The horrific shootings of eight people—including six Asian women—at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16 sent shockwaves around the world. The tragedy occurred as reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed in the west during the pandemic, leading to the hashtag #StopAsianHate being shared on social media in solidarity with the Asian community.
Among those speaking out are prominent figures in fashion, highlighting just how prevalent anti-Asian racism is—both inside and outside of the industry. At a time when fashion is still facing a reckoning when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, it’s all the more important that Asian voices are heard.
Here, 11 fashion designers and models, including Phillip Lim, Anna Sui, and Jason Wu, explain why it’s so important that we stand up against anti-Asian racism, and the steps we need to take to create a truly inclusive fashion industry.
Phillip Lim, designer
“The first step for our industry is to understand that we are not in competition with each other. It’s not about one community being a focus for a moment while another group waits in the shadows for their time. Inclusivity is making room for each other at the table, always. We can no longer separate who we are from what we do and we shouldn’t have to. That time is over and the time now is to live our truth, celebrate it and bring the best of who we are to our work and to our community.”
Anna Sui, designer
“What’s happening is not only tragic and horrible, but it brings back all the painful memories of the fear of the ‘yellow peril;’ the US’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Japanese internment camps (where Japanese people in the US were forced into prison camps during the Second World War). We need to increase awareness of this problem, learn tolerance and practice acceptance of one another. It would be wonderful if what came out of this is support for all the talented, young Asian students graduating from the design schools and designers emerging with their own collections.”
Soo Joo Park, model
“The industry, for better or worse in an attempt to be representative, can often oversimplify one’s identity into a more easily ‘ticked’ box. That is probably the biggest reason why I bleached my hair—to work against tokenism and typecasting.
“We’re in a business that allows people to see themselves represented in the media. The stance we take in marginalizing or depicting certain biases can shape the eyes of the viewer—it’s crucial to realize the impact that our industry and creative energy can have on society, to remind the world that it is multifaceted, not monolithic. To help combat the current anti-Asian violence and rhetoric, we would do well to be enthusiastically showcasing a wide range of Asian cultures and experiences, as well as sharing individual stories. If we listen and try to be open about having conversations, I think everyone can begin to feel seen and heard.”
Fernanda Ly, model
“Stop ignoring our existence until it is convenient for you: We are more than a box on your politically correct checklist. It is a prevalent thought that Asia and Asians are to be taken advantage of—for example, through cheap labour or monetary gain by the selling of luxury goods. Please understand that we, too, are human beings with a very rich history—we are not lower class citizens whose existence is only for your benefit.”
Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, founders of Opening Ceremony
“As Asian Americans, we have been continuously told to ignore our own voices, assimilate and uphold the divides that have been pushed upon us. But no more: we need to speak up. Our ancestors have worked too hard and have been silenced for too long, and now, the younger generation needs to stand up. The narrative that we must assimilate is false—we are proud of the culture that is in our blood and what makes us who we are.
“There’s a fine line between honoring a culture and exploiting it. There are white-owned companies that use our culture as decoration without truly giving back to our community and whitewash our history and art (sometimes even calling their products a ‘tribute’), and these actions perpetuate systemic racism. They must be stopped. Our rich Asian cultures are not to be used by non-Asians as mere decoration. This is not fashion. There are nuances that cannot be understood unless we are part of the dialogue. So ask us. Include us. Don’t assume.
“We need to hold people accountable for racist behavior, and the first step is to call it out when you see it—no matter who you are. We can’t ever let these things slide.”
Jason Wu, designer
“Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of Asian representation in fashion. It is more important now than ever that we stand up as a community to push for change and acceptance—we will not stand for racism and intolerance.”
Prabal Gurung, designer
“For fashion to achieve real progress on its path to inclusivity and diversity, the seats at the decision-making table need to be at least 50 per cent people of color (POC) and marginalized voices. The effort to be inclusive cannot be surface-deep, only extending to your front of house staff. What does your boardroom look like? Is it truly diverse?
“It’s important that the industry embraces the movement and not just a moment. By this, I mean that we have to tell the stories of marginalized people on a constant basis. Our stories and voices should not be tokenized and solely reserved for our heritage months or in times of crisis. Finally, the fashion industry needs to dismantle the patriarchal and colonial lens through which it operates. We need to eradicate these oppressive norms around beauty, gender, race, and elitism in order to embrace a more equitable future.”
Robert Wun, designer
“I still remember quite vividly the racism I encountered in the industry, from someone whose main focus was to figure out which part of China I was from—instead of talking about my work and collection. [They also made] a false assumption of my legal status in the UK [and suggested] that I should change my collection’s direction to have more ‘cultural’ relevance so they could put me in a diversity category—as that was the only way they could ‘sell’ a POC designer.
“I feel one of the biggest problems with anti-Asian racism is the normalization of it—when it’s categorized as a joke or a punchline—or when it’s compared to racism experienced by other communities and then played down like it’s insignificant. Plus, the dehumanizing assumptions of our class, background and cultural differences as people of East Asian descent.
“Moving forward, as a community we need to speak up and unite against the normalized hate and racism towards us, and the fashion industry needs to correct its approach towards POC representation, especially for emerging and up-and-coming talent.”
Tao Okamoto, model and actor
“Almost every garment in the world has had the touch of someone of Asian descent during its creation process, and that fact is often under-appreciated. We are not just markets or labour but living beings like those of every other background. The industry needs to recognize that there have been significant human rights issues in those creative processes, and combating this layered hatred can start through acknowledging those circumstances and taking action to not undervalue the people involved. This needs to be discussed not only in the US, but also worldwide—as well as in Asia. We need to listen to everyone’s narratives and always remain compassionate towards their circumstances.”
Mona Matsuoka, model
“I’ve been working in fashion for a while now, but the subject of Asian hate is much more than just an issue in the industry. The past few weeks, with all these hate crimes in the US, have been truly devastating. I’m scared for my friends and the community, the ‘hate’ that is building. The media should talk more about the stories behind these Asian women, men that have been killed, hurt, and abused so that people can understand where we come from instead of explaining the motive of the abuser, the killer. What would you do if this was your relative? Your friend? Your community? We are all human with the same beating heart.”
Yoon Ahn, designer
“When we hear the term ‘racism,’ the Asian race often goes under the radar, although we are all aware that Asians have constantly been the target of discrimination. The issue is only being highlighted now because Asian minorities are facing tragic losses, stemming from provocations by Donald Trump. Although Asia is deemed an important market in the apparel industry, the impact and influence of Asian culture in the history of fashion is not highlighted and credited enough.”
Rejina Pyo, designer
“I don’t have the answer to racism. It permeates every facet of our lives. If you scratch the surface, it won’t take long to discover the misguided and casual anti-Asian racism harbored by even your closest friends and family. It is rife. It has become so normalized, I almost didn’t question the countless occasions I found myself on the receiving end of it in the UK, in this industry.
“We have to work together to call out and reject the everyday racism, xenophobia, and the stigma that so many of us turn a blind eye to every day in our industry. We can also support advocacy groups including Stand Up To Racism and End The Virus of Racism.”
How to support
You can donate to the AAPI Community Fund, which supports Asian and Pacific Islander communities across the US.
You can also donate to End The Virus of Racism, a UK nonprofit dedicated to addressing racism towards people of East and Southeast Asian heritage.
You can learn from The Racism is a Virus Toolkit, published by nonprofit Act to Change to support the Asian community in combating racism.