How Immigrants Are Fueling America’s Cultural History Through Fashion

AP/Jason DeCrow

Iconic American designers like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren share one thing in common: they had Jewish immigrant parents who came to the U.S. and worked as sewers and tailors in New York’s garment industry.

Klein, Karan and Lauren have helped define what American fashion looks like and they follow a lineage of immigrants who have been building that identity for more than a century.

“[Jewish immigrants] defined a new way of freedom and American dress, and that took part in the late 19th and early 20th century, through mid-century, but even earlier,” says Gabriel M. Goldstein, a historian who curated an exhibit for Yeshiva University Museum that explored the garment industry and Jewish immigrants.

Goldstein says German immigrant Levi Strauss and the creation of blue jeans really trademarked American identity and fashion.

“It’s really hard to think of American life without Levi’s blue jeans,” said Goldstein.

Today, it’s Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans who are redefining the U.S. fashion industry.

In the past decade the fashion industry’s top honors have regularly gone to Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. In 2010, the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Awards, comprised of fashion retailers, journalists, and more than 450 designers, awarded Richard Chai (menswear), Jason Wu (women's wear) and Alexander Wang (accessories) as best new designers of the year. All of them happen to be Asian.

Asian-Americans and Fast Fashion

Michael Kye studied business and left a lucrative job with a car company to help with his parent’s business. He’s launched his own line called Kaii.

The fast fashion business in the U.S. has really been driven by Asian-Americans, says Christina Moon, professor in the school of art and design history and theory at Parsons in New York. The fast fashion sector is responsible for more affordable clothing that dresses the masses. Most notably are "the Chang sisters," Linda and Esther Chang , the daughters of Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1981 and opened up a store called Forever 21 in Highland Park, California.

Both sisters joined the family business after attending Ivy League schools and helped turn the company in to the country's 122nd-biggest private company. Linda runs the marketing department and Esther looks over graphics and store displays.

The L.A. Times referred to the sisters as the "secret weapon" for Forever 21 because they have "the stylish eye and marketing savvy” to take the $3.7-billion brand into the future.

Moon has been interviewing young Asian-Americans in business and design school graduates and has identified a trend: many of the students she interviewed don't choose to work at large fashion corporations when they graduate. Instead, they go to work for their parents aging garment businesses.

At Parsons the New School for Design, roughly 70 percent of its international students enrolled in the school of fashion now come from Asia, according to school officials. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, 23 percent of the nearly 1,200 students now enrolled are either Asian or Asian-American.

“F.I.T. is a pretty diverse place, but this is the most obvious change we have seen,” Joanne Arbuckle, the dean of its school of art and design, told the NY Times in 2010. “It is remarkable when you compare it to many years ago. I don’t think we ever had these numbers of students from Asian countries or Asian-American students. And it is a growing population.”

Latinos and Fashion Success

Immigrants from Latin America are an integral part of the garment industry in the U.S. but they are not launching businesses at the same rate as their Asian counterparts.

Los Angeles is the main distribution center for fast fashion largely due to the proximity of the Port of Los Angeles and the U.S.-Mexico border. Locally over “45,000 workers cut, sew and finish garments” and the overwhelming majority of them are Latino and Asian immigrants. About 70 percent of garment workers in the Los Angeles are Latino, mostly comprising of Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants, according to 2010 Census data.

“The fact that they are undocumented, that they are not citizens, that their labor is very flexible and that wages are not documented, is a huge reason why the fast-fashion industry is thriving in Los Angeles,” says Moon.

Moon says those same reasons that allow the garment industry in Los Angeles to thrive may also be keeping Latinos from climbing the fashion industry ladder.

The Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles estimates 60 percent of local garment workers are denied minimum wage and 93 percent are denied overtime wages.

“If you want to go to design school how do you enroll if you don’t have papers, how do you get a job at a fashion company, it affects everything,” says Moon.

Ramiro Gonzalez grew up near Santa Ana, California. He's currently studying fashion design and sells t-shirts at tortillapower.com.

“[Latinos are] dealing with a different set of racial and ethnic challenges, the major challenge is that they are not considered citizens which Asian-Americans are,” says Moon.

Thuy Linh Tu, director of American Studies at New York University says capital and the ownership of factories is another obstacle Latinos have faced to advance in the industry.

“Latinos are incorporated as sowers, they’re not mainly owners of factories and I think that position and that kind of access really makes the difference to why the second generation is not moving up,” Tu said.

“Having said that I do think there are a lot of emerging Latino designers that we are not actually tracking yet and I can imagine that in five to 10 years we are going to see The New York Times write about the rise of the Latino designer,” Tu said.

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Viewing America’s population through the lens of diversity, we will cover the social, cultural and political impact of various racial and ethnic groups in this country.

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