Chinese Fashion: Not A Case Of Cultural Appropriation But Cultural Understanding…I Saw It With my Own Eyes

Yue-Sai Kan, Miss China Universe 2011-2016 and me at the Plaza

I’m sure you’ve all read about the bruhaha about a Utah girl’s Chinese prom dress.  Keziah Daum wore a classic Cheongasm dress and got beaten up in social media by people accusing her of cultural appropriation.  In response to that shaming she received tons of encouraging messages directly from China.  And I’m not surprised at all the positive feedback.  Having just hosted the China Fashion Gala at the Plaza last weekend and seeing all the amazing mixing and matching of traditional and modern Chinese elements worn by Westerners and Chinese alike, I can tell you that Keziah’s choice of dress was a wonderful and future-forward one.  Not only was her dress beautiful but it was symbolic of the wonderful fusion of Chinese and Western fashion, and dare I say, the growing multi-cultural understanding we are all craving..

A little context for you all: you may recall that I’m collaborating with Unipx Media, a Chinese media channel that focuses primarily on fashion, lifestyle and tech.  The goal is to turn me into an “influencer” in the Chinese market.  To be honest, our early attempts weren’t making much progress.  Then we had an idea: host the China Fashion Gala!  It would be live-streamed into China, I would meet some movers and shakers, and be photographed with lots of China’s “beautiful people.”  It was all last minute and a bit crazy up until the end.  Not only did I have to attempt to learn a bit of Chinese, but I had to pronounce A LOT of Chinese names without butchering them too much, yikes!  I was also super fortunate enough to wear not just one but two amazing dresses by haute couture designer, Grace Chen.  

The event was gorgeous.  Men and women — old and young alike, — dressed in stunning gowns that expertly married modern with classic, and Western with Chinese styles.  Each and everybody looked regal with a bit of kick!  In fact, when I kicked off my hosting gig, I had to go off script and comment on how everyone looked so proud and beautiful.  And, just to name drop, I got to hob nob with the likes of Christian Louboutin and Vivienne Tam!!!

What struck me the most, however, is fashion’s unique ability to help people appreciate each other’s cultures.  Clothing is a language of it’s own.  For better or for worse, it “speaks” a culture’s definition of beauty, it’s values, rituals, and social norms.  Just as I convinced my 5th grade teacher when I chose to write my history term paper on the fashion of the Wild West (vs, oh, say, a defining war or key U.S. president), we learn about different cultures through our clothing.  Fashion is a way to see how we differ and how we are very much the same.   Grace Chen reinforced this when she treated us to a fashion show of her latest lines.  And thanks to Yue-Sai Kan‘s urging (Yue-Sai, by the way, has been named the “most famous woman in China.”) Chen explained to us how each piece resembles elements of ancient and modern China culture, as well as those of Western life.  It was fascinating and educational!

Even though I just scratched the surface of Chinese fashion in my short experience as a gala host, I will look at Chinese fashion with a deeper sense of appreciation.  And I will know that much more about a culture rich with heritage and nuance.  So instead of criticizing Miss Daum, we should thank her.  We should thank her for taking a risk and going against the grain and wearing a classic Chinese dress.  But more importantly, we should thank her for introducing a different culture to her community, to social media, and, now, to the entire U.S..

Feel free to check out our page hosted by Unipx!

Empowerment, Political Affairs & Youth Education: Fashion Week’s Other Side

If any of you follow fashion, you know every major city has celebrated it’s Fashion Week over the past month or so.  And I can’t help but reflect on it all.  Sure, Fashion Week is full of crazy outfits, “who’s who” sightings, and glamazons.  But in some overt and covert ways, it also uplifts society.  Based on what I’ve read and experienced first hand, Fashion Week also helps open borders; gives those otherwise ignored and let down by society a sense of respect and hope; and, in some veiled ways, empowers a group of women living within a conservative and somewhat sexist society.  And when it comes to me, personally, it has helped open my eyes to and widen my appreciation for another world.

No question, the fashion world has it’s share of issues: underage models, eating disorders and, most recently discussed in the press: sexual harassment.  I’m certainly not saying the industry is perfect.  But there’s a beautiful side to it.  Let’s just take a look at New York Fashion Week as an example.

One particular show that kicked off the week, received a ton of buzz, and impressed the hell out of me.  It celebrated the talents and models of the NYC’s homeless youths (see full New York Times story here).  For four weeks, designers from PVH mentored homeless youth, teaching them how to design, sew clothing and choreograph a show.  These lessons culminated in a show that displayed major doses of creativity, elation and pride.  So many of these youths are on the street due to abuse and neglect from their families.  You can imagine the lack of confidence, anxiety and helplessness they must feel on a daily basis.  But this experience not only taught them key skills in design and crafts, but gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride they rarely felt before.  The pictures of the event, alone, tug at the heartstrings.

Here’s another fascinating example from The New Yorker.  Given the uber-New York-ness of fashion week, The New Yorker dedicates a whole issue on the topic every year.  The best story by far in this year’s edition, “Armor and Lingerie,” features Amaka Osakwe, the designer of Nigerian fashion line: Maki Oh.  She, too, showed her talents at NY Fashion Week.  Despite her “unassuming” appearance, Osakwe is “obsessed with the female form and seduction,  subversive interests for Nigerian women.”  She also makes it a point to highlight Nigerian fabrics and designs, embracing  and bringing to light her culture around the world.  Perhaps most exciting for me, is her expertise in turning her clothes into a form of “elicit escape.”  In other words, her designs give women the permission to embrace their sexuality — on their own terms — despite the taboo of sex in Nigeria.  As such, she gives women back their power to determine how, when and in what ways they want to express their sexuality.

