From Viet­nam to Chi­na: five Asian design­ers ready to explode

Rui Zhou, Ximon Lee and Commission are just some of a new crop of Asian designers repping their heritage while making inspired garms.

The indeli­ble impact that design­ers of Asian descent have had on the fash­ion indus­try is as far-reach­ing and wide-rang­ing as the con­ti­nent itself. Think of Rei Kawakubo’s relent­less defi­ance of con­ven­tion­al norms, the wave of young and direc­tion­al South Kore­an design­ers to emerge in the past decade, and those Amer­i­cans of Asian ances­try (Alexan­der Wang and Jason Wu to name two) who have cor­nered the main­stream market.

The com­mon thread among these names and so many oth­ers is not mere­ly their Asian her­itage, but the inge­nious ways in which they’ve chal­lenged com­mon assump­tions, stereo­types, and motifs often asso­ci­at­ed with their her­itage and ethnicity. 

Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Sandy Liang, Snow Xue Gao, Pra­bal Gurung, and many more, the new(ish) crop of Asian and Asian-Amer­i­can, Par­sons-bred design lumi­nar­ies is giv­ing us all some much-need­ed, renewed hope for the future of fashion. 

Hail­ing from Viet­nam and South Korea to a range of remote and cen­tral cities in Chi­na, each tal­ent brings a dis­tinct, fresh per­spec­tive to the indus­try, cham­pi­oning new and nev­er-before-used tex­tiles; culling inspi­ra­tion from their unique and inti­mate rela­tion­ships, expe­ri­ences, and back­grounds; and cre­at­ing wear­able yet whol­ly orig­i­nal col­lec­tions that’ll leave you utter­ly gagged.

Rui Zhou

Age: 25

What’s the coolest way you’ve seen your clothes styled? 

I love see­ing peo­ple wear it with­out a lot of extra stuff – I think it looks real­ly pure. And I love see­ing peo­ple mix it with some shirts or some oth­er real­ly prac­ti­cal items of clothing.

Your work kind of reminds me of stock­ings with rips or holes in them. Was this intentional?

I thought of this as well. When mak­ing my col­lec­tion, I was think­ing a lot about women’s objects because my con­cept is about three women in my fam­i­ly: me, my mom, and my sis­ter. I was try­ing to con­vey a real­ly female expe­ri­ence and feel­ing, and so I was research­ing women’s objects and found that stock­ings are a very obvi­ous exam­ple of this. So I tried to manip­u­late my fab­ric to make it appear almost like stockings.

I read that you’re intrigued by the idea of pain. Is this some­thing you gen­uine­ly enjoy? 

Every­one expe­ri­ences some pain at some point, and I just want to express that feel­ing. It’s anoth­er form of ten­sion as well. 

I just enjoy the pain dur­ing the design process, but I don’t real­ly enjoy the feel­ing of pain in a pos­i­tive way. The entire design process is a real strug­gle, which is anoth­er way I expe­ri­ence pain. Because every time I try to think of some real­ly fresh idea, I have to first look at a lot of ref­er­ences and make sure that what I’m doing hasn’t been done before and is orig­i­nal. So it requires a lot of brainstorming. 

I read that you’re inter­est­ed in explor­ing the feel­ing of addic­tion. Is that true? 

In a sense, I am kind of addict­ed to pain, but only in my habits. I was born in Hunan province, Chi­na, and in my city, all of us like spicy food. Which may explain one of the rea­sons why some­times I real­ly enjoy pain because eat­ing spicy foods can be painful.

Andrea Jiapei Li

Age: 29

Com­fort seems super impor­tant to you. What, in your opin­ion, are the most cru­cial design details to ensure a gar­ment is as com­fort­able as possible? 

To me the idea of com­fort is two-fold – the phys­i­cal and the psychological/​emotional com­fort. While I tend to use func­tion­al fab­rics, over­sized yet ele­gant sil­hou­ettes, and sports­wear-inspired details to ensure phys­i­cal com­fort of the gar­ments, I hope my designs play a role in mod­ern women’s emo­tion­al world as well, whether it is to instil con­fi­dence and strength, or to bring new per­spec­tives about how women could see them­selves. At the end of the day, being com­fort­able with who you are is one of the most valu­able per­son­al assets. 

Can you tell us the sto­ry behind Rei Kawakubo buy­ing your first col­lec­tion for Dover Street Market?

