Time was when the fashion industry was dominated by stuffy European fashion brands with an illustrious history. But things started to change in the 1980s when a wave of Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto shocked the fashion world with their unusual, avant-garde designs. Since then, more Asian designers have entered the fashion realm, including Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam and Vera Wang, who helped define women's fashion in the 1990s. Almost a decade later, a new group of young, hip Chinese-American designers are picking up where they left off: Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang, Peter Som, Mary Ping and Derek Lam are among the elite few quickly becoming industry pioneers with a global following. Although many Chinese immigrants working in the industry are associated with the manufacturing side of the business, first-generation American-born Chinese are crossing the boundaries into the more creative arena of fashion design. 'I think it is fantastic that Asian-American designers are stepping out of the shadows and starting to take steps to establish themselves as leaders,' says Phillip Lim. 'It's even more amazing that we are being recognised as part of a new generation and are being credited for paving a new road for other aspiring designers. It is a positive sign of how far we have come.' Lim, who launched his line in 2005, was born in California to Chinese immigrant parents. His mother, who was working as a seamstress, was heartbroken when she found out that her son wanted to study fashion design. 'My mother was so upset when she thought I was following in her path because she had worked hard to give me what she hoped would be a better life than hers,' he says. 'I had to explain to her that being a fashion designer is very different than just sewing, which is what she thought fashion was about.' This preconception has changed over time. While many Chinese parents have resisted a creative career path for their children, the new crop of designers say the support of their families has been integral to their success. 'I think that back in the day, most Chinese parents nixed the idea of being a fashion designer because they usually wanted their children, especially their sons, to follow in the family business,' says Alexander Wang. 'My family was quite the opposite, as they were the ones to give me my first sewing machine when I was just a teenager.' Running his company alongside his brother and sister-in-law, Wang, who launched his label in 2004, when he was just 20, says it wouldn't have been as successful without his family's participation. 'My sister-in-law was the one who helped me out in the beginning when I was trying to find buyers, and now both her and my brother help me take care of the business side of the brand,' he says. 'Keeping things in the family is a very Chinese concept, which works out great for me because I trust them implicity and it frees me up to focus all my attention on design.' Peter Som also credits his family for their support and for providing him with a creative background. 'I came from a family of architects so design has always been a part of my life,' he says. 'I began sketching from a young age and I was lucky that my parents did not push me towards a more traditional career path and allowed me instead to pursue what I really love.' Family obligations aside, the real obstacle these designers have faced is resistance from the industry itself. Unlike the Japanese, who have produced visionaries such as Yamamoto and Kawakubo, the Chinese have a reputation for providing inexpensive tailoring and manufacturing rather than innovative design. 'I think the west has for a long time thought of the Chinese as either garment producers or as designers too reliant on recycling traditional Chinese design motifs,' says Wang, whose downtown Manhattan hipster aesthetic is popular with New York 'it' girls. 'This new generation has shown that in addition to great quality and workmanship, the Chinese are capable of being original creative forces as well.' Lim, known for his urban yet feminine New York design sensibility, and up-and-coming designer Mary Ping both agree. 'I do not incorporate traditional Chinese styles into my designs in any way,' says Lim. 'As proud as I am of being Chinese, the only way it really manifests itself is in my work ethic of dedication, attention to detail and perseverance, as opposed to my designs. 'For me, the title of Asian-American designer has always felt like a lid over the meaty main dish,' says Ping, founder of label Slow and Steady Wins the Race. 'My designs are more about ideas and concepts as opposed to culture, although sometimes I'll find that what I consider aesthetically pleasing is influenced by my cultural background.' Vera Wang admits that much of her success comes from interpreting her cultural background in a less obvious way. 'When it comes to designing, I strive to create clothing that conveys subtlety, grace and femininity - traits that the Chinese have traditionally admired in women,' she says. With their aesthetics fine-tuned, each of these designers has gone on to become incredibly successful in only a few years. In addition to his own line, Lam is creative director at Italian label Tod's, and Som was previously in charge of American label Bill Blass. Alexander Wang recently won the CFDA Vogue/Fashion Fund Award, and Ping's label is making headlines with its tongue-and-cheek approach to fashion. Lim's line now includes menswear and childrenswear. The Chinese, it seems, have finally arrived. 'We may have started as seamstresses and garment manufacturers, but now we are undeniably designers to be reckoned with,' says Lam. 'With the fashion world focusing more and more on the east, particularly China, this new guard of designers will have a distinct advantage of being able to understand the nuances of the different cultures.'