We Are Not a Monolith: How AAPI Designers Are Using Heritage Techniques to Showcase Their Cultural Diversity

by Amanda Winnie Kabuiku

It’s no secret that the times in which we live are marred by misrepresentation of minority groups. As a digital media platform,  serving our community multiethnic and multicultural storytelling, All the Pretty Birds is partnering with House Of to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month. One of the most categorically false concepts to adopt with any racial group we call, the “monolith myth”. In the Asian community specifically, we lose the rich depth of cultures represented throughout the Eastern continent. Across our ATPB verticals, every Monday this month spotlights the abundance of creativity and inspiration from the Asian community. This week, we explore how three brands are utilizing heritage techniques to showcase their cultural diversity. Read on as our contributor, Amanda Kabuiku, engages the emerging designers in a series of thoughtful discussions on the matter.

 

 

We Are Not a Monolith: Exploring AAPI Heritage Techniques in Fashion Storytelling

 

The best of design often transports us from one perspective to another. The seamless bend of creativity throughout a collection can sweep us out of our traditional views and into a world of boundless opportunity. Three emerging designers take us on this journey by way of heritage techniques. Whether they are from Hong Kong, Pakistan, or India; whether they grew up in the United States, Canada, or in other parts of the world, the designers YanYan, RASTAH, and abacaxi offer their global perspectives on fashion in Southeast and West Asia.

Our eyes are settled on the Asian community in solidarity and celebration of the rich heritage represented throughout the continent. All too often, the general Asian population is lumped into one conglomerate by the fashion community, omitting the beautiful nuances that honor the cultural autonomy of each individual country.

YanYan, RASTAH, and abacaxi turn to their regional techniques for a variety of reasons. Each of the designers insist, in their own words, however, that fashion is an excellent vehicle for reviving traditional techniques and bringing Asian fashion into the pop culture dialogue, far from the overplayed redundant exoticism.

 

 

 

 

Heritage Textile Techniques and Traditional Silhouettes

In Conversation with abacaxi Designer and Founder, Sheena Sood

Sheena Sood grew up in the Midwest, Minnesota, and uses abacaxi to venture into her identity as a queer, South-Asian American, filled with color and meaningful prints. (Images courtesy of the House Of and abacaxi)

 

How can we acceptably appreciate heritage design?

Sheena Sood: I think it’s essential to understand the history and cultural significance behind the clothes we wear. That’s part of why I keep the actual name of the traditional silhouettes in my style names—churidaar turtleneck, sharara pant, as examples. A step further, of course, is to know where the clothes were made, who made them, and how.  

 

 

What is unique about the relationship you have between representing your culture and representing your brand?

SS: My fascination and obsession with the textile traditions from my heritage, from India, is really what led me to start a brand in the first place. My brand “abacaxi” started as a creative project while I was doing freelance print design for other brands. I wanted to use a suitcase full of vintage Rajasthani mirror work embroideries that I had collected during my travels.

“Shisha” (what we call this mirror work technique) is typically found on home textiles like decorative pillows and wall hangings. Or it was used on very traditional-looking tunics or kurtas from Rajasthan and Gujarat. But I wanted to find a way to bring this embroidery into our everyday wear; to put a new spin on it. I ended up using those patches on a capsule of brightly colored silk dresses and blouses; each one had a unique patch, and most were used on the backside or somewhere unexpected.

 

 

In my latest collection, ‘Plants as People’ for FW21, I’m using shisha work again, but this time on cotton knit fabrics, a mirrored shrug, and a faux one-shoulder top. I also added some fringe beading below each mirror, twisting it a bit further.

Even with the several collections I’ve done thus far, I feel like I’m just beginning to touch on a few of the many regional embroideries, weaving, and dyeing methods. I can’t wait to continue expanding into more techniques as the brand grows. There are so many crafts that are at the risk of disappearing, which I would love to bring back into our everyday lives.

It’s important to me/my brand to use these traditions for that reason; employing artisans who are keeping these traditions alive. As a designer, I’m also more trained in textile design than in apparel; I studied weaving, fibers, and dyeing, color, and print design. I never actually studied garment design, but I learned everything through interning and then working in the industry for a decade before starting my line. This emphasis on textile manipulations is something that comes more naturally to me.

