Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu

 

On her book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and The Cultural Economy of Fashion

Cover Interview of August 24, 2011

The wide angle

I started working on this project quite accidentally.  When I was a graduate student at NYU during the mid-90s, I spent a lot of time hanging out downtown.  I would walk around Nolita, the Lower East Side, the East Village, etc. and I started noticing an interesting phenomenon: young, predominantly Asian women were moving into these relatively low-rent neighborhoods and turning old storefronts into fashionable boutiques (you could see this happening in other boroughs too, on 5th avenue in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, etc.).

In some ways this was a typical and pretty old story of gentrification—higher renters pushing out lower renters.  But in other ways it was a pretty unique phenomenon: what were these Asian women doing in fashion?

When we think about Asian Americans and fashion—if we think about them at all—we typically think of them as sewers and garment workers, not stewards of chic.  How did we get from the typical image of them as “nimble fingers that sew in garment factories” to them filling up the ranks of Parsons, winning top CFDA awards, and dressing the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Michelle Obama?  (Asian students are now about 40% of all students at Parsons, and, after much speculation and excitement, Michelle Obama chose Jason Wu’s dress for the inaugural balls.)

So I set out to trace this shift, and soon discovered that this story extended far beyond the boundaries of downtown Manhattan, reaching from Bryant Park to Beijing.

Yet while it was a fundamentally global phenomenon it was animated by the individual stories that I collected after interviewing Asian American designers over the period of eight years.  It was the accounts of their families, their migration patterns, labor histories, educational backgrounds, career trajectories, professional aspirations, and so on that really animated this book.

I hoped to detail the materiality of fashion by tracing the practices and conditions that underlie both the emergence of a distinctive cohort of U.S.-based designers of Asian descent, and the production of the Asian chic aesthetic.

Ultimately, what I discovered in my research was how these designers lives and careers were so deeply shaped by their family’s labor and migration histories—a surprising number of designers were children of immigrant sewers, tailors, and dry cleaners—and by the changes that were being wrought by free trade policies—the downward pressures on wages and working conditions in places like Asia that was both drawing garment work away from New York (where the garment district in the West 30s is shrinking day by day) and also forcing Asian nations, which had long been courted as consumers of fashion, to be producers of fashion themselves.

The Beautiful Generation turned out to be a more complex story than I could have anticipated because like most studies of culture or—film, television, etc.—it is really not so much an examination of particular cultural object as it is a study of a particular, time, place and set of social relationships.

I was writing at a time when there was a lot of talk about how creative labor—including fashion design—could revive the U.S. economy, which had long been weakened by flagging industrial production.  I was trying to ask how we even determine what is “creative” labor and what is “non-creative” labor.  What does it mean to financialize culture in this way? And, ultimately I was trying to respond to the claim that we could somehow build an entire economy around a type of work that a great majority of Americans could never take-up.