Asian American Fashion Designers: Alexander Wang and Vera Wang

There is a huge gap between the manual and creative side of the fashion industry. It’s difficult to go from talking about poverty and exploitation in factories, to famous fashion designers who earn thousands of dollars on designing one dress. Asian factory workers can only dream of such success. But, however difficult it may be, it is also extremely important to highlight how this huge gap exists, and how Alexander Wang was even accused of using sweatshop factory workers to produce his clothing. The controversy around these accusations were made aware to the public through the media, which once again highlights its importance and influence over the public.

Here are two famous Asian American fashion designers, Alexander Wang and Vera Wang. Listed below the pictures are a few brief facts about the designers. Both are of Asian descent; Alexander is a Taiwanese American and Vera is a Chinese American.

Alexander Wang

Alexander Wang

  • Famous Asian American fashion designer
  • Born in San Francisco, California to Taiwanese parents
  • Moved to New York City to pursue and study fashion
  • Known for his dark and edgy women’s fashion designs

Vera Wang

Vera Wang

  • Asian American Fashion designer
  • Born and raised in New York City
  • Parents were born in Shangai, China and came to the United States in the mid-1940’s
  • Former senior editor for Vogue
  • Famous for her wedding gown designs

I chose these two Asian American fashion designers to discuss because their names are widely recognized by the public. Vera Wang is known for designing wedding gowns for tons of A-List celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez, as well as well-known political figures like Chelsea Clinton. Vera Wang’s fame started at Vogue, which is the perfect place to start discussing her fashion influence on the public. She developed the current fashion styles through magazine publication. Ultimately, she uses the media to release pertinent information about fashion, which shapes and develops trendy fashion styles. Although Vera was born and raised in the United States, her influence can still spread to Asian countries like China, making her a transnational Asian figure.

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Alexander Wang is known for his dark and edgy style, but despite his fame, allegations have been made against the fashion designer about overworking and underpaying his employees. Two women claimed they were forced to work in sweatshop conditions in a factory in Chinatown. These conditions included sixteen hour shifts, windowless rooms, no bathroom breaks, and no overtime. Immediately, Wang denied the charges, but the case did not go any further in court. This case is important because since the dispute was settled outside of the court, was justice served? The information about the two women or the money that was paid to settle the dispute was not made known to the public. In a case like this everyone must wonder, who is lying? Although Wang denies the charges, it is difficult to place the blame upon him, but it is absolutely possible that he is exploiting women to produce his clothing. However, his clothing is not affordable for middle class citizens in the United States. His clothing is relatively expensive and wearing his clothing implies upper class standing. For example, as shown above, one of his dresses cost more than six hundred dollars (compare that to a twenty dollar dress at Forever 21). Ultimately, the allegations against Wang are even more disputable given these facts. Regardless, the media sends cases and information like this to the public to once again, create awareness.

In addition to his infamy, Wang has also become transnationally famous after opening up his second flagship store in Beijing, China. Today, he has over 15 stores worldwide, making his clothing accessible to people all around the world. Not only can his fame virtually transcend across borders, but his clothing can physically transcend across borders as well, which makes Wang into a transnational Asian figure.

By briefly naming these two transnational figure, it shows how influential and significant Asian Americans are in the fashion industry. Despite the controversy surrounding Alexander Wang, he has still designed and produced clothing that women have come to love. Vera Wang has become the go to woman for expensive wedding gowns. These two stars are breaking the barriers of the fashion industry. However, this huge gap shines light on these two figures, and shadows people like Jasmin. Numerous gaps exists between each side of fashion and they range from poor factory workers to rich fashion designers. Regardless, these gaps are able to exist because of the media. The media creates awareness for issues like these and ultimately, serves as a medium to expand the fashion industry.

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Popular Fashion Blogger-Susanna Lau (Bubble)

Susanna Lau, also known as Susanna Bubble

Susanna Lau, also known as Susie Bubble

Another world of fashion lies beyond design sketches, runways, and factories, and fiercely settles itself into the massive world of cyberspace. Fashion bloggers utilize the internet as a virtual space to convey critiques and interests in the latest fashion trends happening worldwide. A popular British Chinese fashion blogger named Susanna Lau (also known as Susie Bubble) uses the internet to blog and talk about current fashion styles and trends. She launched her blog “Style Bubble” in March of 2006 (Lau 1) and became an instant success.

Here are ten things about Susie Bubble (as listed on her blog):

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In her very first fact, Susie quickly clears up any misconceptions about her identity. She self-identifies as a “British born Chinese by way of Hong Kong.” Her cultural identity alone broadens her fan base, which is why her blog transnationally appeals to people from all around the world, including Britain and China. The internet allows her to reach out to her fans from all around the world. It also enables her to spread British fashion information to everywhere in the country, which ultimately makes this information transnational.

Lau uses social networking sites to reach out to her fans, but also uses them to spread her fashion ideas and trends across transnational borders. Inevitably, her blog can virtually be seen by people throughout the world. This develops her blog posts into transnational texts, which is important because it creates a connection between people inside and outside of the sphere of fashion. Some people may not be exposed to the high life of fashion, but blogs like Bubble’s creates a space where fashion can be adored and admired by almost anyone. Below is an image of all of the social networking sites Lau lists on her blog:

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Minh-Ha T. Pham’s article, Susie Bubble Is A Sign of the Times, presents Susanna Lau and examines how her success as a fashion blogger was due to the influence of the internet. Pham discusses how Lau’s success is constructed through the rise of significant young Asian American women as consumers and producers. Lau has reached out to Asian women throughout the world, and has made fashion a hot topic. The intellectual side of fashion has allowed her to do so. She has maintained her blog since 2006, so her blog has been successful for almost seven years, which shows the power of the media. The media not only serves as a medium, but it also serves to inform and influence the public. It creates a discussion about Asian fashion designers and trends, but also sheds light on how anymore can be involved in the fashion industry. Many people who are not involved in the fashion high life, can still enter this sphere through virtual means, creating Lau’s blogs into transnational texts. It is significant that Lau’s blogs become transnational texts because it spreads her knowledge and information across borders and continents, highlighting the power and influence of the media as a whole.

