By and  on May 26, 2009

New York City may be the base for the United Nations, but it’s also become the home of the United Nations of fashion.

Unlike any other fashion capital, Seventh Avenue has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past decade. Where once the industry was the domain of Italian-Americans and Jewish immigrants in pursuit of the American dream, it is now a melting pot reflective of the changing demographics of the city itself.

A growing number of newly arrived or first-generation Asian-American and Hispanic designers are making their mark on the runway. The fashion week schedule reads more like a roll call for the U.N. General Assembly — with designers who were either born here, or moved here from locales including China, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Nepal, Cuba and Iran. They are also increasingly a presence in design rooms and corporate and retail positions.

“Historically, it does appear the fashion design industry in New York City used to be more Jewish and WASP, whereas now there’s an increasing number of Asian-American, Hispanic-American and African-American designers,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “We know they have always been there, but they may not have been so prominent in the past — they may have been more backstage before. There’s more of a premium on creativity in the industry than in the past, when we’d largely copy France.”

Eugenia Paulicelli, professor of Italian, comparative literature and women’s studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she is also co-director of the Graduate Center Fashion Studies Concentration, coedited “The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity and Globalization” (Routledge, 2008) and has hosted exhibits and conferences on the subject of how fashion and society interact. She said the new diversity of fashion designers reflects how cities develop all over the world through migration shifts and different communities forming and interacting with each other.

“In the beginning, the garment industry in New York was owned by Italian-Americans and Jewish immigrants,” Paulicelli said. “In the last decade in New York, we had a shift in that we have a lot of Asian-American designers and designers from all over the place, who were either born here or came to school here.”

The industry, led by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, welcomes the diversity, and judging by the roster of CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists over the past five years, supports it.

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