Will fashion and beauty take a stand against anti-Asian violence?
Anti-Asian sentiment has spiked globally since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in verbal discrimination and physical attacks — some of which have been fatal — on Asian Americans in the U.S.
After weeks of the Asian American community demanding via social media that mainstream outlets cover the heightened number of attacks against them, publications have begun spotlighting victims such as Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino man who died days after police officers kneeled on his neck, and a 52-year-old Asian woman who was shoved to the ground while waiting in line at a bakery in Queens, N.Y.
Fashion designers like Prabal Gurung, who attended a protest against anti-Asian violence in New York City on Feb. 20, say the industry in which they’ve built their careers has a responsibility to lend its support.
“It’s as simple as this: Violence against any group is a human issue,” Gurung said. “The industry that claims to be ‘woke,’ the industry that has the visual power to influence billions and billions of people across the world, it is a responsibility for our industry to speak up and show up for us.”
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Designer Jason Wu said members of the fashion and beauty industries have “a duty” to encourage open dialogue about anti-Asian violence and prioritize diversity in order to “help people that come from different walks of life feel great about themselves.”
“[Growing] up Chinese, when I was younger, it was mostly Western faces in campaigns,” Wu said. “It’s taken me my entire life to be super comfortable in my own skin.
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“It’s actually the first time since the pandemic [started] that I’ve spoken about this topic, other than my own Instagram,” he added, alluding to the lack of mainstream coverage of racism against Asians in America.
More than 2,500 incidents of anti-Asian discrimination have been flagged to Stop AAPI Hate reporting center since its launch in March 2020. Seven out of 10 incidents involved verbal harassment, with physical assaults accounting for 9 percent of incidents, according to the report.
NYPD data shows anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked 1,900 percent in New York City in the last year. A U.N. report found that more than 1,800 anti-Asian incidents took place in the U.S. over an eight-week period from March to May 2020.
In a statement, designer Phillip Lim said the work of fashion houses “should represent the world we want to see.”
“In today’s world, we can no longer separate our belief system from what we do,” Lim said. “Yes I’m a fashion designer, but first and foremost, I’m a human being.”
David Yi, “Pretty Boys” author and founder of Very Good Light, said that in promoting anti-racism, beauty brands should include racism against Asians and Asian Americans.
“The beauty industry leads the charge when it comes to inclusion and diversity and equity, but I do feel sometimes that the Asian American story is lost because of the model minority myth,” Yi said. “Asian violence isn’t anything new. It’s a system that’s always been there in American history. There was always anti-Asian hate. The model minority myth was created to divide — and it was divisive and insidious because it forced folks to stop paying attention to the Asian community, to see them as invisible and to further perpetuate the idea that Asian folks should be erased and should remain silent.”
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Tina Chow Rudolf, founder of beauty brand Strange Bird, said dismantling the model minority myth is necessary in order for the Asian community to progress.
“Because it’s assumed that we’re immune to racism, violence or oppression, we’re never really addressed fully,” she said. “We’re taught to stay quiet.”
Designer Ji Oh said that though all industries are responsible for paying attention to the rise in racism against Asians and Asian Americans, fashion in particular is closely linked to the Asian community.
“Behind the scenes, the majority of people are Asian, but if the industry doesn’t speak for those people who really support the industry, it’s totally neglecting the issues — especially when the industry has a lot of press power,” Oh said.
In 2019, the Asia-Pacific region employed an estimated 65 million workers in the garment sector, or 75 percent of garment workers globally, the International Labor Organization reported. Countries’ imports from garment-exporting Asian countries — such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam — dropped as much as 70 percent in the first half of 2020, disproportionately impacting women, who make up the majority of the Asia-Pacific’s garment workers.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing consumer segment in the U.S., according to Nielsen, which previously projected that Asian American buying power would be worth $1.1 trillion by 2020. Nielsen did not disaggregate that number according to Asian American subsets, among which exists great wealth disparity.
Asian culture often influences designers and brand founders of all races within the fashion and beauty industries — yoga pants, kimonos, the K-beauty craze, gua sha tools and facial rollers are just a few examples.
Still, the industries’ most powerful companies — many of which have spoken in interviews with WWD of the importance of Asian and Asian American consumers to their overall businesses — have yet to take a stance against anti-Asian hate crimes.
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“From a purely economic, business standpoint, how could you ignore these terrible things happening to a very valuable consumer segment?” said Ju Rhyu, Hero Cosmetics’ cofounder and CEO. “From a human standpoint, I can’t imagine why brands would gloss over or overlook these terrible events that are happening. Statistically, they’re on the rise.”
Rhyu recently read a news report about an incident in which acid was thrown on a group of Japanese citizens in the 17th district of Paris, where she is based.
“There are people on social media who are actively advocating for violence against the Asian American community related to COVID-19,” Rhyu said.
Makeup artist Daniel Martin said awareness starts with appointing Asians and Asian Americans in C-suite roles.
“There’s this huge blurred line between being a true Asian-based brand versus the people that are employed by them,” Martin said.
Lin Chen, founder of self-care brand Pink Moon, said becoming an ally of the Asian American community begins with education.
“Asian American is such a broad term,” Chen said. “People need to include Asians in BIPOC and not stereotype.”
Endeavoring to offer solutions, Diane Read, founder of Mo Mi Beauty, said via email that “promoting more models of Asian descent,” “sharing educational links,” highlighting Asian American members of the beauty community “through the lens of their Asian American experience,” and working with Asian American “brands, bloggers and writers,” would be good places to start.
Education and increasing visibility are key to inciting change, Stephanie Morimoto, owner and CEO of wellness brand Asutra, said via email.
“Just as many of us have pushed ourselves to learn more about Black history in the U.S., let’s learn about Asian American history — and how Asians and Black [people] have united at moments in time to fight for each other’s rights,” she said.
“Talking and posting on social media is not enough,” she continued. “To investors, be more inclusive in who you hear pitches from and support; encourage retailers to consider Asian American needs when designing their assortments. To brands, let’s make products that work for different skin and hair types and hues and provide diverse solutions. When we donate proceeds of a new product or campaign, let’s be inclusive about the causes we support. When we share photos of people using our products, let’s amplify voices that aren’t often heard.”
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