 

 

Behind abacaxi, there is an integral part of textiles research. The print has a prominent place in your vision. What do these prints say about yourself, your history as an Indian-American, and especially as a queer person? Do they tell any one story in particular?

SS: I love hiding stories and some of my personal experiences or anecdotes into the print and textile designs I make. Obviously, there is a connection between abacaxi (named after the Portuguese word for pineapple) and fruit motifs. But there’s another reason why I keep using banana bunches that look like flowers (something I noticed a lot when I was in Bali); our tie-dye balloon-sleeve hoodies all have the phrase ‘Love is Like a Banana Tree‘ embroidered onto the hood.

When I was in Java, I visited Borobodur Temple, and our amazing tour guide, a very wise woman, named Atik, taught us a lot about the spiritual history of the island. She also mentioned a phrase used to express one’s true love to a lover in Javanese: ‘my love is like a banana tree’ because the banana plant only technically fruits and flowers once in its lifetime. I thought that was so beautiful, and so these references are like little reminders embedded into the clothes.

 

 

In the current spring-summer collection ‘Everything Is Within You,’ I designed three very different-looking prints, all have stories behind them as well. The ‘Cosmic Gingham’ print is my psychedelic take on the checkered pattern; I put a rainbow ombre into it, reminiscent of how colors can morph and start to create visions behind closed eyelids; visions that can come during a state of meditation was the inspiration.

The ‘Fight The System’ print I made by handwriting several different political phrases in colored pencil (this capsule launches in June). I designed this last summer, a very tumultuous time, and felt the importance of stating all of these slogans in writing. The “Passiflora’ print combines one of my favorite flowers, the passionflower, along with really ornate gold South Asian jewelry, into a mirrored, almost kaleidoscopic repeat pattern.

There was a huge passion flower vine growing outside the house I stayed in last summer. So, I’ll always hide specific memories and stories into the pattern designs; some are much more decipherable than others. Another favorite was the Fruit Nostalgia Tee, which has eight different Indian fruits, each rendered with a different Indian embroidery or bedding technique. I have strong memories of the first time I tasted several of these fruits—litchi, Jamun, or memories of eating them during childhood trips to India.  

 

I remembered Gwen Stefani and her “legendary” bindi as the star of “No Doubt.” Pop culture tends to appropriate elements of cultures while stripping them of their significance. Why was it so essential to reincorporate them into your brand aesthetic? 

SS: Yes, as someone who grew up in the ’90s in the Midwest, I am all too familiar with those pop culture references. There was so little representation of South Asians in media and fashion when I was growing up. It was hard for me to imagine myself doing what I do now, back then, so I know first-hand how big a difference representation can make.

That’s why it’s so exciting for me to see things changing now for younger generations. As far as appropriation of South Asian culture, it’s still so prevalent, especially in the fashion industry. It is precisely because of that why I find it important to incorporate these elements into my work, but in an authentic and hopefully much more original way. Basically, in an effort to reclaim our culture and fight for authentic representation.  

 

 

There has been a demystification of the image of the light-skinned Indian who looks a little more like Aishwarya Rai. Many voices speak out against this standardization and control of Western standards both in South Asia and elsewhere on the continent. As an Indian- American designer with a dark complexion, is it more challenging to make a place for yourself?

SS: I feel it’s important to work and collaborate with diverse voices and faces within the diaspora because of this pervasive and colonial mentality that has always favored a fair-skinned (and thin body shape) beauty standard. That means featuring models of all skin tones, various sizes, and working with other queer South Asians and people who aren’t always given as much representation within the diaspora, such as those from the Caribbean who have South Asian origins.

 

 

 

 

Familial Ties, Hand Weaving, and Heritage Print Techniques

In Conversation with RASTAH Co-Founder, Zain Ahmad

RASTAH was founded by cousins, Zain Ahmad, Adnan Ahmad, and Ishmail Ahmad in 2018. The trio ventured to change the view of Pakistan and create a brand infused with streetwear references and traditional Pakistani craftsmanship. (Images courtesy of the House Of and RASTAH)

 

 

You created RASTAH as a family affair, and it is described as a streetwear brand using traditional techniques, warp printing, and hand woodblock printing. What were your inspirations? How do the three visions coincide? What is your definition of Pakistani streetwear?

