Fashion brands are expected to be quick to respond to news-making incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-feminism.
After six Asian women were among those killed in the recent shootings in Atlanta, the violence and discrimination experienced by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have become urgently discussed issues. One of the most surprising things was how silent the fashion industry was—particularly luxury brands, of which Asians are the largest demographic consumer.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, reports from the U.K. to Australia have found that hate crimes against East and Southeast Asian people have risen. In the U.S., the AAPI Hate National Report found that verbal harassment and shunning (the deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans) lead the types of discrimination experienced by AAPI people, at 68.1 percent and 20.5 percent respectively. Physical assault is the third largest category; 11.1 percent of respondents reported experiencing it.
After a few call-outs on social media, fashion brands finally began responding with messages of solidarity saying they did not condone any forms of violence and discrimination against anyone, and that they stood in solidarity with the AAPI community.
“Fashion brands saying anything in support at all is better than nothing. The response has been quite bleak, but it’s better than none.”
Bryan Yambao, a prominent fashion blogger—best known as Bryanboy—said, “Fashion brands saying anything in support at all is better than nothing. The response has been quite bleak, but it’s better than none. When you think about luxury fashion, most of the consumers are Asian. What it boils down to is the media coverage and pressure hasn’t been as strong when compared to other movements, and brands are quite conservative in making statements.”
Despite the dearth of brands that haven’t stepped up to speak on violence against AAPI, Yambao did commend brands who have taken the steps to acknowledge the discrimination the community has been facing.
“Valentino was one of the first major luxury brands to step up,” Yambao said. “That happened because I was in Milan a couple of weeks ago and I had meetings with various fashion brand executives, including Valentino, and I addressed these issues. The next day, the brand made a statement. I also spoke to my friend Jonathan Anderson at Loewe about this, and they not only issued a statement but also made a donation to causes supporting equality for Asian people. It takes outreach, and addressing these issues starts with connection. If I hadn’t reached out to these executives, I don’t know if or when anything would have happened.”
Yambao says that one of the issues he believes that has kept this issue from being wider broadcast is that anti-Asian racism is seen as an American problem, rather than a global problem.
Dr. Jenny Liu, a board-certified dermatologist, says that attention to hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders hasn’t been passionate and widespread, and the lack of attention has been disappointing.
“The call on social media to draw attention to these issues is for both Asian and non-Asian people because our own people can’t sit back and be quiet anymore.”
— Dr. Jenny Liu
“I will say the lack of media attention can also be tied to Asian culture as well,” Liu said. “Asians tend to be more reserved culturally. We are taught not to speak out as much and let things go. We also don’t have as many Asian public figures that are big celebrities, which has led to lack of support. The call on social media to draw attention to these issues is for both Asian and non-Asian people because our own people can’t sit back and be quiet anymore.”
Liu has considered herself lucky because while she has experienced racism, she works and lives in a very diverse community in Minneapolis where there is a huge Hmong population, a Southeast Asian ethnic group, and many of her colleagues where she works are people of color.
To help support the AAPI community, she’s been sharing content and posts on social media, and she’s working on a social media video series of Asian skincare ingredients to educate people on how Asians have influenced the global beauty market.
Chris Hosmer, a fashion designer, agrees with Liu that the humility taught in Asian culture is a contributing factor to hate crimes against Asian Americans not being more widely reported.
“A characteristic of being Asian is this idea that you shouldn’t be the nail that sticks out because you get hammered down,” he said. “A phrase I’ve heard used is ‘wanting to be exceptional without being seeing as exception’, so you want success and recognition, but you don’t want to stir the pot.”
Hosmer says brands need to put an emphasis on supply chain and labor force behind products.
“If you look at the supply side labor force, you see these disparities. One of the concrete things fashion could do is raise those invisible value workers and creators up.”
— Chris Hosmer
“Much of the value creation in America is built by Asian and Asian American hands,” Hosmer said. “Often these people work in poor conditions, for less than a fair wage, and often at risk for their health. There is a huge disparity between the highest wage earners and lowest wage earners within the Asian American community. If you look at the supply side labor force, you see these disparities. One of the concrete things fashion could do is raise those invisible value workers and creators up.”
