Dr. Thuy Linh Tu Visits UT-Austin for Center for Asian American Studies Event
By Melissa Nguyen
Dr. Thuy Linh Tu, author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Duke University Press, 2010) and Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Studies at NYU, gave a talk sponsored by the Center for Asian American Studies, American Studies, and School of Human Ecology on the role of Asian Americans in the fashion industry.
Historically, Asian Americans have been relegated to low-wage “unskilled labor” positions in the industry such as cutters and sewers. But in the last 20 years, Asian Americans have emerged onto the creative scene with eminent names such as Philip Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Doo-Ri Chung and Jason Wu, who designed the white chiffon gown Michelle Obama wore at her husband’s presidential inauguration. So just how did the image of Asian Americans in the fashion industry go from behind-the-scenes garment workers to nationally televised chic designers?
Tu noticed during the 1990’s boutification of New York City, boutification meaning the emergence of small designer owned shops, that Asian Americans made up the majority of owners and roughly 40% of the students in top NYC design schools such as Parsons and the Fashion Institute. Children of sewing worker families, these designers were moving beyond labor intensive production and toward the creative entrepreneurship end of fashion. Many had learned to cut and sew at home from their parents and Tu’s interviewees claimed, “it was in their blood.” As one trained in the social sciences, however, Tu refused to accept “naturalizing a set of social influences” as an explanation.
While the majority of garment sewing is still done by Asian Americans and Latinos, the emergence of Asian American designers fostered a new type of interaction between manufacturers and creators: an “architecture intimacy” beyond just an economic relationship. Through language and rituals of kinship, designers and sewers engaged in informal exchanges that reveal a mutual sense of family obligation in which designers wanted to assist sewers by giving them a steady stream of work and sewers wanted to help designers succeed with quicker turn-around and occasional gifts of free or discounted fabric left over from other projects. Tu noted the benefits this “gift economy” granted to Asian American designers seeking to make their way in a highly competitive career.
While the gift economy is rather unique to Asian Americans in the fashion industry—most likely because Asian Americans now own many garment factories—Tu was quick to strike down any stereotypical familial obligation reasoning for the informal exchange. Instead, the “architecture intimacy” shared between the sewers and designers is perhaps a rebuttal to the historical exclusion of minority groups from the visible, creative realm of the fashion industry; ironically, Asian chic, the appropriation of Asian culture by Western designers, has been a staple of New York fashion for decades.
It is not true that the sharing of resources through the gift economy was always a win-win situation for all involved, however. Tu observed that as with any sort of exchange, there is give and take and there is conflict. For the designers, this produced some power struggles in which sewers assumed the status of elder “aunties” or “uncles” with the designers finding themselves in a parent-child like dynamic. One of Tu’s interviewees rehashed an exchange where an aunty was telling her how the design should be, taking over and overruling the designer’s wishes. In this situation, it is hard to really tell who is actually “designing” the dress. In the case of sewers, it may be difficult to voice needs such as wages or perhaps more time to work on a particular garment. The relationship, and thus, the expectations of both parties are ambiguous and perhaps tougher to resolve outside the realms of more straightforward business transactions.
Tu observed that while most other designers consciously place distance between themselves and the “unskilled laborers” to define and distinguish their role in the creative process, Asian Americans capitalize on language of kinship and build social relationships with their sewers. This alliance is an essential part of what has allowed many Asian American designers to thrive in an industry as gendered and radicalized as fashion (1).
As Tu emphasized in her talk: culture has the ability to domesticate difference. So what is the future of the fashion industry? Can we expect this gift economy to continue? Perhaps not, said Tu. Given the economic meltdown following 9/11, many of the NYC boutiques have shut down and production has slowed. Tu is asked by an attendee of the talk: Will there be a resurgence in the near future? “Not likely,” she answered, “informal relations like this falter with pressures of social circumstances.” Though Asian American designers, such as Jason Wu, continue to garner acclaim, perhaps the architecture intimacy between designers and sewers is less common. Though fashion is a glamour industry where not much thought is given to the origins of a beautiful dress, Tu’s talk and new book details the negotiations beyond business transactions that go into creating a garment. And as one last nail in the NYC-cultivated gift economy coffin, an audience member raised his hand to ask Dr. Tu who designed her shoes. They’re French, she lamented.