Zain Ahmad: What has inspired me the most is looking at my own culture and heritage from a very unapologetic lens. I’ve grown up in different parts of the world. But for some reason, I’d always shy away from my roots – perhaps a lot of this has to do with the post-colonial hangover that so many South Asians are still stuck with.

When I was living in Canada for my undergrad, I was so incredibly impressed by western clothing brands and even Japanese brands that it did not occur to me once that my own country is a manufacturing powerhouse for some of the best brands in the world. Not only this, but it also boasts a plethora of rich and vibrant textile manufacturing techniques that date back centuries.

It was only when I came back to Pakistan after graduating from the University of British Columbia that I allowed myself to look at my culture and heritage from a different perspective – one with openness and curiosity. I fell in love with traditional textile crafts such as hand weaving and block printing. Ultimately, I tapped into my journey as a Pakistani man and my own experiences in a very raw and vulnerable manner. I tapped into my relationship with my family and all the feelings of conflict and closure associated with them and what they meant for me as a narrator of my experiences through the medium of fashion.

“Streetwear” seemed to be the perfect sub-genre that allowed me to be bold, assertive, and narrative with my work in fashion.  I think streetwear in itself is a very loaded term these days and a genre that’s changing meaning with every passing day. This is completely fine since that’s how any form of expression or communication evolves. “Pakistani streetwear” for me would mean the practice of incorporating cultural, artisanal, and/or heritage-related elements into one’s work to tell some story associated with these elements.

Sometimes this might be revisiting history. Other times it could be about political statements, or it could simply refer to pop culture references in Pakistan. I don’t even think the incorporation of “artisanship” is necessary for a brand to be categorized as “Pakistani Streetwear” – that’s just something that RASTAH does and has made its own style.

One could simply produce narrative-focused graphic t-shirts and still be in the same niche. This is also why I’m not fond of labels at all. To some people, we’re an “Artisanal brand” since they buy the more elaborate and ornate pieces from us, and to others who buy printed t-shirts from RASTAH, we might be defined as something else. These definitions and categorizations could very well change in the future.

 

 

There is a lot of talk about fashion in South West Asia for many reasons: cheaper labor and exploitation at will. Some categorize the region as the hub of fast fashion. Why is it essential to breed a more conceptualized point of view in Pakistan? 

ZA: Due to unsustainable supply chains with a lack of checks and balances, places like India and Pakistan become hubs for labor exploitation. It’s a lot of the time because mass production brands are working with third-party contractors who lie about their terms of agreement with the brand and either end up exploiting the labor and/or adopting negligent work practices leading to unsafe working conditions. This is the very reason why it’s so important for local brands to partner with local supply chains, to shorten the supply chain, and create sustainable channels of commerce between manufacturer and consumer.

At RASTAH, we are very transparent about our relationship with our artisans and workers, and being a small brand allows us to manufacture our clothes as well responsibly. A higher retail price point and overseas buyers also allow Rastah to pay its partner artisans almost 5-10x what they would earn working for other brands in Pakistan. It’s so important to change how the fashion world perceives Pakistan. Otherwise, Pakistan can never be at the forefront of the conversations in fashion and will remain a mere cog in the global fashion supply chain.

 

 

While we have our eyes on South Korea and Japan, which are fundamentally different in terms of aesthetics, you expressed the need to create a dialogue with your country, Pakistan, to pop culture. In your opinion, why is it important to include it in the global culture?

ZA: We live in a highly globalized and interconnected world, where inspiration and ideas flow freely across different geographic locations and cultures. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, Western designers turn to the subcontinent for inspiration without giving this part of the world its due credit, so it’s so fundamental for South Asian creatives to have ownership over their own stories in a manner that is inclusive and transparent. 

 

We have the feeling that Pakistan is drowned in Indian culture, which has also been standardized with Bollywood films and sumptuous saris. What are the particularities of Pakistani craftsmanship? How does it hold its own identity?

ZA: The reality is that Pakistan itself is so diverse that, in theory, there isn’t even anything such as “Pakistani” culture, other than what we see in big urban globalized cities. Each province of the country has its own styles and taste in terms of design and artisanship. The same goes with India, and each state has very different vibes and personalities.