Andy and James, the buy­er and the store man­ag­er at the time, reached out about my grad­u­ate col­lec­tion soon after it was shown in the Par­sons MFA show. It was not intend­ed to be a com­mer­cial col­lec­tion, so I didn’t even have or know about line sheets [doc­u­ments pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion on a prod­uct for whole­sale sales]. I just showed up at their office with two suit­cas­es of sam­ples. We lat­er pro­vid­ed the line sheet and received an order from Dover Street Mar­ket, which felt sur­re­al and real­ly marked the begin­ning of the brand. 

I was nev­er in direct con­tact with Rei, but I was a bit sur­prised to learn that our store instal­la­tion pro­pos­al had to be per­son­al­ly reviewed and approved by her. I think her ded­i­ca­tion and hands-on approach are very respectable and like­ly have con­tributed to her long-last­ing cre­ative and com­mer­cial success. 

For your SS19 col­lec­tion, you cel­e­brate women who have chal­lenged the con­ven­tion­al mean­ing of dress­ing like a woman” in the work­place. Are there any women in real life (or fic­tion­al char­ac­ters) who exem­pli­fy this idea to you? 

As I was work­ing on the SS19 col­lec­tion, one of the ear­li­est mood board images was that of Mae Jemi­son, the first black woman to trav­el in space. In this pho­to, Mae Jemi­son was aboard a space lab mod­ule, grav­i­ty-free, and sur­round­ed by dash­boards, wires, and tools. She was wear­ing a pair of car­go pants with a tool­box strapped onto her thigh, and a jumper with her mis­sion insignia on it, look­ing into the cam­era exud­ing such grace, con­fi­dence, and hopefulness. 

To me, Mae Jemi­son real­ly chal­lenged the con­ven­tion­al notion of dress­ing like a woman” in the work­place on both lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive lev­els, as she was able to defy gen­der (as well as racial) stereo­types as to what a woman could accom­plish pro­fes­sion­al­ly, as well as the type of work­place where she may strive and make an impact. 

What is your most trea­sured pos­ses­sion in your wardrobe? 

It is a NASA bomber jack­et I bought a few years ago when I vis­it­ed the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um in DC for the first time. When I was a kid I was already fas­ci­nat­ed by the top­ics of space and space explo­ration – I’d read Hawking’s A Brief His­to­ry of Time and learned about NASA’s role in space explo­ration, which is why I was so excit­ed to vis­it that muse­um and come across this jack­et with a NASA patch on it that I could take home with me.


Age: Jin, 31, Huy, 29, Dylan, 27

Your fab­rics look so com­fy and plush. Where do you source them from, and what’s your favourite fab­ric to work with?

We work with most­ly Ital­ian mills and have recent­ly start­ed exper­i­ment­ing with [fab­rics] from Japan. Our favourites are vis­cose twill, silk chif­fon, and flu­id poly­ester. These give us a lot of room to play with our cus­tom prints, which we would say is becom­ing a huge part of our visu­al iden­ti­ty. More impor­tant­ly, they are rem­i­nis­cent of what our moth­ers used to wear – we love the irony packed in a lux­u­ri­ous silky tex­ture that car­ries an inex­pen­sive syn­thet­ic sheen. 

Your ref­er­ences and sources of inspi­ra­tion are always so spe­cif­ic, nuanced, and orig­i­nal – which, in itself, chal­lenges those tired Asian tropes and motifs that we’ve seen fash­ion design­ers use. Who else do you think does (or did) this par­tic­u­lar­ly well?

Thank you for rec­og­niz­ing that, as it’s been such a key approach to the way we’re telling our sto­ries with Com­mis­sion. We think a lot of Asian and East Asian artists have been and are still doing this pret­ty well and unique­ly. We love the work of sev­er­al Japan­ese and Thai and Chi­nese pho­tog­ra­phers dat­ing back to the 1960s, 70s, and through­out the 90s, like Keizo Kita­ji­ma, Masato Seto, and Liu Xiaodong – to name a few.

They tell the Asian sto­ries in such a pure voice that cel­e­brates Asia for what it is and not as a roman­ti­cized vision like how fash­ion or art in the West has done for quite a long time. We think that to com­bat the stereo­typ­i­cal and blan­ket­ed notions of Asia and its many dis­tinct regions is to own the sto­ry and to tell it from the inside out instead of through a look­ing glass. 

Your col­lec­tions are also so infor­ma­tive; just read­ing about them, I learned so much about Asian cul­ture. Are there any oth­er aspects of Asian cul­ture that you guys are inspired by right now?

I think for us, it is a con­stant time trav­el to when we grew up and how the vision of moth­ers and the women sur­round­ing us evolved through those decades. We are also very excit­ed by the vari­ety of beau­ties and cul­tur­al nuances not just with­in our region of East and South-East Asia but also across the continent.

Your guilty plea­sures?

