5 designers giving traditional Asian fashions a modern update: Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran wore an ao dai by Thai Nguyen to the Oscars 2022, while Rihanna donned a Guo Pei look at the Met Gala
Ao dais, cheongsams, samfus and hanboks aren’t just for Lunar New Year any more.
Take representative Marilyn Strickland, who wore a hanbok – a traditional Korean dress – when she was sworn into Congress in 2021; or Kelly Marie Tran, who’s starred in movies like Raya and the Last Dragon and several films in the Star Wars franchise, who graced the 2022 Oscars red carpet in a glimmering emerald ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress.
The dress’ designer, Thai Nguyen, spoke about what she felt when she saw Tran being photographed by the world’s media at the Hollywood event: “To have my name authentically ‘Thai Nguyen’ and then having that ao dai on the world’s biggest red carpet, it’s proud.”
Having that kind of authentic representation on the red carpet can have a lasting ripple effect. Nguyen said when a follower’s daughter first saw Tran wearing an ao dai to the 2021 virtual Raya premiere, she instantly grabbed her own ao dai from her wardrobe. Her mother said she didn’t want to wear Cinderella dresses any more.
“It woke me up, and it woke our community up,” Nguyen said.
Cultural appropriation of Asian fashion has existed for centuries
Throughout history, Western nations and luxury fashion houses have fetishised Asian cultures through their garments. That hasn’t stopped in recent years.
Until 2020, retailer Pretty Little Thing’s website sorted cheongsams complete with leg-slits under an “Oriental” category.
In the luxury fashion space, Dolce & Gabbana cancelled what was to be the biggest show in the house’s 33-year-history after airing commercials of a narrator ridiculing an Asian model for using chopsticks to eat pizza and cannoli.
The history of appropriating Asian garments is a long one. The Silk Road first brought Chinese silk and fabrics to Europe as far back as 130 B.C. As centuries passed, European royals and elites would seek out the intricate embroidery for their court dresses and ball gowns. It eventually spun out to create its own, fusion aesthetic: Chinoiserie.
A history in seams
Guo has spent her decades-long career reviving China’s revered art of embroidery – which was all but forbidden in the country during the Cultural Revolution for being “feudal” – stitching dizzying threads etching what she calls the “DNA of a nation” into her work.
“The embroidery and skill set involved is not necessarily just some sort of a rote recovery of the past, but combines my own imagination and also a connection to the textile culture of the world,” Guo said through a translator.
“It carries the thoughts and spirit of the Chinese people. And is also one of the languages of the culture that I was born and grew up in,” Guo said.
A symbol of women’s liberation gets a modern twist
Like Guo, Cheryl Leung draws on Chinese tradition through her fashion label, Sau Lee.
“I was really just inspired by my upbringing in Hong Kong,” Leung said. “It was actually over the years that I really developed a sense of wanting to represent my culture and realising that I’m not seeing it anywhere.”
While Leung emphasised there are other retailers who create traditional cheongsams – a close-fitting dress style (also known as a qipao) that originated in 1920s Shanghai as a symbol of women’s liberation – her label instead aspired to “add cheongsam elements to international designs”.
The cheongsam is one of the most appropriated pieces of traditional Asian clothing. Thus, Leung said it’s important her designs avoid evoking fetishised stereotypes.
“I wouldn’t design anything that I wouldn’t wear as an Asian woman,” Leung said. Her spin on modernising the garment might mean using jacquard in lieu of the traditional embroidered silk, or attaching buttons in an asymmetric silhouette. As a result, these reinterpreted pieces have become Sau Lee’s bestsellers.
“It is so empowering that these Eastern designs are so widely appreciated,” Leung added.
Designer Nyla Hasan says that her brand, the øther, was born to challenge strict, cultural boundaries. Inspired by her South Asian roots, she brings kurtas – a loose, collarless tunic – to every day, Western fashion.
“The øther kind of came from this amalgamation exploring identity, what it means to be mixed, what it means to be American,” Hasan said.
Spending time in both the US and Pakistan, where her father is from, Hasan returned to America after the events of September 11th. After she finished her schooling, Hasan said, she had “a little bit of an edge where I didn’t give a sh** if I belonged or not”.
She began wearing kurtas and jeans to school, popular among South Asian teens.
While a traditional kurta is often simple and boxy, Hasan’s versions play with the garment, adding silk, high-low shirttails or fully-split sides. One of Hasan’s kurtas even includes a hidden belt.
Hasan said she sees the øther as her way of “code-flexing” – something she describes as “the harmonious state of being, not conforming to a space, but choosing how to flex our identity in the spaces we exist in”.
No longer ‘too’ anything
As one of the few Vietnamese designers in haute couture, Nguyen says he is “proud, proud, proud”. But just five years ago he says he would have struggled to declare such a thing.
After leaving his job at the fashion brand BCBG, Nguyen said he was constantly shut down for not following “mainstream rules”.
“I wanted to follow my roots,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to put the ao dai in my collection. And then they’ll be like, ‘No, that’s too ethnic. That’s too Vietnamese.’” The Vietnamese dress is similar to a cheongsam, but is worn with long trousers and features a full side-slit.
Now, Nguyen designs gowns for the likes of Ariana Grande, Sarah Hyland and Laverne Cox, to name a few. Nguyen says his pieces combine an “East silhouette with Western fabrication.” To Nguyen, the ao dai is absolutely a contemporary garment.
Updating ‘Grandma’s favourite wardrobe staple’
Trixie Chua, co-founder of Dear Samfu, found inspiration in her grandmother’s wardrobe.
“Asian women of the past used to wear [samfus] a lot, but it’s not so well-known,” Chua said. “So we decided to really shine a spotlight on it.”
Samfu simply means shirt and trousers. The timelessness of this Chinese fashion staple is the foundation of the brand. It’s a comfortable version of the “T-shirt and jeans”, says the Singapore-born designer.
But more than the simplicity, Chua says Dear Samfu celebrates heritage. Not only is the brand dedicated to “grandma’s fashion” but, creatively, it is also sustainable. Sustainability, Chua said, before it became a buzzword, was practised by her ancestors.
Cathy Liu, a Dear Samfu customer, bought her piece because it was an homage to her Chinese heritage.
“As I get older, I’m embracing my Chinese heritage more. And so just being able to wear something like a samfu out in public is something that I’m glad I can do now,” Liu said.
Liu posts collections of her daily outfits on Instagram – many of them featuring the samfu.
“Over time, I’ve just noticed there’s such a lack of Asia-inspired clothing in the Western world. And so I really wanna be able to promote it when I can to other people,” Liu said.
- Thai Nguyen was told his designs were ‘too Vietnamese’, but now stars like Raya and the Last Dragon’s Kelly Marie Tran are wearing garments like the ao dai with pride
- When Rihanna arrived at the Met Gala in a stunning yellow dress with an embroidered 4.9-metre train, she rightly drew global attention to Chinese couturier Guo Pei