5 Asian designers bring traditional dress to modern fashion

  • For centuries, Asian fashion has been customized by Western designers.
  • Asian designers spoke to Insider about how traditional clothing has affected their businesses, from cheongsam to áo dài to kurta.
  • Designers discussed the importance of promoting Asian-inspired clothing.

Áo dàis, cheongsams, samfus, and hanboks are not for Lunar New Year anymore.

Rep. Marilyn Strickland wore hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, while taking her oath of office in Congress in 2021.

Actress Kelly Marie Tran, who has starred in films like “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the Star Wars franchise, graced the 2022 Oscars red carpet in a shimmering emerald gown, a traditional Vietnamese gown.

“Having my original name Thai Nguyen and then putting this áo dài on the world’s biggest red carpet feels very proud,” the dress’s designer, Ty Nguyen, told Insider.

Having this kind of authentic representation on the red carpet can have lasting ripple effects. Nguyen said that when a follower’s daughter first saw Tran wearing áo dài at the premiere of the 2021 virtual “Raya,” she immediately snatched her own clothes from her wardrobe. Her mother said she didn’t want to wear Cinderella’s dresses anymore.

“You woke me up, you woke up our community,” Nguyen said.

A model wears a costume designed by John Galliano for the Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2003 Christian Dior collection

A model wears a costume designed by John Galliano for the Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2003 Christian Dior collection

Pierre Verdi/AFP via Getty Images



The cultural appropriation of Asian fashion has been around for centuries

Throughout history, Western countries and luxury fashion houses have made Asian cultures through their clothing. This has not stopped in recent years.

Until 2020, retailer Pretty Little Thing was sorting qipaos complete with leg slits under the “oriental” category.

In the realm of luxury fashion, Dolce & Gabbana canceled what was supposed to be the biggest show in the house’s 33-year history after airing commercials for a narrator mocking an Asian model for using chopsticks to eat pizza and cannoli.

During the 2003 Christian Dior show, a white model walked in geisha-style makeup and a silk gown. That same year, Roberto Cavalli designed a mini qipao that reveals a leg – Kim Kardashian will later wear one on a plane in 2019.

The history of capturing Asian clothing is long. The Silk Road first brought Chinese silk and fabrics to Europe since 130 B.C. As the centuries passed, European royals and elites sought out the intricate embroidery of their dresses and ball gowns. It is eventually woven to create its own fusion aesthetic: Chinoiserie.

Woman standing on the red carpet in a mustard color dress and gold design.

Rihanna at The Met Gala in 2015 celebrates “China: Through the Glass” on Monday, May 4, 2015 in New York.

Charles Sykes/Invision/Associated Press


History at the seams

After creating the dress that rocked the 2015 Met Gala, Guo Pei became an international name. Pictures of Rihanna wearing a yellow, fur-lined dress and 16-foot train went viral on the Internet, making the Chinese designer a hot topic.

Bai has spent her decades-long career resurrecting the venerable art of Chinese embroidery — which was forbidden under the country’s Cultural Revolution — stitching stunning threads that etched what she calls “the nation’s DNA” into her work.

“The set of embroidery and skills involved isn’t necessarily just some kind of rote retrospective, but it’s also a combination of my own imagination and also a connection to the world’s weaving culture,” Bay told Insider, through an interpreter. .

Rihanna’s 2015 Met Gala dress weighed 55 lbs. The threads themselves took more than 50,000 hours of hand embroidery.

“It carries the thoughts and souls of the Chinese people. It is also one of the languages ​​of the culture I was born and raised in,” Bai said.

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A symbol of women’s liberation takes on a modern twist

Like Pei, Cheryl Leung draws on Chinese tradition with her fashion label Sau Lee.

“My upbringing in Hong Kong really inspired me,” Leung told Insider. “I’ve really developed over the years a sense of wanting to represent my culture and realizing that I don’t see it anywhere.”

