To commemorate Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, we’re spotlighting brands helmed by Asian-Americans to put on your radar.
Asian designers have long been an important part of fashion’s creative engine — from Rei Kawakubo’s endless innovations to Alexander Wang’s ability to capture the downtown zeitgeist with an offhand sense of cool. But in recent years, Asian-American designers have been particularly integral to the industry. The aughts saw a wave of successful designers like Jason Wu, Phillip Lim, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, and Prabal Gurung, and now, a new generation is starting to rise up. While some are infiltrating the ranks of high-end fashion (Laura Kim at Oscar de la Renta and her own label Monse, Joseph Altuzarra) many are born of the streetwear and post-streetwear movements, creating clothing that not only reflects their own bifurcated cultural identities but also the rapidly changing tastes of a new, digitally native generation.
No culture is a monolith, so it’s fitting that these brands represent a diversity of ideas, everything from the monastic beauty of minimalism to the look-at-me flamboyance of streetwear 1.0. But one thing’s for certain; while these brands may be at the beginning of their journeys, they’re filled with thoughtful, exciting ideas. Here are ten Asian/Asian-American designers to keep tabs on:
Taka Kasuga of Veilance (formerly Arc’teryx Veilance)
Menswear’s obsession with the great outdoors has mostly leaned toward a hippie aesthetic, but Japanese creative designer Taka Kasuga (who trained under Junya Watanabe) of the Vancouver-based performance brand Veilance, has taken a different approach. His garments are made for communing with nature but are so streamlined they can be startling in their simplicity.
Kasuga’s work blends sleek silhouettes, performance-oriented fabrics, and utilitarian details to create garments as appropriate for the boardroom as they are the local trail. All of this, of course, feels aligned with the Japanese design tenets that favor functionality, authenticity, and understated elegance. Because as the traditional borders in modern life – between work and home, outdoors and indoors, digital and analog – continue to blur, Kasuga knows we ask a lot of our clothes, and we expect fashion and function to coexist. As Kasuga told us in 2017: “Veilance is a system that redefines what people can or can’t do in their everyday lives.”
Chinese designer Xander Zhou has been a highlight at London Fashion Week for the past few seasons, and his strange, surreal point-of-view has only become more prescient as the world becomes increasingly unhinged. While Zhou may get tongues wagging by showing pregnant alien boys, furry beasts, and stilt-walkers on his catwalks, his real strength is the ability to balance his high-concept ideas with more commercial sportswear pieces that have just the right amount of eccentricity.
This season, for example, is a mix of oversized hoodies, graphic T-shirts, and asymmetrically-cut button-ups and denim skirts that show the designer’s range. At his best, Zhou can take outlandish references and transform them into garments that have a fresh, eye-catching magnetism. And his catwalks make a statement by increasingly reflecting the stranger-than-fiction world we live in.
Chinese designer Calvin Luo mines classic Americana for his collections, the results of which can range from sensual dresses to elegant suiting (Lady Gaga’s a fan). While he launched his label in 2014 with a focus on womenswear – with a few men’s looks mixed in during his seasonal runway shows – he unveiled his first full menswear collection for SS19.
For guys, he’s taken his signature tailoring and pushed it into surprising places (think oversize cuts, bold, patchworked prints, and quirky details like strapped-on knee pockets) and balanced it out with more everyday pieces that have an undeniable normcore appeal. In recent seasons the high-waisted pants, distinctive shirting, and statement outerwear have been highlights. All together, Luo’s collections feel like a savvy insider-outsider take on American archetypes.
Chris Leba of R13
Chris Leba worked at Ralph Lauren for nearly 20 years, and when he started his own brand, R13, he swapped Lauren’s love of cowboys and college quads for a downtown punk aesthetic. R13 has an undeniable cool factor, a sort of thrown-together look that includes ’90s grunge, biker culture, and the covetable look of off-duty models. For men, denim is distressed, tees are of the concert variety, patterns are over-the-top (currently in rotation are flames and animal prints), and things are either skin tight or baggy and loose.
Leba, who is of Vietnamese descent but raised stateside, remembers spending time in the then-decaying old fisherman’s hamlet of Mountauk while growing up. That sort of unconscious stylishness comes through in his work but with a harder edge. Grommets, frayed edges, and chains aren’t uncommon details. These pieces pair well with a sleeve full of tats (like Leba has himself), a cool kid scowl, and a whole lot of attitude.
