The Genteel
March 5, 2021


L to R: Vera Wang, Peter Som, Vivienne Tam, Jason Wu and Wayne Lee. Source:

In every major urban capital, there exists a familiar mosaic of streets; an area with humble beginnings - a refuge of sorts that has spun itself into a neighborhood with economic and political clout. Travel to a Chinatown in London, Mumbai or Washington, D.C., and you'll find similarities - vendors with incredible deals, dim sum and fresh produce options.

Anna Sui babydoll sketch and dress (S/S 2007).

But like human beings, no two cities are exactly alike. As one of the first ethnic enclaves in North America, New York's Chinatown is home to one of the city's oldest jewellery districts and textile emporiums. Amid the bustle and dizzying storefront lights, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) quietly sits as a testament to the community's storied past.

MOCA's latest exhibit, Front Row: Chinese American Designers, celebrates designers who have stepped into the limelight, building labels that have become institutions unto themselves. Guest curated by designer Mary Ping, the retrospective features pioneers like Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam; their experiences in the fashion industry are gently contrasted with the rise of young talents like Jason Wu and Opening Ceremony's Carol Lim and Humberto Leon.

The walls of the gallery are lined with inspiration. Video screens play interviews with designers and original studio sketches - like Sui's drawing for a dress (complete with fabric swatches) from her S/S 2007 collection paired with Yeohlee Teng's venn diagram pattern (on paper) for A/W 2012. And of course, there are the dresses.

Rows of mannequins display an array of riveting designs. A dreamy, floor-length evening gown from Jason Wu's S/S 2013 collection calls to mind a starry night with its airy layers of navy tulle and tiny silver sequins; while a silk maxi tank dress by Jade Lai, a West Coast native, displays her unique hand-drawn prints - a distinctive feature of her in-house collection, Creatures of Comfort.

 'I really don't want to be one of the 20 assistant designers for Calvin Klein.' I want to be Zang Toi. I am not interested to be the next Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis or Donna Karen. I just want to be Zang Toi.

Conversely, Vera Wang's red, horsehair-trimmed gown stands alone. Its breathtaking glamour, and relative remoteness, is symbolic of how Wang has built her career. "Bridal is a very special area of creativity for me," Wang explains to museum-goers, "it enables me to be theatrical, to work in different proportions, different scales… the year I did this dress was the year of the red bride collection… this particular dress not only reflects the technical ability of my rooms ('cuz you are only as good as your rooms who create the clothing), but it also reflects looking forward and looking back simultaneously through my heritage… I believe this was definitely a moment for me where I wanted to embrace that colour and what it symbolises to not only Chinese-Americans but to everyone." Nearby, patchwork from Philip Lim's A/W 2013 collection borders a soft, buttery brown leather shift dress by Derek Lam.

From Alexander Wang's appointment as creative director to the house of Balenciaga to Jason Wu's inaugural gowns for First Lady Michelle Obama, young Chinese-American designers are taking on prestigious roles that are eclipsing past hardships.

For Helen Koh, MOCA's Executive Director, the exhibit's timing couldn't be better. "I had been here for a year, but even before I came, there had been discussions to do some kind of fashion exhibit… there were all these great ideas, and then I thought, Chinese-American designers totally makes sense because it's their moment. There are so many [designers] who are getting awards, getting appointments at major houses… clearly Chinese textile influence on U.S. history is great… however the idea of Asian-Americans as designers rather than just consumers or people who are just creating textiles and prints - that is relatively new. For Front Row, we wanted to show where that all began."

Wayne Lee, who donated a dress from her own S/S 2012 collection, attended the public opening. As visitors drifted past her black-and-white stripped halter dress (a collaboration with painter Benjamin Degen), the womenswear savant described her excitement about the exhibit. "I just felt it was a perfect time to show all the designers here in New York and what they are doing… I am really honoured to be selected as a [presenting] designer, to be a part of the show."

Aside from gorgeous tailoring and craftsmanship, Front Row is also a reflection of cultural plurality. It asserts the diversity in being Chinese-American, and how contemporary designers like Lee are pushing past limiting stereotypes. "I am Chinese, but I've never been back to China," Lee explains, adding, "but of what I do know… it can be difficult [for anyone] to understand all of the different levels of creativity that are happening there now."

L to R: Vivienne Tam (A/W 2007), Zang Toi
(S/S 1991) and  Peter Som (A/W 2010).

For menswear designer Dana Lee, a Canadian who launched her career in New York, being identified as an "Asian designer" can be limiting - especially because the term doesn't take into account her biracial heritage. In a separate phone conversation, Lee recalls feeling slightly conflicted when deciding the name of her label. "When I did decided to use my own name it was really scary.  I actually didn't want to. I used to have another brand, A-Z, and I was quite comfortable hiding behind a more generic brand name."

Lee continues, "And then it sort of made sense to [use a] namesake for a few different reasons… one is that it's timeless… I wanted to do that - I hated my name, and I thought if I used the name Lee, it might stereotype me as an Asian designer. Which… I have nothing against Asian designers, but it's not really part of my identity. And I also didn't want to use my name Dana, because it would reveal that I was a woman doing menswear. In the end I decided to go with my own name…  and all the things I was afraid of never really materialised."

The existence of Chinese-American talent in the fashion industry is nothing new. Front Row simply points out how their contributions (up until the 1980s) were often limited to behind-the-scenes. As Zang Toi explains in his video interview for the exhibit, "I always wanted to do my own thing. I graduated in 1984, and I remember the chairman of my department wanted to set me up with interviews at Calvin Klein, Donna Karen, Perry Ellis… I was working for a little young designer in SoHo, I told the chairman of the department, 'I really don't want to be one of the 20 assistant designers for Calvin Klein.' I want to be Zang Toi. I am not interested to be the next Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis or Donna Karen. I just want to be Zang Toi." 

"Front Row: Chinese American Designers" runs through September 29 at the Museum of Chinese in America.




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