When the Chinese American designer Phillip Lim first gained notoriety in the fashion industry in the early aughts, he was part of a group of vanguard designers who were launching their own labels: Richard Chai, Peter Som, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, and Alexander Wang. “I remember back then, people were like, ‘Asian Invasion,’ and it was so derogatory,” Lim recalls in a recent interview of his peers at the time. “The truth is, none of us knew each other. It just happened to be this moment when we all descended on New York.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and a new groundswell of creatives is bucking the industry’s outdated expectations of what Asian designers should be bringing to the table. Dauphinette’s Olivia Cheng, The Row alum Allina Liu, Sandy Liang, Bad Binch Tong Tong’s Terrence Zhou, Commission, Sho Konishi, Grace Ling, Chan Chit Lo, and Ashlyn So are just a handful of designers who showed standout spring 2024 collections during New York Fashion Week. The new class is independent, creative, and speaks up for themselves—additionally, they’ve found community with one another, supporting each other’s brands publicly and often. Their designs prove the experience of being part of the Asian diaspora isn’t just one thing—and it can manifest itself in fashion in so many different ways. It’s all part of a larger movement bolstered in part by the Stop Asian Hate movement that began in 2020.
While mainstays like Anna Sui, Kim Shui, Naeem Khan, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Altuzarra, and Bibhu Mohapatra held steady with strong collections, there was plenty to talk about when it came to new and established talent alike this fashion week: Peter Do made his much-anticipated debut as creative director at Helmut Lang, incorporating flashes of Vietnamese poetry by Ocean Vuong into his designs; and Lim returned to the runway after four years with a triumphant and emotional show. Shao New York designer Shao Yang tapped legendary publicist Kelly Cutrone to organize her show, who brought the infamous scammer Anna Delvey into the fold as a co-host, generating a healthy amount of buzz. Two days after Sandy Liang presented her balletcore, floral-coded collection, she dressed Olivia Rodrigo in a red two-piece for the singer’s MTV VMAs performance.
It’s clear Asian designers are having a moment—but they stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, Lim points out. Asian American designers who hit their stride in the 1990s (Sui, Vivienne Tam, and Vera Wang among them) launched their brands in a market dominated by Donna Karan, Bill Blass, and Marc Jacobs; they made their designs stand out by reacting to those dominant forces with their own takes on New York City wardrobe staples. The generation of Asian designers that followed—Lim, Som, Mohapatra, et. al—pushed against the industry’s expectations of stereotypically Asian-looking clothing made by Asian designers with clean, minimal aesthetics that followed the codes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
These days, young Asian designers are often informed by modern identity politics, and bolstered by the Stop Asian Hate movement that grew out of the cultural turmoil of the pandemic, when Asian people were targeted, attacked, and blamed for Covid.
Zhou, designer of the buzzy label Bad Binch Tong Tong, is in a unique position to understand both the American and the Chinese perspective: he was born and raised in Wuhan, China—the purported epicenter of the coronavirus—and moved to the United States at age 17. “For a long time, people around me would say, ‘If you are trying to major in art or fashion, you cannot compete with white people.’ But creativity is in Asian people’s DNA—our culture is rich with philosophy, sculpting, pottery, visual art, and poetry,” Zhou told me the day after he staged his second show at NYFW, which blew up on high fashion Twitter due to its otherworldly, octopus-like designs presented in a church. “Now, it’s more about being brave. That’s a core theme of younger generations of Asian designers and creatives.”
Bravery has been a key part of Allina Liu’s journey in fashion, too. The designer, who titled her Spring 2024 collection “Between Worlds,” recalls feeling pressure to present more generally accepted Asian looks. “I was like, if I’m going to be an Asian American designer, I have to figure out ways to work in Mandarin collars and dragon motifs to show my heritage,” she says. “I would try to design that way, and for some reason, I felt like that wasn’t really my identity. For my very traditional parents, that’s what they wanted to see in my designs as well. But I was born and raised here, absolutely ABC—American-born Chinese. There are still nods to my culture (in the collection), but it’s not as literal anymore.”
Dauphinette designer Olivia Cheng’s show was packed to the gills with editors and fans of her twee, dainty, and inventive clothing and accessories. She integrated her Chinese heritage into the spring 2024 collection by beading the character for her mother’s last name, Shu, into floor-length gowns, much like the way Chinese artists would sign their works with a chop, or seal. “Asian designers are making distilled, thorough, and aspirational interpretations of who they are, but it’s not who they are in entirety, in identity,” Cheng says. “That is definitely something that the cultural lexicon, if you will, is creating more space for, especially within the AAPI community.”
For Sho Konishi, a Japanese designer who debuted at NYFW with a digital showcase, Stop Asian Hate was a major source of inspiration. “I got very angry about it,” Konishi says. “ I’m not just asking you to stop—you need to respect us, too.” The main theme, thus, for his spring 2024 collection? “Asians are cool!” he says.
There are marked cultural differences between Asian American designers and designers who grew up in Asia and now work in the United States. Konishi says he sees a difference in Japanese values—which call for working hard, keeping quiet, and letting the product speak for itself—while American designers tend to be a little louder.
“I express myself a lot,” he adds. “When I go back to Japan, the Japanese say, ‘Oh my god, you’re something else.’ I respect the Japanese culture of being humble, being shy, but we’ve got to fight, especially when it comes to hate.”
Both the old and new guards of Asian designers in New York City are raising their voices with their designs—telling their own stories and demonstrating that Asian identity is far from a monolith. “As painful as the memories were and all the things that we lost, we’ve gained a renewed sense of purpose and intention,” Lim adds. “And we gained a community.”