Last week, Michel Gaubert, a well-known French DJ with a 30-year career producing runway sounds for luxury brands such as Chanel, Dior, and Valentino, posted a video on his Instagram of himself and seven other dinner guests wearing paper masks with slanted eyes, chanting the words “Wuhan girl, wahoo!” Reaction online was swift to the casual post-prandial racism on display and he has since posted two different apology statements on social media. This latest affront to the Asian fashion community has left many of its high-profile members struggling to contextualize the imagery with the man they thought they knew. “More than anger, it was overwhelming disappointment and sadness that I felt. This is an industry that I’ve been proud to be a part of, proud to have taken up space in,” wrote influencer Susie Lau on Instagram, “This person in question is someone I respect and have interviewed, someone deeply connected to the most powerful houses in the world.”
Fellow high-profile influencer Bryanboy, who regularly partners with luxury brands and is Filipino, model Chu Wong, and industry watchdog, Diet Prada, whose co-founder, Tony Liu, is Asian American, also expressed their disbelief at what is essentially being regarded as an Asian version of blackface at at time when the US is experiencing a surge in violence against Asians.
Designer Prabal Gurung, who was born in Nepal, is a US citizen who has won multiple awards including the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear, with a celebrity clientele that includes Michelle Obama. In a March 31st conversation with Vanessa Friedman of the NY Times, he described how an investment opportunity fell through when the man with the money questioned Gurung’s Americanness. “I’m in the US for twenty years, I make 90 percent of my collection in NYC, I am actively involved in social causes, I contribute to my taxes. It’s still not enough.”
Marginalized communities unite against racism
Gurung described how previous generations of immigrants chasing their American dream were indoctrinated into a regime of anti-Blackness which the new generation rejects. Unlike many of his peers who fled the city he remained in NYC throughout the pandemic, aware that something powerful was happening with the BLM protests. “I could be part of a revolution,” he said. Last month, together with fellow designers, Philip Lim and Dao-Yi Chow from Public School, Gurung formed a coalition to organize the Black and Asian solidarity march which united Black, Latin, Asian, white and LGBTQ communities in unexpected numbers. He recognizes that real change will only happen when all marginalized groups stand together with white allies to amplify the voices of the unheard.
By 2025, according to Vogue Business, Asia’s share of the luxury market will reach 54 percent of the global market compared to a decline of 22 percent for Europe and 24 percent for the Americas. Gurung noted that the global luxury brands, and particularly the powerful European conglomerates, have been slow to take a stand against Asian hate crimes and are lazy about understanding the nuances between Asian countries, despite being hungry for that “pot of gold consumer.”
Fashion industry’s tokenism of Asian designers
According to the LA Times, 48 out of the 477 members of the CFDA identify as Asian. Feeling both incredibly supported by the industry and, at the same time, tokenized is the reality for someone like Gurung who is part of a successful wave of Asian designers within contemporary American fashion. “But there’s never a wave of white designers,” he remarked to Friedman, before calling out the industry’s blind spots: “Implicit bias, things we consider chic, where do they come from? It’s a very Eurocentric view.”
Gurung said he refuses to cancel people, and welcomes the opportunity for difficult conversations which can then lead to solutions. “We know how powerful our industry is,” he said. “Twice a year, in 10 minutes, we can change the narrative.”
But on the heels of Gaubert’s gaffe, one of these very conversations has been launched on Instagram by Susie Lau. And the questions she posed aren’t likely to be solved in 10 minutes or through runway presentations alone. “You don’t know what people are REALLY thinking,” wrote Lau. “They’re smiling. They’re saying they love what you do. Do they REALLY see you. Or am I, along with the many Asians who work in this industry, just another slant-eyed, blank face–-interchangeable, disposable, insignificant. Like those masks.”
Photo Susie Lau by Susie Bubble, Wikimedia Commons
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry