There was a time when the boutiques that are now so familiar in New York’s landscape were just small tenement buildings, with boarded up windows and bricked up facades.
When I first stepped into Jennifer and Sally Wang’s store, Wang’s, in what we now call Nolita, but what was then, in the mid-1990s, just a nowhere land between Grand and Houston, I remember thinking how bright their shop was in comparison to the restaurant supply and food stores that surrounded it.
The Beautiful Generation was my attempt to understand how this shift happened—how designer clothing, the lives and labors that make it possible, and the city in which it thrived and ultimately transformed became connected and animated by a series of ethnic networks that were just barely visible under the glaring lights of fashion.
We all know that Asian and Latino immigrants dominate the garment industries in New York. But until very recently, few of us thought they had anything to do with the other end of the sartorial spectrum—fashion design.
What I tried to show in this book was not just that Asian Americans are now a part of the fashion industry—as we know from having become well-acquainted with boldface names like Philip Lim, Thakoon Panichgul, Doo-Ri Chung and the like—but that it was the presence of Asians immigrants in garment production that made their participation possible.
“Asian Americans are now a part of the fashion industry—as we know from having become well-acquainted with boldface names like Philip Lim, Thakoon Panichgul, Doo-Ri Chung and the like—but it was the presence of Asians immigrants in garment production that made their participation possible.”
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.
The fun thing about writing a book about an emerging phenomenon is that there is always something surprising to learn.
If I could direct readers to any part of the book, it would be to those sections in chapter 2 when I talk about how Asian American designers and Asian sewers talk to each other, using the language of kin—calling them uncles and aunties—and how they imagine their relationship to each other.
Those exchanges were very surprising to me because they seem to undo a lot about what we think we know about sewers and the craft of sewing—as low-wage, disempowered, immigrants doing unskilled work. They revealed to me that categories which seem so fixed to us are in practice actually constantly shifting.
“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.”
I often find myself saying that this book is about New York’s fashion industry—but then almost immediately thinking that it’s really not about the fashion industry at all.
The book certainly started out that way, and fashion has remained a central object of analysis. But what I discovered in the process of research was that I was actually learning much more about the nature of social connection and affiliation—about how we manage to retain social relationships in the face of forces that continually divide.
One of the ways in which we have been thinking about these questions lately is through discussions of social media. But while such technological developments have allowed us to keep up with old friends from far away and have as such ameliorated the problem of temporal and spatial distance, they have not really resolved the problem of social distance. For even in the midst of all this social networking, we are still seeing each other as inherently disconnected, as red states and blue states, as West and non-West, as us and them.
For me this was not a problem of difference only—if fashion teaches us anything it is culture’s ability to domesticate difference and to make it desirable and consumable—it was really a problem of social distance.
What excited me about what I witnessed here was the way that people were coming to see each other—across vast differences—as potential allies (potential only). I was very interested in exploring those moments, and they were often no more than just moments, when people could express to each other a sense of obligation (if not actual responsibility) that exceeded their relationships as producers and consumers, clients and contractors, employers and employees—that was extra-market, even as it rooted in the marketplace.
Without such moments of recognition of mutual interdependency, it would be impossible to engage in acts of coalition. And what, really, would be possible in this world without acts of coalition?
Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, where she teaches in the programs in American Studies, Asian/Pacific/American Studies, and Metropolitan Studies. In addition to authoring The Beautiful Generation, she is also the co-editor of Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke) and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (NYU).