China Blue: Where do your jeans come from?

The conditions women endure in manual fashion labor overseas varies from horrible to terrible; there is no justice in human rights violations. This PBS documentary titled, China Blue, centers around a 17 year old Chinese factory worker in Southern China, and sheds light onto how the jeans we wear are actually made. Because she has to send money home to her family, Jasmine is coerced into working at a factory that produces and sells jeans to retailers in the United States. She gets paid less than a dollar a day, and her food and rent is even deducted from her pay. Her working conditions are harsh and unhealthy; she works long shifts in poor conditions.

(Note: Most shifts are from 8:00am-2:00am, seven days a week)

Here is a photo of 17 year-old Jasmine working in a jean factory in Southern China:

Jasmine, a 17 year old Chinese factory worker

A quote from the film discussing manual labor tasks:

“We must be fast and can’t miss any of the loose threads…I need to brush the lint from the inside and out. Need to look in al pockets for pebbles. In one hour I can make about half a yuan (about six cents in U.S. dollars).

-Jasmine

The film does a great job highlighting how globalization is negatively effecting women from all around the world, while at the same time showing how far retailers will go to acquire merchandise at a cheap price. It also shows how these Chinese factory workers exemplify issues of modern-day slavery. This poses a great question: can these factory workers be equated to slaves? I argue that yes, Jasmine, as well as other Asian women in this factory should be compared to slaves because that is how they are treated. Lots of third world workers are being exploited because of the high demand of clothing here in the United States. Behind the glitz and glam, lies a cruel world of poverty, exploitation, and overall suffering. I mention this documentary because it does a phenomenal job showing the other side of the fashion industry, since it is often left untold.

The film also highlights human rights violations in China. However, it is important to note that human rights violations not only happen in China, but in the United States and in other nations from around the world. This is important because once again, it shows how factory workers are treated like slaves. The fact they are underpaid, exploited, and practically worked to death, violate their rights as human beings. Below is a picture of Jasmine and her friends. Each girl is holding a pair of jeans they made and sewed together. They are paid six cents for an intense hour of labor.

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By exploring the manual side of the fashion industry, we’re able to understand that fashion is not all about glamour. Even though we are unaware and often times ignorant as to where our jeans come from, social media sites, newspapers, films, and television, are outlets to convey this information to the public. In turn, people are more aware and informed about the people and the stories behind their clothing. Virtual spaces throughout various sites on the internet are discussion forums to open poverty, exploitation, globalization, and modern day slavery as topics for discussion. Ultimately, the media serves as the perfect medium to create awareness, but most importantly, to create change.

Forever 21’s Fashion Production in Asia

Factory workers protesting against Forever 21

Factory workers protesting against Forever 21

In 1984, a Korean-American immigrant couple, Do Won Chang and Jin Sook founded the women-clothing store Forever 21 (Lo 1). Since then, Forever 21 has become a fashion phenomenon for middle-class teenage girls, with affordable clothing and simple fashion designs. However, there is an untold story behind the glitz and glam. Before I delve into the topics of intellectual and creative fashion, I’d first like to examine the manual labor that goes into producing Forever 21 clothing at a cheap price. How is a billion dollar company able to sell their clothing at a cheap price?

  • 1. Cheap Labor
    • Despite the fact the company produces an estimated $3 billion in goods from 500 stores worldwide, factory workers are paid little to nothing (Lo 1). For example, a factory worker is paid a mere twelve cents for a vest priced and sold at $13.50 (Lo 1). They are able to capitalize on cheap labor, which directly effects Asian women who work in clothing factories. In addition to these low wages, workers also have to endure poor working conditions throughout different factories worldwide.
  • 2. Cheap Designs
    • Forever 21 was accused of stealing the work of designers. They have faced more than 50 copyright lawsuits (Hicken 1). Apparently the chain does not use fashion designers, but instead, use “very savvy designer merchants” (Hicken 1).

Huge companies like Forever 21 capitalize on the exploitation of Asian women. It also reveals the harsh realities that exist behind the glitz and glam most people think come along with fashion. After the protests in Los Angeles, the Forever 21 moved their sweatshops to parts in Asia. It continues a cycle of exploitation and a cycle of poverty, but most importantly, a cycle of fashion oppression. This fashion oppression often goes overlooked and unnoticed. It continues in order to keep clothing here in the United States at a cheap price. Forever 21 would not be as affordable if their factory workers were paid at a minimum wage salary, but does this justify the fact that women  in Asia are treated like slaves? Truth is, it is until the cycle stops that justice will be served.

The internet is able to inform the public about what they are really buying when they purchase that trendy twenty dollar dress from a Forever 21 store in the mall. It does not necessarily fix the issue or stop women from purchasing clothing from the store, it just creates an awareness. This awareness sparks discussions between people from all around the world. The intellectual side of fashion (aka the media) is crucial to the manual labor of fashion because it allows it to exist; if media outlets did not spread this information to the public, the information would not be talked about, explored, or known. Mass media develops issues like poverty and exploitation into transnational topics because it spreads the information to different countries throughout the world.

The next blog post will further explore this topic, by looking into a documentary titled China Blue. This documentary tells the story of an Asian teenage girl who is forced to sew jeans in order to send money home to her family. Once again, this points towards issues of poverty and exploitation that lie in the fashion industry. By looking at her story, we’re able to understand the work and sacrifice that goes into the jeans we all wear.