All-you-can-eat hot pot and a Kore­an spa in the win­ter. And we do it togeth­er, obviously.

Ximon Lee

I know you like to manip­u­late mate­ri­als and trans­form them in a way that’s com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from how they were ini­tial­ly intend­ed to be used – where does this inter­est stem from? 

There are two types of peo­ple in the world: The ratio­nal­ists, who believe rea­son comes from one’s inner mind, and the empiri­cists, who believe in tri­als and exper­i­ments, they try things out until the truth is found. I belong to the latter.

Touch­ing the fab­rics, fold­ing them, deform­ing them, drap­ing them, these end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties on the fab­rics real­ly excite me and fos­ter new ideas. Design ulti­mate­ly is about trans­for­ma­tion; any­one with a nee­dle and some fab­rics could make clothes, but it’s the process of trans­form­ing some­thing into its upgrad­ed ver­sion that appeals to me.

I use all kinds of mate­ri­als to apply onto gar­ments: sil­i­con, bleach, spray paint, plas­tic folio, lin­gerie hooks. My favourite manip­u­la­tion is prob­a­bly the mint colour acid wash I devel­oped for my AW16 col­lec­tion. This den­im wash was used in dif­fer­ent ways many sea­sons after. 

What is your favourite era in his­to­ry, fash­ion-wise? and why?

The 80s. It’s one of the most elec­tric decades in fash­ion and a lot of gen­der­less sil­hou­ettes emerged dur­ing this peri­od. I’m enjoy­ing the bold ener­gy that came through the fash­ion dur­ing this era.

Favourite fash­ion mem­o­ry in his­to­ry?

I like the top­less-leather-pants look of Tyler Dur­den from Fight Club. For me, that’s a major fash­ion moment in recent cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry that left a last­ing impres­sion on me.

I know you were raised all over Chi­na. How has your back­ground and upbring­ing influ­enced your work?

The fact that even as a Chi­nese, I could not be grouped into any spe­cif­ic cat­e­go­ry has been with me since I was young. My Kore­an roots always made me a bit dif­fer­ent too, but I could also inte­grate quick­ly into any new sur­round­ings. Ret­ro­spec­tive­ly, it’s the best thing that hap­pened to me. Always being exposed to new envi­ron­ments gave me dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and ways of think­ing start­ing at an ear­ly age. I have had many peo­ple tell me that they can­not cat­e­go­rize my work eas­i­ly – maybe it’s because my upbring­ing also couldn’t be eas­i­ly put in a box.

Limeng Ye

Age: 25

Are the pho­to­re­al and pho­to­graph­ic prints that you use tak­en from pho­tos that you take yourself? 

Yes, I took them by myself. The con­cept is about moments. As every­one sees things in dif­fer­ent ways, I pre­fer to take my pho­tos and record inspired moments. 

Can you please elab­o­rate on what went into mak­ing the two pieces fea­tured in your SS17 col­lec­tion, Blind?

Part of [the pieces] are [made from] real den­im and oth­ers are pho­to­copies of den­im gar­ments. I explored what the world might look like only sensed by tac­til­i­ty. I touched my clothes with my eyes closed and record­ed the whole process on my phone. I took hun­dreds of images of this. All of the col­lages were nat­u­ral­ly gen­er­at­ed based on my doc­u­men­ta­tion of the exper­i­ment of cre­at­ing a tac­tile world.

I love how you spin such avant-garde, direc­tion­al looks from pho­to­re­al prints that are, alone, very pedes­tri­an and ordi­nary in nature. Is there any sym­bol­ism behind this? 

The rea­son why I chose pedes­tri­an is the crowd in New York. I was look­ing for inspir­ing moments in my dai­ly life con­tain­ing inter­est­ing com­bi­na­tions in [dif­fer­ent] sce­nar­ios. And peo­ple who passed by became my inspiration. 

How has East­ern soci­ety and cul­ture influ­enced your designs? 

East­ern cul­ture [lies at the] root of my think­ing. The art, phi­los­o­phy, and lit­er­a­ture in east­ern soci­ety and cul­ture are part of me. They might not appear in visu­al aspects in my works, but they are incor­po­rat­ed deeply throughout.

Cre­ative direc­tion Paul Bui. Mod­el Yuka Man­na­mi at The Soci­ety. Make­up Grace Anh. Hair Shinya Nak­a­gawa. Cast­ing Direc­tor Bert Mar­tirosyan. Pho­tog­ra­phy Assis­tant Chris Par­ente. Styling Assis­tants Yuki­no Moore and Amber Nicole Alson. Make-up assis­tant Sena Mura­hash. Spe­cial thanks to Milk Stu­dios.

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