Hosmer is a mask creator, and he says that masks have become the perfect symbol of what is going on in the world economically, politically, and socially right now.
“Masks show us everything going on in the world right now,” he said. “The focus on the pandemic being a ‘China virus’ and the words and slurs surrounding the virus shows just how deep that racism goes. East Asian culture has been such a major part of American pop culture, and sometimes it makes the racism seem more benign somehow, but it’s just as insidious.”
Clare Ngai, founder of accessories brand BONBONWHIMS, says the fashion industry’s response to violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has been lackluster.
“It’s easy to put out a statement on Instagram saying you stand with the AAPI community, but then not do anything tangible. It’s very disappointing.”
— Clare Ngai
“A lot of the big brands are in a position of power and resources where they could make a difference to help the AAPI community,” Ngai said. “It’s easy to put out a statement on Instagram saying you stand with the AAPI community, but then not do anything tangible. It’s very disappointing. These brands make a lot of money from our community, but they won’t stand with us. Brands aren’t standing up for us or doing what’s needed. Hate crimes against Asians weren’t even considered worth talking about until the shootings in Atlanta.”
Back in November when she launched her e-commerce site, Ngai had a philanthropic component to her sales; a portion of proceeds would go toward elderly and homeless Asian Americans and Asian immigrants in New York City. After the Atlanta shootings, Ngai created a ring and 100 percent of proceeds went to various charities including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Ngai says that the fashion industry needs to hire more BIPOC people both behind and in front of the camera. While there are AAPI at these companies, not enough of them are at the top or featured in ad campaigns.
“These issues of missing the mark on AAPI issues comes from the top down,” Ngai said. “If big companies and corporations only hire white people to be at the top, there is no one in the position of power or with the awareness to make sure there is diversity and inclusion. If there’s a person of color at the top, they have the social awareness to make choices like that. Companies need to stop and ask themselves if they are diverse companies and make changes from a structural standpoint. Otherwise, any momentary diversity efforts are useless.”
Christina Tung, a fashion publicist and creative director of her own brand SVNR, said: “The way we get media, people don’t have time to think too deep, they want a quick Instagram post or soundbite. They want to be able to understand issues quickly and easily in a way that’s easily digestible. Issues around anti-Asian racism are so specific and nuanced, it’s hard to just sum them up.
“On the design side, we see the inequities from top to bottom. The Asian American experience in the fashion industry specifically is so different from other minority groups. We already have health strong representation and Asian designers at the top level, so representation in that way isn’t the concern that needs the most attention. We need to focus on the supply chain and the garment workers.”
She added that, “The model minority contributes to ignoring these problems. There’s this belief that all Asians are doing great because they have jobs as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. What we don’t see represented in the media is the story of the refugees and people who work in service industries. There’s a huge population of Asian Americans who are working for low wages and not receiving healthcare. The AAPI community is just so vast, and there’s a huge wealth disparity.”
Tung says there are brands that are doing well with minority representation including YanYan, Rastah, and abaxaci, who have all had strong AAPI representation in their campaigns.
Tung acknowledges that ad campaign representation isn’t the be all end all, and more diverse stories about the AAPI experience need to be told for people to really understand these issues, from the working class to refugees.
Tina Craig, the founder of Bag Snob, U Beauty, and talent agency Estate Five, says that companies need more implicit bias and diversity training to help educate customers. She’s seen personal friends and colleagues be victims of discrimination, and it’s left her angry and stunned.
“Recently, a friend of mine went into Lululemon and wanted to use her military discount she gets through her husband for some orders,” Craig said. “She waited in line with her husband, and there were two white cashiers at the register. While waiting in line, the cashier was very friendly to the white woman who was in front of them, but when my friend and her husband were up the cashier became very rude. She was so rude, the cashier next to her was frightened. My friend wanted a price adjustment since she couldn’t use the military discount for online orders, and she brought it straight to the store.