Peter Do of Peter Do
A protege of Phoebe Philo, Peter Do worked with the designer during her heralded and era-defining pre-Hedi tenure at Céline. His eponymous label, launched just two years ago, is already making waves, with Net-a-Porter as a key retailer and a spot as finalist on this year’s shortlist for the LVMH Prize.
His collection is built around tailoring, and comes in unexpected silhouettes (cropped or blown-up proportions), with S&M straps hanging off them or featuring sexy peekaboo cut-outs. His sportswear separates are thoughtful and arresting too, often with asymmetrical cuts and oversized shapes. They certainly feel reminiscent of Philo’s most exciting work, but also easily stand on their own. It’s the reason that Vogue said he was making “the suit of the moment,” a high bar indeed.
Dae Lim of Sundae School
The brand Sundae School is the synthesis of its designer’s three passions: math, fashion, and, well, weed. As marijuana legalization spreads across the country, Lim is banking on “smokewear” being the next iteration of streetwear, to which he defines it as “a uniform for your recreational marijuana consumption.”
To that point, he takes classic casual items like hoodies, tees, and gym shorts, and adds pot references that range from subtle (tie-dye) to overt (slogans like: “Don’t Be an Ass. Just Pass.”) and even clever details like small pockets for joints or lighters. “We believe the core of high fashion lies with comfort and function,” Lim told the CFDA. “Using the highest quality fabrics and incorporating functional details into our garments, we hope to capture ethereal highs into everyday smokewear.”
Yuki Matsuda of Monitaly
Yuki Matsuda’s designs can be seen as a bridge between his Japanese heritage and his Southern California residence. That translates into easy, laid-back pieces with a global flair, items like roomy, drop-crotch pants and boxy lightweight shirts in an earthy color palette or with subtle patterns.
Matsuda has said his design ethos is rooted in the idea of wabi-sabi, or the Japanese philosophy of finding acceptance in imperfection, though one can also spot allusions to military and American workwear in his collections, but all deployed with a soft touch. According to Matsuda, he “strives to both elevate once-casual garments and rejuvenate formal silhouettes through relentless re-evaluation and clever re-contextualization.”
Tim and Dan Joo of Haerfest
Tim and Dan Joo, the brothers behind Haerfest, know that you ask a lot of your bag. So they’ve designed a collection of functional, minimalist totes, backpacks and briefcases, all with the intention making your life easier.
Made from durable materials like polyester canvas or nubuck leather, each style is filled with internal pockets and dividers to create spaces for computers and personal technology devices. The Joo brothers say they’re “reimagining life on the go” and keeping “visionaries in motion,” which is excellent seeing as the future mobile office looks like it will be anywhere and everywhere.
Kara Jubin of KkCo
This LA-based and -produced brand is all about occupying “the space between,” says creative director Kara Jubin. For Jubin that means embracing the ambiguity that occurs when you ignore easy categorization. So her clothing easily shifts between masculine and feminine, sport and special occasion, function and form, all while reveling in the “the fluid complexities of style.” Aesthetically, this means skater-ish workwear is mixed with frilly organza dresses or draped dresses and tie-dye bodysuits with kimonos and utility-style cargo pants.
It may sound all over the place, but it’s easy to see how it reflects the mixed-up and freewheeling way people approach personal style today. “Each collection is a wardrobe composed of pieces that have effortless personality,” Jubin says. “It’s very important to us to always incorporate the unexpected, something we communicate through our details, trims, and color story.” One look at her mix of designs, and you see exactly what she means.
Terrence and Kevin Kim of IISE Seoul
Brothers Terrence and Kevin Kim may draw on their Korean heritage for their label IISE, but they’re always looking forward. You’re just as likely to find a traditional hanbok in their collections as you are technical outerwear made with Gore-Tex, or relaxed jogging pants with technical details like reflective piping or dangling straps.
Pulling from both cultures is a way to express the immigrant experience of being Korean-Americans. “Growing up in the US as a minority, you are constantly labeled as the ‘Korean kid’ or the ‘Asian kid.’ So before coming to Korea, we thought we were very Korean,” Terrence told The Korea Herald. “But as soon as we arrived in Seoul we realized how American in fact we really were.”