As any established designer knows painfully well, there is no clear-cut path to success. Skills and talent somehow are not solely enough to break away from the competition.
Yet with fortitude and often longevity, these Asian American and Pacific Islander designers have distinguished themselves in the ever-competitive fashion industry. In addition to creating identifiable brands, they have brought in fresh perspectives, told new stories and, in some cases, interwoven elements of their heritage to design one-of-a-kind fashion.
While design giants like Rei Kawakubo, Kenzo Takada, Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto helped forge the way for younger generations of AAPI designers, this group of American creatives who found success from the early 20th century to today continue to delve into new territories, be that with design, new business ventures and even social justice efforts.
Here, WWD highlights some of those who have influenced fashion.
Burgeoning young career consumers understood what they wanted from fashion 50 years ago. Korean-born designer Cathy Hardwick understood that, too. Hardwick established her business in San Francisco in the 1970s, making bikinis for herself and friends. Department stores bought in, and Hardwick opened her first store soon after.
In 1974 she moved to New York and established Cathy Hardwick and Friends. Her collections featured affordable, sophisticated sportswear infused with eastern techniques in western stylings. Referencing recognizable eastern inspirations like chinoiserie elements, obi-style wrapping, and frog closures, appealed to many modern female consumers.
By the 1980s, Hardwick was a significant player on Seventh Avenue. She also hired designer Tom Ford for his first design job. But with many ups and downs, she closed her company in the mid-’90s.
Hardwick returned to fashion with a short stint under her label and designed for multiple companies, including now-defunct Sears brands and Joan and David up until 2000.
A consummate collector, Hardwick recently auctioned some of her Mario Buatto designed apartment possessions at Sotheby’s New York and was honored with Pratt Institute’s Legend Award in 2005.
In 2020 as the world stood still, it became evident that creativity would be the “mother of invention.” But none of this is unfamiliar to Josie Natori, who has built a brand marketing “innerwear as outerwear.”
Uncertainty is fashion’s playbook, so, while the pandemic forced everyone in, Natori took the opportunity to return to the “beauty in intimacy” that the brand stood for and staged its fall show in her New York apartment. The in-home fashion show leveled up the new state of comfort that is all too familiar in the current moment.
Philippines-born Natori arrived in New York to attend school at Manhattanville College. After graduation, she headed to Wall Street. Her rise to vice president at Merrill Lynch came quickly, but having her own business would prove to be more satisfying. Acknowledging a love for fashion, in 1977, she and her husband Ken Natori Sr., began steering their successful course in the lingerie business. From its inception, Natori curated a modern East-meets-West aesthetic mixed with a proper understanding of lingerie as necessary, without forgetting the consumer.
More than 40 years later, Natori has built a multimillion-dollar lifestyle brand — including lingerie collections, ready-to-wear collection, home, fragrance and eyewear — with equally successful multitier retail collaborations. Her 2011 collection Natori x Target limited-edition lingerie collection was the first of its kind at the affordable retailer.
Natori was honored with the Lakandula Award in 2007 from then President of the Philippines Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, considered the highest honor for a Filipino citizen. She also received Fashion Group International’s prestigious Humanitarian Award amid keeping 60 percent of her production in facilities she established in the Philippines. The company continues to secure its future in fashion by staying true to its ethos while remaining one of fashion’s rare independents.
David Chu, an ambidextrous designer and entrepreneur, founded Nautica in 1983 at the age of 28, and developed a $2.5 million business within two years.
Born in Taiwan, Chu immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. He trained in architecture before shifting tracks to fashion following a recommendation from a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduation, he returned to Taiwan to launch an apparel business with friends. When that didn’t pan out, he started a five-year run at Kayser-Roth, a U.S. hosiery manufacturer.
Next was Nautica. Over the years, Chu built Nautica into a $1 billion business with more than 1,500 in-store shops before selling it to VF Corp. for $600 million in cash in 2003. Chu reportedly pocketed $104 million in the sale. He later took an equity stake in Tumi and joined the company as its executive creative director in 2007. Upon his exit nearly two years later, he was credited with elevating the company.
