“You can no longer separate what you do from who you are.”
As reports of crimes against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community across the country continue to rise, fashion and beauty industry professionals are coming together to bring attention to the issues they face, from micro-aggressions and the perpetuation of a “model minority” myth to physical violence.
Following the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco, the slashing of Noel Quintana in New York and other attacks on AAPI elders in recent weeks, a group of fashion designers, editors, influencers and high-profile figures — including designer Phillip Lim, Instagram’s Eva Chen, Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee, UBeauty’s Tina Craig, influencer Chriselle Lim and more — posted on their Instagram pages with the hashtag #StopAsianHate, speaking about these events and anti-Asian rhetoric, which has become a greater issue since the Covid-19 pandemic reached the U.S.
Designer Lim helped rally the initial posting effort — “because right now, if there isn’t drama or if it doesn’t trend, it doesn’t seem to make news,” he says — and brought on actors like Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, journalist Lisa Ling and civil rights activist Amanda Nguyên “to strategize and think of a way to tap into their networks and their communities,” so the message had a wider reach.
“Together, we’re trying to bring the whole spectrum, because it requires this type of unity,” he continues. “Because we are becoming. And to become, to end this violence, the silence really has to end.”
The primary goal, Lim says, was awareness, to make sure people knew about this increase in violence against the AAPI community across the country, even if it wasn’t making the nightly news. “What’s strange about the web and social media now, it’s the algorithms curating our own individual realities,” he argues. “This is part of how false news and misinformation spreads, because we all live in different news cycles… I have friends who never even saw this.”
Prabal Gurung has been speaking out about the attacks on the AAPI community since early last year and continued to advocate for an intersectional approach to anti-racism. In June, after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, titled “It’s Time for Asian Americans to Shed the ‘Model Minority’ Myth and Stand for George Floyd.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was at a dinner and some of my non-Asian friends were like, ‘Oh, the things that you’re posting — is it really happening?’ It really struck me,” he remembers. “They didn’t mean any harm by saying that, but that’s the thing about privilege, and especially white privilege: You’re able to pick and choose what to be concerned about. That led me to write in Washington Post about the silence within our community and the history of it, and then also this performative allyship.”
Often, Gurung says, he’s felt like “a lone ranger speaking up” in support of historically marginalized groups or about certain issues: “So many times I’ve been asked to shut up, asked to do my work and not speak up… I never looked at all of these issues as politics. I look at it as a human issue. It’s as simple as that. And I think all of us in a decision-making place are complicit in so many ways. Our silence is complicity. Our refusal to have this conversation around race is complicity. In my group of friends, I’m always the one to bring [things] up; if somebody speaks in an off-colored [way], I’ll correct it. You may not be the most popular person at the dinner table, but so be it. Being anti-racist and anti any kind of -ism is a lifelong commitment.”
The recent wave of crimes targeting AAPI elders — and the silence about it on mainstream media — struck a personal chord with the designer. “My mother lives in my building. She’s my entire world,” he explains. “I have breakfast with her every morning. She goes for a walk. She goes to swim. She meditates. She does yoga. She goes to farmer’s markets. It could be my mother. And I keep on thinking [about that] and it did it for me. It didn’t even need to be that way of thinking — there are so many layers to this stuff. The complete silence from the entire general public was something that really bothered me.”
Laura Kim, the co-founder of Monse and co-creative director of Oscar de la Renta, admits that, prior to this, she wouldn’t post about these issues on her personal account, because she felt she wasn’t the most informed. “A lot times, my friends would ask me to post stuff and I say no, because I feel like I shouldn’t be the one speaking, since I don’t know all about it,” she says. “But Phillip, Prabal and Eva made sure I did… A lot of times, people aren’t even aware. I actually wasn’t aware until Eva and Phillip told me about it.”
Once she did read about it, Kim says, she felt compelled to share a video with her creative partner, Fernando García. “If this happens to my parents or anyone I know that I care about or know, I’ll be really upset,” she notes. “And it’s not just talking about Asians — I’ll be upset by anyone getting hurt or treated like that… I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Last month, President Joe Biden signed an executive order denouncing “racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States,” recognizing the increase of “bullying, harassment and hate crimes” against the community since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. In October, the reporting center Stop AAPI Hate published an investigation into anti-AAPI rhetoric and policies from politicians ahead of the 2020 Election, specifically calling out former President Donald Trump as “the greatest spreader among politicians of anti-Asian American rhetoric related to the pandemic.”
“For so long, the question in the community was, ‘Why isn’t anyone seeing us? Why aren’t our stories being told? Why do we feel invisible?'” Lim asks. “It’s because culturally, [the norm is] to be respectful, to listen, to just take advice and do your thing. But when you take that type of value system into a different environment, like the Western world, it becomes more subservient, more obedient, more passive, [even though it’s not]. So now, we have to recognize that Asian Americans and Asians living in Asia have different experiences, and it’s time for us to speak up about it.”
