The Chinese American designers who have shaped the contemporary American sense of style
Located in Little Italy, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is a worthy addition to the commonly visited roster of museums in New York City. The mission of MOCA is to “make Chinese American history accessible to the general public;” a goal I feel achieved during my recent visit. My vested interest in the history of fashion and dress, lead me to seek out related exhibitions wherever and whenever I travel. MOCA happened to have two such exhibitions when I was last in New-York, and I made my way into Little Italy to see what was on display. Having no expectation, as I had never been to MOCA before, I was impressed by the museum in general, and by the two fashion and dress exhibitions currently showing: Front Row: Chinese American Designers and Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s, both were educational and enlightening, the former displaying more pieces of fashion and dress than the latter.
Although Front Row was organized in one single gallery, the exhibition’s lay out was such that I felt as though I was meandering through numerous small rooms, each related to the overall thesis: the work “of Chinese American designers who decided to make their marks in New York.” Front Row features garments by Anna Sui, Yeohlee Teng, Vera Wang, Vivienne Tam, and Jason Wu, amongst others. Alexander Wang, a notable designer of Chinese descent, was unable to participate in the exhibition due to other commitments.
The exhibition focuses on designers and garments from the 1980s through the present, a timeframe in which Chinese American designers contributed significantly to the American fashion scene. In the 1980s in New York City, designers such as Vera Wang, Vivienne Tam, and Anna Sui (all of whom are on display in Front Row), emerged at the same time as the city transformed its identity from a garment center into a major fashion capital of the world.
The importance of Chinese American designers in this shift cannot be overlooked. Since this transformation occurred, a new generation of Chinese American designers have taken the helm and become influential within the fashion industry. The work of contemporary Chinese American designers, including Derek Lam and Phillip Lim, has molded how the world understands New York fashion and American style.
Along with the superb garments on display, the presence of multimedia greatly contributed to the overall success of the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, I was greeted by a large projection screen, repeatedly playing interviews with the designers in the show. On smaller screens throughout the exhibition, films showing runway shows as well as further interviews with designers were available. The projection of runway shows made strides towards solving the issue regarding the lack of movement in clothing when displayed on a mannequin. This was particularly true for a navy silk tulle gown by Jason Wu from 2013 exhibited on the stand but also shown on the runway.
While some of the garments on display did seem to reference traditional Chinese motifs; most of the pieces included in the show did not incorporate any familiar Chinese elements, such as the Mandarin collar or silk embroidery. Two exceptions were a red knit gown by Zang Toi from 1991 and an ensemble by Vivienne Tam from her 2007 fall collection (Jansen, Chiu-Ti, 2013). It is possible the absence of direct references to traditional Chinese motifs may be attributed to the combination of the influence of New York fashion sense along with cultural heritage.
Overall, I was extremely impressed by both the exhibition design as well as the garments on display. While there were a wide variety of designs on display, they were carefully matched, corresponded to each other and closely adhered to the exhibitions thesis. According to the exhibition guest curator Mary Ping, “the exhibition explores the ascent of Chinese American designers who have shaped what we now understand as not only New York Fashion, but overall, a new American sense of style.” After viewing Front Row, I gained a general understanding of the work of Chinese American designers based in New York, whose work has shaped an alluring and uniquely New York sartorial oeuvre. While it is hard to categorize New York fashion in a general sense, upon viewing Front Row, I believe a few words can be used to summarize New York stylistic sensibilities: fearless, incomparable, and captivating.
Front Row: MOCA – April 26 – September 29, 2013.New York.