Through David Chu Design International, the designer developed golf-inspired apparel Lincs-David Chu, Mallory & Church neckwear and hosiery. Aware of how TV can drive fashion sales, he signed a sponsorship deal with the Golf Channel in 2008. Three years later, he relaunched his Lincs line with more of a lifestyle and sportswear spin to give it broader appeal, and played up international distribution, especially in China. A runway show in Shanghai was staged for the debut. Adept as he was in apparel design, Chu also recognized the power of accessories and how they had started to eclipse sportswear. Chu teamed with Investcorp to acquire Georg Jensen, the Scandinavian jewelry, accessories and home goods maker in 2012. He served as chief executive officer, chief creative officer and chairman of the board until 2016, and remains a board member there today.
More recently, the robotics technology company Vicarious Surgical announced plans to go public through a $1.1 billion SPAC deal through a merger with D8 Holdings where Chu leads as CEO.
“Nautica was great and a lot of fun,” Chu once told WWD. “Life’s been good to me.”
Anna Sui, a Detroit-born Parsons School of Design alum, has become one of fashion’s most unique voices, but that didn’t happen overnight. Before establishing her label in 1981, Sui, a second-generation Chinese American, freelanced for several sportswear labels, including Iceberg. She also took styling gigs with close friend and photographer Steven Meisel to make ends meet — a norm for many young designers — she told WWD in 2018.
Sui had already established a cult-like following in Japan before staging her first runway show Stateside in 1991. Her head-to-toe interpretation of notable fashion moments, including the 1960s Youth Quake stylings and 1970s hippie chic, continually embraces cultural self-expression. Sui’s veritable story trove of historical references and subtle cultural signifiers remain unique to her brand’s staying power.
The Anna Sui brand consists of multiple licensing ventures and more than 50 Anna-appointed boutiques selling to a wide range of loyal followers. The designer, who works with a continuum of longtime collaborators, received the CFDA/Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, amongst many other honors.
In 2017 Sui was celebrated with her first solo exhibition, titled “The World of Anna Sui.” The traveling exhibition (the first iteration opened at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London), gives insight into the designers’ creative process and presents a roll call of 12 archetypes that capture the Anna Sui aesthetic.
Vivienne Tam discovered her love for fashion by the age of three. Chinese-born, Hong Kong-raised Tam moved to New York after graduation from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and, in 1981, introduced her first collection. Though she described it as “very Chinese,” in a 1993 interview with WWD, Tam’s unapologetic use of Chinese motifs combined with western trends led to a fashion success story.
Tam’s business took off in the 1990s. Her label East Wind Code by Vivienne Tam, a contemporary fashion brand, assisted in bringing Vivienne Tam, her namesake label, to the ready-to-wear stage. In the same decade, Tam collaborated with Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu to create her Mao collection, which features Hongtu’s provocative images of one of the 20th century’s most controversial political leaders, Chairman Mao Zedong, and was met with mixed reviews in the U.S. and China. Several Hong Kong manufacturers refused production, but those who did deliver the finished goods disguised them in plain brown paper wrapping. The designs brought Tam industry recognition and museum-worthy applause: the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institutes “China Through the Looking Glass” highlighted her “Mao” dress in its 2015 exhibition.
By the mid-1990s, with sales surpassing $10 million, Tam opened her first U.S. store in New York’s SoHo district. In 2017, she began her expansion in the growing Asian market through a partnership with Shenzhen-based clothing company Ellassay. Through the partnership, Tam has opened several Vivienne Tam stores in China, Hong Kong, and Japan via another partnership, plus other evolving Asian markets.
Confirming her staying power, Tam kicked off Shanghai’s spring 2019 fashion week with her “Shero” collection. A take on a combination of the words “she” and “hero,” the collection emphasized the idea of female empowerment and independence as inspiration, she told WWD. Shero was accessorized with the designer’s collaborations, including a range of tech accessories and a Crocs capsule collection.
For Tam, consistency has been key to elevating her namesake brand, which speaks to a fearless individuality. Something she, like her consumer, seeks out in her fashion choices.
Tam has been honored by Forbes magazine and received the Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week “China Fashion Award — International Designer of the Year 2017.”
The early-Aughts opened the door to a new crop of young designers. At a moment of change, the fashion industry looked toward a new guard of Seventh Avenue designer labels. Designer Derek Lam was one of them.