“The cashier began talking about them saying, ‘Can you believe these Asians always want price adjustments?’ and went on making derogatory comments about Asians. When my acquaintance called Lululemon’s corporate office they offered her a $40 gift card, although she has no intention of shopping there again. It was just appalling to this woman that an Asian American could be an army veteran.”
The Daily Beast approached Lululemon for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.
For her own companies, Craig requires everyone to complete diversity, inclusion, and implicit bias training because she has no tolerance for this behavior. With Asians being such major shoppers, Craig says it is beyond time for these brands to step up.
“If you look at these fashion magazines, so many of these ads are geared toward the Asian luxury consumer, but where are they on the ad campaigns and covers?”
— Tina Craig
“If you look at these fashion magazines, so many of these ads are geared toward the Asian luxury consumer, but where are they on the ad campaigns and covers?” Craig said. “It wasn’t until (editor in chief) Michelle Lee was at Allure that we saw three Asian cover stars in a short amount of time.”
Craig has been using her platform to call out systemic racism, and has also donated to victims of AAPI hate crimes, including a woman whose car was hijacked in a hate crime. She’s also added a philanthropic component to her businesses where employees can select a different charity to raise money for every month, and many of the causes have been AAPI-focused.
“Not only do we need more Asian models in ad campaigns, but we need more magazine covers,” Craig says. “Employees should also not be afraid to share their stories, so employers need to make them feel welcomed. If employees have faced discrimination on the job, they need to be able to say something.
“We’ve come a long way since the ’80s and ’90s when I was growing up, but we still have a long way to go. At the corporate level, human resources departments need to offer mental wellness checkups, especially for all marginalized communities, as well as anti-racism seminars for their entire companies. These problems need to be addressed at the systemic root.”
“You might see a post, or an Instagram slide here and there, but there’s not enough visual solidarity shown.”
One of the biggest names in fashion who has spoken out has been Phillip Lim, founder and creative director of 3.1 Phillip Lim, who has been working with his colleague and co-founder of New York Tougher Than Ever, Ruba Abu-Nimah, to help shed light on anti-Asian racism and find ways to uplift marginalized communities.
New York Tougher Than Ever began as a retail project to sell products where 100 percent of proceeds would go toward benefitting underserved communities in New York. Currently, all proceeds donated to GoFundMe.com/AAPI fund supporting grassroots AAPI organizations across the country. Despite his own efforts, Lim says the overall fashion industry needs to do more work to support these causes.
“I don’t think the response to these issues has been sufficient,” he said. “You might see a post, or an Instagram slide here and there, but there’s not enough visual solidarity shown.”
“Big corporations are very afraid to take a stand on any level,” Abu-Nimah said. “There concern is their business, and anything that might cause any issues in their business is problematic for them, so they prefer to do less than more. The less they do, the less liable they are for controversy.”
Although Lim has been passionate about bringing attention to these issues, he stops shy of calling himself an activist. As he puts it, “activists do this for a living, and it’s their lifelong work, and I greatly admire what they do.”
“The best thing we can do is uplift those organizations that exist and raise money for them. They are already providing services and fighting for justice for AAPI communities.”
— Phillip Lim
Although there is an entire community of fashion industry professionals who support these issues, Lim and Abu-Nimah have no interest in forming a new formal organization to support these issues, but, rather, want to work to raise funds and bring support to organizations who are already doing the work for addressing AAPI discrimination.
“There are many chatrooms addressing these issues, but the last thing you want to do is form another organization when you can support existing organizations that have already been doing this work,” Lim said. “The best thing we can do is uplift those organizations that exist and raise money for them. They are already providing services and fighting for justice for AAPI communities.”
“We don’t need to keep creating organizations. Social media is such an incredibly powerful too,” Abu-Nimah said. “It has democratized the voice of the people. There’s not a need for a new formal entity. With New York Tougher Than Ever, Phillip and I just set out to make a couple shirts, and now we’ve donated a substantial amount to AAPI organizations. Even today, people ask us how they can help, and that was all through the power of social media. It’s all just people coming together through the desire to help.”