Asian Americans in New York Installation Image / The Museum at FIT

Examining topics such as labor and process in addition to exploring design motivation, the students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) curated an interesting, albeit somewhat flawed, new exhibit this spring: Asian Americans in New York Fashion. The students were responding, in part, to an increase in attacks on Asian Americans correlating with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Showcasing Asian American achievements and contributions in fashion in the form of clothing, textiles, photographs and videos, the exhibit aimed to highlight the depth and variety of Asian American design by displaying a variety of objects that ranged from archived photographs and newspaper clippings to items of clothing—dresses, coats, and even lingerie. Designers on display included Anna Sui, Naeem Khan, Vivienne Tam, Mary Ping, Shail Upadhya, Prabal Gurung, and Yeohlee Teng.

The exhibit was on display from March 3 to March 27 in the Museum at FIT in Manhattan.

One part of the exhibit focused on different techniques, cultural inspirations, and wide-ranging aesthetics among Asian American designers. Another part of the exhibit explored the often-invisible history of Asian garment workers, such as factory seamstresses, and their contribution to the fashion industry. Here, the organizers chose photographs that illustrate the activism of Asian American laborers in the New York Garment District.

The exhibit attempts to offer an exhaustive and elucidative account of the Asian American community’s diverse contributions to the fashion industry, from manufacturing to creative design. But when there exists such a vast expanse of what even counts as “Asian American,” where does one start?

Art historian Marci Kwon reminds us “that Asian American history is not simply the history of Asian Americans but the history of race, capitalism, labour, settler colonialism, imperialism, legal exclusion, incarceration, gendered violence, and war—and their entanglement—in American history. These are abstract words and concepts whose precise meanings do not remain stable but are contingent upon their specific historical moment.”

Though modest in size and scope, the student exhibit tried to tackle these issues via the labels and captions that accompanied the material on display.

“I began explaining that American style had always been seen through a white lens,” fashion designer Prabal Gurung explains in one caption: “I wanted to redefine the country’s style, because our experiences have been underrepresented.” Gurung, a Nepali American fashion designer has long used his platform to advocate for causes he cares about. His Spring 2020 collection posed the question “Who Gets to Be American?”—a phrase that was emblazoned on sashes worn by models—in a timely message as the country engages in a contentious debate over immigration. More recently, Gurung has also used his platform to support Black communities and donated proceeds from one of his collections to The Bail Project, a non-profit organization that pays bail for people in need. 

My own interest in fashion and the arts at large stems from attempting to understand not only its socio-political implications, but also in trying to examine and deal with my own feelings as a supposed Asian American newly navigating the emotional and mental entanglements of race in America—even today, Indians are hardly considered as part of the Asian diaspora even though we form a considerable chunk of it. Out of eleven designers and one photographer, three were from South Asia and the diaspora—Naeem Khan, Rachel Roy, and Bibhu Mohapatra.

Naeem Khan, dress, 1992-1995 Adnan Ege Kutay collection / The Museum at FIT

Since moving to the United States, I find myself breathlessly scanning lists of authors, poets, visual artists, and designers in an inchoate attempt to understand whether the lack of documentation and representation of Indians in the arts is due to a dearth of artists and designers, or simply because of a severe neglect of the contribution Indian Americans have made to art and fashion.

India held a key role in the development of European luxury from the seventeenth century onwards, but the country’s more recent reputation as a cheap exporter of garments for the fast fashion sector has come to overshadow its long, rich fashion craft history—and the diversity of its current activities in the luxury industry.

Indian artisans, called karigars, lie behind some of the most talented and creative fashion and accessory designers, yet they’re not as widely recognized as their white counterparts—several Indian ateliers are actually responsible for the embroidery, embellishments, and fabrics you see from prestigious fashion houses like Versace, Hermès, Christian Louboutin, Gucci, Prada, Dior, and more. 

To make plain the fact that there exists no singular Asian American aesthetic, the student organizers of this FIT exhibit made the unusual choice not to make reference to the specific heritages of the featured creatives: “We want viewers to focus on the craftsmanship that goes into the work the designers create. By not individually presenting each designer’s background they are not singled out by their personal identities.” 