The way Trump would use racist phrases like “China virus” and “Kung flu,” Lim continues, “really tapped into a raw emotion of hurt and turned that into hate against one another. We have to stop that.”
The fashion industry, in particular, has a responsibility to speak out on this issue and issues facing marginalized communities more broadly not only because of its massive platform and reach, but also because these groups represent their collaborators and customers.
“A lot of us produce out of China,” Kim says. “For a lot of brands, their core customer is Chinese or Asian. To be part of that chain, you’re responsible to speak out about Asians. Even if we’re living in America, our businesses [involve] Asian countries — Monse, our biggest market is China.”
Plus, the way Lim sees it, “you can no longer separate what you do from who you are.”
“Early on, I would get the harassment via DMs — the microaggressive, racially-tinged ‘Stay in your lane. Just make damn pretty dresses. I’ve been a huge supporter but now you’re trying to sell misinformation,'” he says. “I’m just like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’m just being myself, and you’re on my platform. So if you don’t like this, I appreciate what you have done, but I no longer will tolerate who you try to force me to be.'”
More recently, Lim was speaking with editors about his Fall 2021 collection, which debuted during New York Fashion Week. He was talking with WWD‘s Booth Moore about what he’s been going through, and she then went on to share a bit of their conversation on her Instagram. “This is the first time I feel like finally, we’re holding up multiple truths at one time,” he explains. “I mean, I was crying. I was telling Booth, ‘I don’t know what to say, but thank you.’ Because it’s been always separated.”
Lim founded his brand in 2005 and has been in the industry for over two decades. He’s seen the discourse around fashion evolve in that time, from the early days of people insisting, “It’s just clothes; it’s superficial.”
“Let me remind everyone: Unless you’re a full-time nudist, fashion affects every single part of your life,” he says. “You put on underwear — or you don’t, whatever, but you put on clothes. You put on shoes. You carry a bag. Guess what? It’s fashion. No matter what level of it, it’s fashion. It belongs to you, and you belong to it. What we wear becomes what we stand for. What we consume becomes what we vote for. You can’t continue to be in denial that they’re separate anymore. We have to realize that the audience is smart enough and aware enough to pick and choose. It’s up to you, as an individual brand or representative of a brand or fashion figure, to ask yourself what are your values and where your priorities are. Then, have the courage to take a stand. It might hurt in the beginning, but I promise you, the pain goes away and the love appears.”
All three designers agree that the first step is to ensure people know about these violent attacks on the Asian community. Then, it’s imperative for both individuals and companies continue to condemn racism and amplify voices that have historically been left out of the conversation.
“If you genuinely care about every other [person], you can’t pick and choose being an anti-racist, pick and choose specific causes,” Gurung says. “In fashion, to be completely honest, it’s the smaller brands and designers who will speak up. The established brands have a long way before they can consolidate and say something. But it becomes everyone’s responsibility, and the reason reason is, fashion is a democratic sport: Whether it’s ‘Project Runway’ or a magazine, someone in Timbuktu can look at a picture and say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that dress.’ It has that kind of a reach. It has that kind of influence and power.”
Lim concedes that it can be “a really delicate dance” for brands, to ensure their efforts are genuine and impactful, versus simply capitalizing on a conversation. “The first thing is you make sure that your company has diversity so that it has voices from all sides,” he says. “You have to first take a stand, and you have to realize you’re not standing for something trendy — this is standing against hate, this is standing on the right side of humanity and of history. You have to definitely listen. You have to not try to [be opportunistic] and make it your conversation, because that’s not going to go anywhere. You have to just be an ally, and part of being an ally is making sure that your environment looks like the world that you want to imagine.”
Over his career, Gurung has been in many rooms that feel very homogenous. “What I’ve realized is that a lot of people just want to clean up the front of the house, [but] the decision-making table still looks the same,” he explains. “More than 50% of that table should be filled with women, women of color, marginalized groups. Everyone should be represented there. The front of the house is like a Band-Aid, and when you rip it off, the wound is still there. It doesn’t heal. The scar remains.”
“When we’re talking about what the fashion community looks like, what New York fashion looks like, what American fashion looks like,” he continues, “include all of us — not just the Asian community, but Native Americans, Latinx, non-binary people, everyone. On a daily basis, not just during Pride, Asian Heritage month, Black History month. No, we want to be included in everyday conversation.”
On an individual level, folks can continue to raise awareness by not only posting and sharing stories with their networks, but also following and engaging with activists and AAPI organizations that have been doing the work, Gurung says: “Share those videos, and help us call this mainstream media. Have a dialogue. Donate to AAPI organizations. And also, support your local Asian businesses, support your local Asian leaders.”
He also encourages people to check in with their loved ones who could be hurting. “Simply ask these two questions,” he suggests. “How are you? How can I help?”