FIT Art & Design Gallery Presents ‘Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation’



Celebrating the Asian American community’s significant contributions to the fashion industry, and fashion in New York, The Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) School of Graduate Studies, in collaboration with The Museum at FIT (MFIT), will open its doors to the exhibition, Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation.

L-R: Gemma Kahng jacket, fall 1991, gift of Linda Tain, 2002.56.3 ~ Shail Upadhya jacket, cotton denim and paint, 1988, gift of The Estate of Shail Upadhya, 2013.36.2

The exhibition is divided into two sections ~ a focus on fashion production, labor, and the use of materials in the design process from the 1980s to the 2010s ~ and the exploration of design narratives from the 1950s to the present.

The exhibition opens with an illustration by Ruben Toledo titled “The Tug of War Continues…,” featuring designers Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, and Zang Toi acting as pillars supporting one another and the American fashion industry as a whole. Their positions in the industry have been recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, with all three receiving honors and awards.

“Chinese Garment Workers”, Photographed by Harvey Wang, Chinatown, New York City, New York. About 1983, Reproduction from National Museum of American History Online.

The exhibition then considers the invisible labor that Asian American garment workers contribute to the fashion industry. A fall 1991 jacket by Yeohlee Teng includes the designer’s label but also a label with “Sue” identified as the seamstress who sewed the garment. A 1983 photograph by Harvey Wang depicts garment workers in a New York City factory, highlighting the work of individuals that often goes unrecognized. This section concludes with video footage and newspaper stories that highlight Asian American labor activism in the New York Garment District.

The exhibition shifts to focus on the importance of materials in the design process, illustrating the techniques of three Asian American designers. Naeem Khan’s dress features an embroidered bodice; embroidery is a key feature in many of his designs, stemming from the legacy of his parents’ embroidery company in India. Jean Yu’s silk chiffon bra and panty set and Mary Ping’s canvas bag (an interpretation of a Balenciaga motorcycle bag) use different materials and techniques to speak to both sustainability and minimalism.

Long, strapless “Tibetan Tiger” column dress with large-scale design printed in shades of orange, gray and black on nylon net, with black jersey underdress. Vivienne Tam, Dress, spring 1998, USA, gift of Vivienne Tam. 98.50.1

Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation concludes with a section that considers the range of Asian American designers’ roles in the industry, sources of inspiration, and clientele through a series of juxtaposed object pairs. Jackets by Shail Upadhya and Gemma Kahng show contrasting design roles. Upadhya acts as a creative facilitator bridging fashion and art by commissioning the painting of his one-of-a-kind blazer from a local artist. Kahng is a ready-to-wear designer embedded in the New York industry, and her coat is designed for a wider audience.

Asian Americans in New York Fashion: Design, Labor, Innovation will be on view from March 2 to March 27, 2022 at FIT School of Art and Design Gallery, 227 West 27th Street, NYC.

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