Seattle might not be known as a traditional fashion town, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fashion industry here. That’s what nine Seattle-based Asian American fashion designers sought to prove, showcasing their work at The Wing Luke Museum’s Fashion Night on Jan. 19.
The fashion show was put on in conjunction with the museum’s “Fashion: Workroom to Runway” exhibit, which runs through April 21. The exhibit examines the history, struggles, and successes of Asian Americans in the fashion industry. It builds upon a 2001 exhibit held at the museum, “If Tired Hands Could Talk: The Story of Asian Garment Workers,” which focused on Asian Pacific American garment workers and their stories working in factories and sweatshops.
“We wanted to cover some of the heavier issues,” said Michelle Kumata, exhibit manager at The Wing Luke Museum. “The amount of work it takes to be a designer… It takes a lot of tenacity, so we wanted to highlight that and also empower people to consider it to be a possible career. There are people, especially local people, who are making a living doing this. I think people don’t really consider Seattle to be a fashion town, but there is a lot going on here.”
Seeking to celebrate the achievements of early Asian American designers, Kumata and other members of the museum’s community advisory committee produced an exhibit giving credit to these crafters, who were often unrecognized for their work.
“We wanted to show what their challenges were, as well as their rewards,” Kumata said. “People will feel the connections to their stories.”
Involved with the fashion show were designers Gei Chan, Malia Peoples, Momo Boutique, Maiden Noir, Devonation, Gary Tang, Bd Homme, Luly Yang couture, and Chrissy Wai-Ching.
Keeping your identity
Gei Chan first stepped into the fashion industry in the 1970s. Despite pressure to create designs comparable to Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel, Chan never strayed from her own style, designing clothing aimed at the urban-hippie scene of the 1970s and 1980s.
“There were hardly any Asians designing. I was pioneering,” Chan said. “At the time, I didn’t have much support. The people in my design school were more conservative. I got a lot of flack in the beginning.”
But luckily, she said, department stores were taking a break from high-end boutique designs and started moving towards a more urban, easy-wear aesthetic — Chan’s inspiration. Working with the likes of Jessica McClintok, Chan’s folk-wear style dresses were sold under the Gunne Sax label, hitting major retailers, including Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“I think there is the freedom to be creative with their dresses,” Chan said. “I was one of the first people to mix fabric prints, so I just like people to give them more choices and to really have fun with fashion and not to be afraid of trying new things.”
Bringing new color to Seattle
Malia Peoples of Lady Konnyaku Clothing created her line for the fashion show in a whirlwind of three weeks, incorporating vintage fabrics and 1960s and 1970s silhouettes.
“A little bit of mod and a little bit of Japanese street fashion as well,” Peoples said. “I just try to parallel these crazy things together and make a nice dress … We’re in Seattle. It’s dark and gray. I want to bring color back into our city.”
Part of her inspiration comes from her culture-rich ethnicity. Made up of Chinese-Hawaiian and German-Irish blood, Peoples’ expresses her uniqueness through her fashion scheme.
“People that live in Hawaii know that there is a big melting pot of cultures that happens there,” Peoples said. “You go to a super market, you get all kinds of foods from all kinds of countries, so that’s really inspirational to me. Seattle is kind of different. It’s not New York or L.A. I don’t want it to be something stifling and stuck up. I want it to be fun and inclusive for people.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington, Peoples knew her life was meant to head in a different direction. Afraid of being tied down at a desk job, she went to study fashion at the New York Fashion Academy in Ballard. Since then, she said she’s slowly been able to create her own line of clothing under Lady Konnyku Clothing.
“I started from great grassroots levels,” Peoples said. “I just started with a sewing machine in my bedroom and I’d climb from my bed, and now I’ve got a sewing room, and someday I’ll have a location I can actually have customers and clients come to.”
Relaxation and growth
Lei Ann Shiramizu, owner of the Momo boutique in the International District, showcased a compilation of men’s and women’s clothing created by various Momo designers, choosing articles of clothing that emulate Momo’s image, fun and easy to wear.
“It was a lot of work for five minutes of fame, but it’s really great to be a part of a much bigger picture,” Shiramizu said.
Momo represents a style that stands out and maintains sophistication, a view she hopes everyone applies to themselves.
“You have to do two things in life,” Shiramizu said. “You have to eat and you have to get dressed because you can’t leave the house naked, so you might as well have fun doing both. Food and fashion are two necessary things that we ought to enjoy.”
Chosen to help Kumata and the museum with the exhibit, Shiramizu learned a lot, as she recorded the history of the featured designers.
“Asian Americans in general have the freedom to do things in creative fields, rather than just security oriented,” Shiramizu said.
“Because what we bring into the field of fashion is the same hard work ethic, the same conscientiousness that we do to any job that we do, and yet we are allowed to loosen up and have more fun. And that satisfies us creatively. And that’s a good thing.”
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