Lam, a native to San Francisco, of Chinese-American parentage, started his career in the 1990s at the top end of Seventh Avenue, working with designer Michael Kors. He founded his namesake brand in 2003 with collections of easy luxury staples that garnered the attention of fashion’s elite. A year later, he received a nomination for the CFDA/Perry Ellis award for women’s wear.
In the early 2000s, many young American designers took the opportunity to work with high-end European brands. Lam headed to Italian heritage brand Tod’s. The appointment as creative director from 2006 to 2012 was pivotal to exposure for his namesake brand’s future global reach. In 2011, the year before he exited Tod’s, the designer and his business partner and husband Jan Hendrik-Schottman decided to expand on his namesake and introduced the contemporary label, Derek Lam 10 Crosby. Lam always had the idea of developing a diffusion line, and 10 Crosby — which built on his industry experience and years with Tod’s — presented the opportunity to bring what he once told WWD is a collection of accessible modern, clothing with real quality to a wider audience.
The designer also collaborated on his first crowdsourced collection Derek Lam + eBay in 2011 and partnered with Amazon to open the company’s first fashion e-tailing store featuring his Derek Lam 10 Crosby collection in 2013.
In 2019, Lam put his namesake collection on hiatus as the company redirected, and focused more on the Derek Lam 10 Crosby business. In early 2020, Lam sold the brand to Public Clothing Co. With 10 Crosby, Lam continues to focus on building a contemporary brand with a wide range of options in classics infused with his modern aesthetic.
Designing ensembles for dolls paved the way to Seventh Avenue for New York-based, Taiwan-born designer Jason Wu. The fashion industry immediately recognized the Parsons School of Design alum, who founded his eponymous label in 2006. The following year he received the Fashion Group International’s “Rising Star” award, yet success was not instantaneous.
Fast-forward to 2009 — because a moment in fashion can change everything — when that moment came. Michelle Obama, then incoming first lady already familiar with his label, chose the designer — not once but twice — to design her inaugural ballgowns. That sealed his name in the lexicon of American fashion history, and one of the dresses is now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Museum’s “First Ladies Collection.” The honor of dressing the first lady was manifold and garnered him the CFDA/Swarovski Award for Womenswear that same year.
Many collaborations would follow. In 2017, the brand’s labels included Jason Wu Collection, Grey Jason Wu, Hugo Boss Women’s — where he was creative director from 2013 to 2018. In the midst of it all, came his first major investor, InterLuxe Holdings in 2014. To date, Wu has garnered multiple collaborations, including Fila where he designs women’s and men’s capsule collections specifically for the Asian market, and Target where he became one of the first designers to have a stand-alone limited-edition collection. He has since ventured into accessories, cosmetics, and home fashion products, an area of great interest to the designer.
At more than 10 years in the business, Wu told WWD during a 2017 interview that he saw his career trajectory somewhat working in reverse. Because when he started his brand he had little experience but tons of drive to figure it out on his own. And his drive and authenticity have proven to be a winning formula.
In 2019, Wu signed an exclusive brand licensing partnership with Beanstalk to position his inclusive lifestyle brand for global expansion. His contemporary-priced line debuted during the spring 2021 New York Fashion Week showings. The fashion show featured an inclusive model cast, including LGBTQ actress and activist Indya Moore from the series “Pose,” who opened the show. Wu used the moment to acknowledge the lack of inclusivity on the runway. It is easy to see why his collections continue to be coveted by women worldwide, and why his brand’s slow but steady climb continues to pay off.
Prabal Gurung’s global citizenship has always been the bedrock of his signature brand. Born in Singapore and raised in Kathmandu, Gurung studied in New Delhi before relocating to New York to graduate from The New School’s Parsons School of Design. After a two-year run at Cynthia Rowley, he worked at Bill Blass as the design director. Five years later, the designer started his own signature company and he is still at. Although Gurung is committed to American-made production, he is intercontinental in his views.
Among those he has dressed includes, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and the Duchess of Cambridge. The historical significance of some of those photo ops is not lost on Gurung. After Harris wore a Prabal Gurung pantsuit when President Joe Biden addressed the joint sessions of Congress last month, the designer said, “A fellow child of immigrants and the first female, Black and South Asian vice president, her vision inspires me.”
Gurung’s family started the Shikshya Foundation Nepal in 2011 to provide an education to impoverished children.
