For at least 20 years, Asians have provided some of the glue that holds fashion together, with nimble hands that sew in factories in the United States, Hong Kong and China.
Now, they are also an important force in design on Seventh Avenue. Anna Sui, Josie Natori, Vivienne Tam, Yeohlee Teng, Vera Wang and Han Feng are at the vanguard of the group. They were honored along with others last month by the Asian-American Federation of New York for their contributions to fashion.In this year's graduating class at Parsons School of Design, Asian students walked away with half of the top awards, including designer of the year. Of the 10 Asians in the 206-member Council of Fashion Designers of America, five joined within the last two years.
The growing interest in Asian trade and culture is one explanation for the new wave. Another is the emergence of such successful names as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s in Paris. A decade earlier, Kenzo Takada established a beachhead for Asians in Europe with his Jungle Jap collection.
A growing appetite for fashion by Asians is also propelling Asian designers here. Tam says her company has discovered that an Asian name on a label can be an attraction.
Natori, who immigrated here from the Philippines 30 years ago, said, "It's not just selling to Americans, but selling to our countryland." She is the subject of an hourlong biography, "Intimate Portrait: Josie Natori," that was broadcast on Lifetime Television on June 4 and will be repeated three times this month.
She said that in Asia, "the appetite for fashion is what it was here in the '60s, '70s and '80s."
A spokeswoman from Parsons, one of the two leading fashion schools, said there were no figures on attendance or graduation rates for Asians. A representative from the other top school, the Fashion Institute of Technology, could only provide the percentage of Asians currently enrolled: 26 percent. But officials at both schools said there appeared to be many more students from Korea and other Asian countries as the demand for higher education there outstripped opportunities. In August, the Samsung Art and Design Institute, a Parsons affiliate, will open in Seoul, South Korea.
While the fashions these designers produce range widely, several offer an identifiable Asian esthetic, whether in Feng's pleated fabrics or Teng's understated, architectural coats and sportswear.
"It's minimalism," Teng said. "Asian design reflects a sense of balance and proportion."