I was grateful to the students who worked on this exhibit, but I wished they had been given more space and resources.  The exhibit itself was placed in a corner of the Museum, almost like an afterthought—a brazen and unfortunate metaphor for the persistent “othering” of Asian Americans in America (by comparison, two other exhibitions dominated the museum: “Reinvention & Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties,” and “Head to Toe: Fashion & Textile History Gallery”).

I also felt that the student’s curatorial focus on craftsmanship rather than different cultural backgrounds was counterproductive. As a political concept, multiculturalism helps us unite and organize, but it should be used cautiously. When bunched into a large racial/ethnic category with no emphasis on individual idiosyncrasies, the subtleties and actual beauty of the manifold Asian American cultures are dimmed down and subdued.

In her book Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, Maura Reilly outlines how complicated and complex it is to give space and special exhibitions to “Other artists” (Reilly uses this term to describe marginalized cultural groups such as LGBTQ, women, non-white), which can further pigeonhole them—not all artists want to make art that announces their identity, nor do they necessarily want to be known solely on that basis.

Still, Reilly also suggests strategically deploying specific signifiers of ethnic identity, for example “Indian American,” for the purpose of contesting and disrupting the discourses that marginalize or exclude the individuals who belong to such ethnic groups, from the art world. Her message is, “not affirmative action curating, it’s smart curating.” Until all groups are represented equally, having museums or exhibitions dedicated to specific groups or themes remains critical.

I spoke with the show’s exhibition designer Jaya Misra to further understand the work that went into this show and how these students chose to display the objects. Currently pursuing her MA in Fashion and Textile Studies at FIT with a focus on Conservation, Misra also interned in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Education Department. Interested in textiles, embroidery, and fashion history, she previously interned at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in their Intangible Cultural Heritage department.

She explained that the exhibit, as part of the FIT curriculum, had to follow some stipulated rules and guidelines—the biggest limitation being that students were only allowed to use objects from the Museum at FIT collection. From the earliest discussions, the class collectively felt the need to highlight the invisible and unacknowledged contributions of the Asian American community instead of solely focusing on high-end couturiers. One of their primary concerns was to educate; another was to highlight often-marginalized contributors in the fashion world. 

Exhibition Installation Image / The Museum at FIT

Since certain Asian American designers had already been exhibited several times by FIT or other museums, the students focused instead on designers who had not garnered as much attention. For example, even when they decided to showcase a renowned artist like Vera Wang, they chose to exhibit a black chiffon dress with leather strips on it, very different from the white bridal wear she is most famous for. Also, as noted by Misra, “media or public attention in today’s world can often be performative—the reason that a certain community is not prioritized for coverage might very well be that it simply isn’t “trendy” to do so at the moment.” At every stage, students wanted to showcase something new, something that went against the glitzy grain.

The selection of the designers bore in mind the need to represent a greater diversity of people than are commonly recognized as “Asian.” Misra noted that the common perception of what constitutes “Asian fashion,” at least in the United States, can often relate to solely East Asian designers, which was something students sought to correct to present a more holistic view, to the extent that they could. To this end, students were eager to showcase Naeem Khan’s work. Khan has often explicitly stated that he sources a lot of embroidery and craftwork from Indian karigars and credits his culture and lineage for his early interest in textiles (both his father and grandfather designed intricate clothing worn by the royal families).

The idea of assigning specific geographical identities to each designer beyond the collective title of the exhibition was debated at length. Given their limited resources, however, the students were unable to reach out to each designer individually to ask them for their preference for how they would be described. Misra described how the group worked hard to avoid inadvertently propagating more misunderstandings about Asian American designers.

But perhaps it was a mistake not to acknowledge the specific heritages of the featured creatives: this could have been an opportunity to explore the diversity and nuance of Asian American identities.

For instance, many of us who are Indian Asian Americans also see ourselves as specifically Indian at the same time. Our differences from other Asian Americans matter as much as our similarities, and it’s worth keeping those differences in mind. Especially today, in the face of the disquieting and disorienting white supremacy embraced by many Americans, it’s essential to assert the complexity of our identity as a form of resistance—it is a strength which we must build on, not stamp out or sublimate.

Shweta Nandakumar is an editor and MA candidate at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.