation grant awards.
Right now, these designers seem to have it all -- publicity, celebrity and socialite clientele; significant financial backing and incredible vision. But the primary question remains: will they remain in the spotlight for seasons to come? The Japanese "big three" and Anna Sui managed to do it -- but the collections of this new generation are a sharp contrast. They lack the avant-gardism and funk, but according to Time, they make up for it with “subtle dressmaking details and a ladylike ease”, with their inspiration from “classical and conservative muses”. These designers are more about wearable, everyday clothes than shock value. This generation has integrated an East-meets-West feeling into their collections; though subtle, it provides their clothing with feminine and distinct elements suitable for women and their mothers.
Fashion is almost as fickle as a teenage girl looking for her flavor of the week. In an industry driven by seasonal trends and anticipation for the next big thing, it is no small feat to become a ready-to-wear staple. Who knows what everybody will be wearing in the next decade, or even next season? This generation must demonstrate their ability to produce fresh, sophisticated, and wearable clothing season after season. This youthful class of Asian designers has already proven that they can dominate right now, but will any of their names ever become synonymous with industry giants like Ralph or Donna? Only time can tell -- but their futures surely look promising.
P.S. Aside from the designers mentioned above, some up-and-coming names you need to know include: Kimora Lee Simmons of Baby Phat, Junya Watanabe (protégé of Rei Kawakubo), Wakako Kishimoto of Eley Kishimoto, Yeohlee Teng of Yeohlee, Mary Ping, Zang Toi, Hanii Yoon and Gene Kang of Y&Kei, Benjamin Cho, and Tsumori Chisato (protégé of Issey Miyake).
Date Posted: 3/10/2005