Prabal Gurung was among the fashion brands that recently committed to showing at IMG’s New York Fashion Week for the next three seasons. “New York is my home and has been my home for a long time. I always felt this immense responsibility to give back to the city,” he said.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Naeem Khan developed an appreciation for textiles as a boy, observing the work of his father and grandfather who designed garments for Indian royal families.
After moving to the U.S. as a teenager, he started his career in fashion at the age of 20 by working as an apprentice to Halston. Years later in 2003, he launched his eponymous label that is known for its intricately beaded designs. Bridal was added to the assortment in 2013, and that line, as well as the designer’s ready-to-wear, is sold in more than 150 retailers globally.
Khan’s celebrity clientele has included Michelle Obama, who wore one of his gowns for a state dinner for former prime minister of India Manmohan Singh in 2009. As for what is needed to be successful in the U.S., Khan once said, “Well, you need a lot of money. Everyone needs talent, but a lot of money, too.”
Phillip Lim has distinguished himself in the fashion industry with fortitude and a clear identity. After moving to the U.S. from Thailand with his parents, his family lived in Southern California. After escaping Cambodia’s civil unrest, his mother worked as a seamstress and his father became a professional poker player. The designer studied finance at California State University of Long Beach before switching to home economics. Working part-time at Barneys’ Beverly Hills outpost, Lim discovered the Katayone Adeli label. After ambitiously calling Adeli seeking work, he wound up with an internship, and, over time, a full-time job.
Lim later launched his own women’s company Development, but he and the label’s financiers parted ways in 2004. He started the 3.1 Phillip Lim brand in New York in 2005, and his understated linear designs won over the fashion crowd. As the years passed, the designer folded in men’s wear, accessories and shoes to his collection. Lim, who had 42 employees as of February, now runs his studio from New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Like Gurung, Lim was an early advocate for the #StopAsianHate initiative earlier this year. In March, the designer said the increased violence against Asians in America stems from xenophobia and colonialism, and noted how the issue of violence against the Asian American community has been underreported in the media.
“In today’s world, we can no longer separate our belief system from what we do,” he said in a statement earlier this year in response to anti-Asian violence. “Yes, I’m a fashion designer but first and foremost, I’m a human being.”
Ever since offshore manufacturing gained traction with U.S. brands, Yeohlee Teng has been a stalwart champion for the Garment District in Midtown. The designer hails from Malaysia, but has called New York City home for decades. Her pristinely designed collections are often architecturally inspired. But as she has said, her clothes are “not weighed down with Western preconceptions about what a coat or suit should look like, nor am I locked into traditional Eastern construction.”
After starting her Yeohlee label with a five-piece collection in 1975, the designer has remained conscious of zero-waste design, keeping collections compact, and using geometric pattern making, three-dimensional draping and multifunctional elements. Born in Penang, while it was still a British colony and had a British education system, she said to WWD in 1985: “In primary school we drew blond people and apple trees, just like the children do in England. Frankly, I was much more interested in making clothes.”
Not interested in trends, she designs seeking day-to-day appeal. “Trends don’t matter,” she told WWD in the ’80s. And she continues to abide by that design ethos. ”What matters is that you do what you really love, and you do it well always.”
Growing up in the U.S., Vera Wang’s parents Cheng Ching and Florence Wang encouraged her to embrace American culture, but they never allowed her to forget her Chinese heritage. That delicate balance provided Wang and her brother “with such a unique view of the world and a sincere appreciation for both cultures,” she has said publicly.
Before establishing herself in the world of fashion, Wang was a competitive figure skater. After working at Vogue magazine and then Ralph Lauren, Wang started her own bridal company in 1990 with a flagship in the Carlyle Hotel. The ambidextrous designer and couture aficionado introduced ready-to-wear in 2000. Five years later, the Council of Fashion Designers of America named her “Womenswear Designer of the Year.”
Wang directly employs approximately 150 people today and recently announced a global 10-year licensing deal with the bridal powerhouse Pronovias. Admittedly “a little bit of a stickler” about quality, detail, attitude, shape and other elements, Wang said at the time of the launch that nothing was sacrificed for the new collection, which will wholesale for less than her signature line.
A believer in the need for greater thought, open discussion and true authenticity, Wang told WWD once: “Respect for others is the only way I know to create a safer, happier, more prosperous future.”