While Leung asserts that other retailers have created traditional cheongsam – a style of tights that originated in Shanghai in the 1920s as a symbol of women’s liberation – her brand aspires to “add cheongsam elements to international designs”.

Cheongsam is one of the most appropriate pieces of traditional Asian clothing. Thus, Leung said it’s important for her designs to avoid evoking obsessive stereotypes.

“I won’t design anything that I wouldn’t wear as an Asian woman,” Leung said. Its role in modernizing clothing may mean the use of jacquards instead of traditional embroidered silk, or the asymmetric fastening of buttons. These modern pieces have become Sau Lee’s bestsellers.

“It’s a strength that these oriental designs are so highly regarded,” Leung told Insider.

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“view code”

The Nyla Hasan brand, ether, was born to challenge strict cultural boundaries.

Inspired by Hassan’s South Asian roots, the brand brings the kurta – a loose-fitting, collarless jacket – to everyday western fashion.

“The other kind of inclusion came out of this that explores identity, what it means to be promiscuous, and what it means to be American,” Hassan told Insider.

Neela Hassan

Nella Hassan, creator of the ether

Bianca Alexis


Hassan returned to the United States after the events of September 11th. Hassan said that after she finished her education, she had a “little advantage where I don’t care if I belong or not.”

She started wearing kurta and jeans at school, which is popular among South Asian teens.

While the traditional kurta is often simple and boxy, the Hasan version plays with clothing, adding silk, a high-low shirt, or all-over split sides. One of Hassan’s kurta even includes a hidden belt.

Hassan said she sees the Other as her way of “coding” — as she describes, “the harmonious state of being, not compatible with space, but choosing how to project our identity into the spaces in which we live.”

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“Also” isn’t anything anymore

As one of the few Vietnamese fashion designers, Nguyen said he is “proud, proud, proud.” But just five years ago, he said he would struggle to say the same.

After quitting his job at fashion brand BCBG, Nguyen said he was constantly closed off for not following the “mainstream rules”.

“I wanted to follow my roots,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to put áo dài in my collection. And then they’d be like, ‘No, that’s very ethnic.'” This is very Vietnamese. “The Vietnamese dress is similar to a cheongsam, but is worn with long pants and features a full side slit.

Now, Nguyen designs dresses for the likes of Ariana Grande, Sarah Hyland, and Laverne Cox, to name a few.

His Hollywood look, while western, offers subtle nods to áo dài: a high neck, full-sleeved collar, and a long, straight skirt.

Nguyen says his pieces are “the eastern silhouette with western concoctions.” For Nguyen, áo dài is contemporary.

About wearing áo dài to an event, Nguyen said “I don’t want people to have that question anymore.”

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Update “Grandma’s Favorite Wardrobe”

Trixie Chua, co-founder of dear samfu, found inspiration in her grandmother’s wardrobe.

“Asian women in the past used to wear [samfus] “A lot, but it’s not very well known,” Chua told Insider. “So we decided to really shine a light on it.”

Grandmother Trixie Chua (left) wears a sambo

Grandmother Trixie Chua (right) wears a sambo

Trixie Chua


“Sampho” simply means shirt and pants. The timelessness of this staple of Chinese fashion is the foundation of the brand. It’s a relaxed version of the ‘t-shirt and jeans’.

More profound than simple, Chua said, dear Sampho celebrates heritage. The brand dedicated to “grandmother’s fashion” is not only creative, but also sustainable. Chua said sustainability, before it became a buzzword, was practiced by her predecessors.

Kathy Liu, a cherished Sampho customer, bought her pieces because it was a tribute to her Chinese heritage.

“As I get older, I embrace my Chinese heritage more. And so just being able to wear something like samfu in public is something I’m happy to do now,” Liu told Insider.

Liu posts collections of her everyday outfits on Instagram – many posts featuring samfu.

“Over time, I just noticed that there is a lack of Asian-inspired clothing in the Western world. And so I really want to be able to promote it when I can to other people,” Liu said.

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