For my final project in my Asian American Studies class, I’ve been reading The Beautiful Generation and compiling a series of pieces about fashion via different approaches. Right now I’m cross-referencing Asian-American designers, SS/FS12 collections which cite “Asian” influences, and models of East Asian or Middle Eastern descent who walked in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. It becomes really complicated to interpret ethnic identities of girls who were born in East Asian countries but began working in European and American markets (as a migrant, away from their families) by the time they were teenagers. Except! Actually! There are volumes and volumes of scholarship about just that transnational, migrant labor dynamic except usually they are written about the other end of the fashion industrial complex. What about this migrant labor?
Of his Fall 2012 collection, Jason Wu said “I suppose this hasn’t really been done before—an Asian designer tapping into the Asian side. Usually, culturally, we stay away from it.” In that show, as far as I can tell, three out of about 42 models claim Asian heritage: Liu Wen, who is from China but has worked internationally since she was a teenager, Tao Okamoto who is Japanese but has also been working globally for years, and Shanina Shaik, who is Australian of Pakistani and Saudi Arabian descent.
A question that I am also considering: what are the major structural differences between the traffic of East Asian models and South American or Eastern European models? Wen worked in Chinese fashion circuits before becoming famous in the U.S., Tao didn’t sign to Elite until she was 19. How much does the “undesirability” (and professionalization/tokenization) of unambiguously East Asian bodies contribute to a significantly smaller fashion body trafficking industry than exists in, say, Brazil or the Baltics? Where does the sex trade overlap with the modeling trade in Southeast Asia? Why does it seem less obvious that those two things are inseparable than it does when we’re talking about the Eastern Bloc? Take, for example, Karmen Pedaru (“discovered” in Estonia when she was fifteen), Zuzanna Bijoch (in Poland when she was thirteen), Erjona Ala (fifteen or sixteen, from Kosovo, “scouted” in Oslo), Ginta Lapina (sixteen, Latvia), Anabela Belikova (seventeen, Belarus), Alina Ismailova (fourteen, Russia), Daga Ziober (fifteen, Poland), Kristina Romanova (fifteen, Russia), Simona Andrejic (fourteen, Serbia), Tayane Leao (fourteen, Brazil).
NYmag’s model directory lists three Japanese models (none of whom were working in fashion before they were 19), thirteen Chinese models (none working internationally in fashion before the age of 17), seven Korean models (none of whom were working before eighteen, most of whom were not working in Western circuits until at least twenty), three Filipino girls (one who started working at sixteen, one at nineteen, one at twenty), one Indian model (sixteen), and one Thai model (nineteen).
This disparity has everything to do with markets, marketability, and whose bodies perform different types of labor in this industry. Still, there is so much to be unpacked about white exploitation of marked bodies and their ages, and it’s not just about transnational migrant labor. Consider this: under the American model listings, there are only a handful of models that I know claim Asian heritage. Chanel Iman and Devon Aoki are exceptions—they started modeling as children and preteens—but the average starting age for American, British, Australian and Canadian models whose bodies “read” as Asian bodies is noticeably higher than that of white-passing models. How are we transposing age ideologies onto bodies in ways that create differentiated patterns of exploitation? Briefly: why are thirteen-year-old Chinese girls sewing D&G while thirteen-year-old Estonian girls are wearing those clothes in Vogue? The answer is obvious, maybe, but it also bears enunciation.
I should add that there are very, very few listed models of Western nationality who claim East Asian and Middle Eastern heritages, and most of them are multiracial black women. What else can we say about fashion’s refusal to incorporate black women who are not ethnically “ambiguous,” and Asian women who are not sufficiently “alien”? Where are the Asian-Americanmodels? And what does it mean to even claim a hyphenated identity when you’re swept into the model migrant stream so young?