Pakistan is made up of many different kinds of craftsmanship, each very unique. The only way we can know more about these is by allowing creatives from this part of the world to tell their own stories, rather than having an entire region and/or country be boxed into a category by the West. Since Pakistan and India were at one point the same country, there are similarities in artisanship, especially in urban areas of both countries. Still, the rural areas have their unique perspectives and “flavors.”

 

 

 

Production Integrity, Cultural Storytelling, and Stereotypes Debunked

In Conversation with YanYan Founders Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung

Popular among American celebrities including Greta Lee and Ashley Park, YanYan was founded by designer duo Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung. The brand is an infusion of the comforting universe of wool and classical elements of Chinese culture, like the cheongsam and the kung fu jacket. (Images courtesy of the House Of and YanYan)

 

Why is it essential to your brand to use these traditional techniques?

Suzzie Chung: When we first started our company, we considered incorporating Chinese culture and elements because of the false associations with Chinese culture being kitschy, costume-like, cheap,  and fast fashion. It has always been hard for us to look at western brands do ‘chinoiserie’ and be considered ‘sophisticated’ and cool, which is why we’ve always purposely put our culture and heritage at the forefront. 

Phyllis Chan: I think it is important to understand the difference between ‘traditional’ and what we do. While we incorporate parts of our culture into our designs, we do not make ‘traditional’ Chinese clothing, which is probably why we don’t have an issue with sharing this part of our culture. 

 

 

How can we acceptably appreciate heritage design?

PC: In our process, we try to select elements from our heritage and culture that we think would be interesting to share or explore. We often consider the foreign gaze, and we purposely avoid using parts of our culture that would be inappropriate or be misconstrued. Ultimately, we want to be respectful of our own culture as well.

We don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers, we are just designing from our point of view. A way to participate in cultural or heritage appreciation respectfully is taking that extra step to understand the context or even educate yourself in why the designer chose to feature that design or detail. 

 

What is unique about the relationship you have between representing your culture and representing your brand?

SC: Our company and designs have always been about bringing attention to where we’re from and bringing people along with our identity exploration. It is quite a personal and very specific point of view, being that we are from Hong Kong but have also lived abroad. We’ve always felt that our upbringing was something caught between the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’

As we got older, we wanted to rediscover some traditions and history that we might have neglected before. We wanted to design something nostalgic and represented our heritage. It’s heartwarming when customers or fans reach out to us to let us know how connected they feel with our product. We’ve had people tell us it reminds them of home or their family back in Hong Kong or Asia. 

 

You insist on the origin of the wool. How do you work with your craftsmen? Why is it essential for you to work with Chinese artisans?

SC: One of the things that frustrated us when we first launched was the negative connotation of “Made in China.” Let’s be honest; it’s hard not to take that personally. The reality is manufacturing in China spans from fast, mass products to high-end luxury items. So many high-end designer brands make their product in China. Still, they are happy to campaign which items are ‘made in’ somewhere else and try to hide it, perpetuating the stigma of Chinese manufacturing being low quality.

We truly appreciate the time and effort our factory takes in making all our products. They are receptive to feedback about workmanship, quality, finishings, etc., and any improvements we request are consistently implemented immediately. They are proud of what they make and have spent a long time honing their skills.

So, we are not afraid to highlight on our website, social media, and press that our clothes are made in China. We wish more brands would be proud of all of their manufacturers, no matter who they are. The same goes for if we were to ever make something outside of China, we would gladly promote that too. It is important to remember humans make all clothing.

 

PC: We talk about the origins of our yarn because we want to educate our customers on the materials used in their clothing. We talk about using leftover yarn because it’s a topic that’s not commonly mentioned, but it is an issue for many factories that they have a lot of leftover yarns in storage; sometimes enough to make 20-30 pieces, sometimes over 100 pieces!

In general, we mention where our yarns are spun because it’s interesting to us, and we spend a lot of time sourcing and understanding the materials. We source from reputable mills that produce high-quality materials, and we are happy to share that information.

 

Editor’s Note:

Rastah, YanYan, and abacaxi all belong to the House Of family of brands. You can learn more about each of the designers mentioned by visiting their websites and social media. We look forward to continue to provide you with valuable content every Monday for our, “We Are Not a Monolith” Series. Until next time, Pretty Birds!

 

(Leading Image is campaign imagery courtesy of Rastah)

 

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