Fashion has a short memory. I know this. Everyone knows this. But still, I was a disappointed by all the speculation around Alexander Wang's recent appointment to the role of creative director at the vaunted fashion house Balenciaga. The general perception was that the job offer had more to do with his being Chinese than his talent.
Now that Wang's tenure at Balenciaga has officially begun, let's get some facts straight. Wang is Chinese-American. He was born in San Francisco, California to Taiwanese-American parents and now makes his home in New York City. Before attending and dropping out of Parsons the New School of Design, he was educated in public and private schools in small suburban cities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Wang is also bilingual (Chinese and English), just like 55 million other Americans or 20 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, he's typically American. And not too long ago, fashion understood this. Indeed, it celebrated this fact.
Less than five years ago, giant news corporations like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times were publishing splashy feature stories about "the rise of Asian-American fashion designers." Robin Givhan's article on Michelle Obama's sartorial sensibility for the New Yorker magazine was accompanied by a photograph of two of the most celebrated Asian-American designers, Thakoon Panichgul and Jason Wu, with an American flag draped around both their shoulders. The same photograph was displayed in the Museum at FIT's "Fashion and Politics" exhibition in 2009, "a chronological exploration of over 200 years of [U.S.] politics as expressed through fashion."
Fast-forward to the final weeks of 2012 when rumors began circulating that François-Henri Pinault (chairman and CEO of PPR, the French multinational holding company that owns the Balenciaga brand) was looking to replace the French designer Nicolas Ghesquière after a successful 15-year tenure at the company. Almost immediately, Wang became Ghesquière's presumptive successor. By the time Wang's appointment was officially announced on December 3, 2012, it seemed that no one in fashion remembered that just a few years ago Wang and his cohort of Asian-American designers were being praised as the new face of American fashion. Instead, racially-motivated suspicions about Wang's appointment had become the accepted truth.
In a piece for the New York Times, Suzy Menkes asserts:
Why would PPR choose a young designer of street-smart clothing? The signs are that the increasing reach of Balenciaga demands a younger and easier-to-wear style. But the real secret behind Mr. Wang's appointment may lie in his ties to China. He speaks Mandarin, and Balenciaga has expanded rapidly in China in recent years.
A Fashionista blog post claims, in its headline, it had "New Evidence That Alexander Wang's Chinese Connections May Have Helped Land Him Balenciaga." The post itself offered no such evidence. More damning, still, it included a quote by Pinault insisting that Wang's "[family roots were] not a criteria for recruitment at all."
And just as recently as last week, a New York magazine article revived the myth by reporting that Wang's longtime supporter, former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld may be stepping in as a stylist at Balenciaga. The writer adds, "This partnership, if true, makes more sense than anything about Wang at Balenciaga so far." (Roitfeld refuted the rumor soon after the article was published.)
In all of these speculations about Wang's appointment, neither creative talent nor business acumen are offered as possible explanations. (Recall that Wang built his multimillion-dollar global business within less than a decade.) Instead, pundits bandied on about Wang's racial identity in vague and suggestively lurid terms like "Chinese connections." Tying Asian-Americans to Asia as a way of casting aspersions on their rights to jobs has long been a way of tacitly suggesting that Asian-Americans are not "real Americans," and so are less entitled to jobs that do not rightfully belong to them. By contrast, there was no mention of Michael Kors' "Swedish connections" when he was named creative director of the legendary French fashion house Celine. Likewise, the ethnic backgrounds of Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford were never made issues when they took over at Louis Vuitton and Gucci, respectively. Anyone suggesting that ethnicity was a factor in these American designers' appointments as heads of European companies would have been rightfully laughed off as joke.
It's true that Wang recently opened a number of stores in China -- but he's also planning to open retail outlets in Japan, Singapore, Korea and Thailand. His decision to expand his brand into Asia isn't because he's Chinese or Asian; it's because he's a fashion designer in the early 21st century.
As the U.S., Europe and even Japan continue to struggle with debt crises, record unemployment levels, an unstable economy and diminished consumer confidence, there has been massive economic growth in China and India, but also in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Fashion companies are looking to the emerging middle class in these Asian countries to save the luxury industry. The list of illustrious and iconic European and American designers and retailers opening stores in Asia (while also closing many stores at home) is a long one. Some of them include Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, Donna Karan, the Gap, Levi's and J. Crew. What's more, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo and Coach all launched their IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Ralph Lauren Chief Operating Officer Roger Farah has called China's emerging middle class "the world's most important luxury customers." Like the heads of these companies, Wang sees the future of the fashion market in Asia, a business perspective shared almost universally throughout the fashion industry, and a business model he seems to be mastering. Not a bad reason for Pinault to hire him!
That so many inside and outside the fashion industry missed this basic truth suggests that they hold a terribly narrow view of not only what an American fashion designer looks like but also of the current global retail landscape.
Follow Minh-Ha T. Pham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/minh81