Needless to say, the NYC Fashion Week story that affected me the most was that which I experienced myself.  I was invited to attend a fashion show for Chinese brand, Naersi, at the American Museum of Natural History.  I had no idea what to expect.  I’ve never been to China nor have I developed an sense of Chinese fashion.  But given my relationship with UniPx media (a source of fashion and lifestyle to the Chinese market), and the wonderful VIP accommodations I was given, I jumped at the chance to attend.  Naersi dressed me in one their own beautiful gowns, sat me in the front row next to it’s founder, one of the top models in China, and a few seats down from TV star, Leighten Meester (how’s that for a view?:)).  And best of all I was able to drag a few of my good friends to join me.  The brand’s role, according to its literature, is to “instill confidence and success to independent women….through beautiful and modern design.” As to be expected, some of the designs are meant for the runway show only, but there were quite a few that inspired me.  What hit me most was not so much designs themselves but that I was able to peer inside a world that I have admired from afar but, until now, have little contact with and understanding of.  But right there and then I felt a new sense of kinship with Chinese fashion lovers.  Despite the political, cultural or philosophical boundaries that separate China and the U.S., the spirit of beauty, celebration of female empowerment, and love of pushing the limits unites us.  Thanks to fashion, I feel a new sense of appreciation for and connection with a culture that always seemed to distant and different.

No doubt fashion is fun and sometimes frivolous.  And in some ways, it’s because of its very lack of seriousness that it can be used to subvert culture, push against our assumptions and make us think.  When used for the right purposes, fashion has the potential to unite and empower people.  That and a nice new pair of boots will certainly give me a lift. 🙂

 

Finally Going East: Creating Ties Through Beauty and Culture

As I hinted in my last post, there were some changes going on with my website which was why I’ve been a bit delinquent about my posts.

Well, I’m happy to announce that I’m officially a member X UNIPX INFLUENCE Program!  In other words, I’m now acting as an influencer in the Chinese market leveraging UNIPX media platforms which focus on pop culture, lifestyle, media and entertainment.  Here is a recent article my friends at UNIPX published that effectively introduces me to the market as a strategist and lover of all things beauty (It’s super easy to translate into English :)).

While I’m going to represent one of many different points of view from the U.S. market, I realize I need to wrap my head around views of beauty in Chinese culture too.  As you can imagine this can be a life long pursuit, but even just peering in to this new world could be give some insight.

So the first thing I did was look into my past research.  To explain to my colleagues and clients how views of beauty differ across cultures, I compared how Americans vs French, Russian and Chinese natives interpret beauty.   Initially I jumped into social media and published research.  While it’s a few years old (I’m looking forward in my new role to motivate me to do update this), and I’ve had to generalize a bit, I believe some of these themes stand the test of time.   What intrigued me the most, and it surfaces in the article written about me linked above, is the true duality of inner and outer beauty in China.  While concepts of inner beauty are in “vogue” in Western culture, when we talk about beauty, let’s face it, we are really referring to our outer appearances.  From an outer beauty perspective, the Chinese tend to view a healthy body and skin, as well as white skin, and an sense of approachability as attractive.

As a woman wrote in social media (translated into English): “Actually health is beauty.  It’s better to get up early, do some exercise everyday and focus on the balance of whole body.”

At the same time, Chinese culture deems traits like confidence, intelligence and honorability as beautiful.  As another stated:

“Out long tradition emphasizes more the inner beauty of a woman.  Beauty is not only your appearance but also your charm, characteristics and nobility…..”

Of course this is only scratching the surface. But imagine if we started thinking about or appreciating beauty this way. I’m not saying that all the Chinese notions of beauty will be right for us here. In fact, maybe by sharing some of our more enlightened notions of beauty with them we can all grow. I’m looking forward to learning more about these differences, experiencing and adopting some of them myself.

Speaking of experiencing them, I tried to do just that.  While I couldn’t take the next flight to Beijing, I did the best I could and headed down to NYC’s famous Chinatown to explore the beauty world.  I went shopping with my friend, Kristi, at the neighborhood beauty shops, and indulged in some beauty treatments a few weeks later.  Not surprisingly, the shops offered way more beauty products from Korea and Japan than from China.   But that didn’t stop us from partaking. 🙂

In terms of beauty treatments, I went on a lark to a place that had a website offering manicure and blow outs on Canal St.  The manicure didn’t seem any different than one I would get at a typical salon uptown.  But the hair experience certainly was.   (Let me caveat by saying this is certainly not a comparison of all Chinatown salons since I only went to one. )  The first thing that happened was I was asked to sit on one the of the blow out chairs while a woman covered my collar in plastic.  She then gave me a 5 minute shoulder massage — which was awesome.  Here is where it gets really interesting: while I’m sitting there, she takes the shampoo, pours it on my head while another woman squeezes water out from a plastic bottle to be mixed with the shampoo.  The first woman washes and massages my scalp for another 5 minutes as I’m sitting right next to a gentleman getting his hair cut.  So I’m thinking, do they not have sinks?  What’s the deal?  They do! I know because after the 5 minute wet hair massage I’m led to the sinks where my hair is rinsed and rewashed and then conditioned.  Clearly a healthy, clean scalp and head of hair is a MUST!

Another interesting difference between “western” blowouts and and the ones I experienced myself or saw on others in the salon, is emphasis on smooth and straight (vs full volume).  I was not surprised at this look given the high preponderance of Japanese straightening products that have made their way around the globe, and especially in Asia.  Given the humidity and my general lifestyle the look lasted a day or so but experience was a blast.

No doubt beauty is more than skin deep.  But I’m not referring just to inner beauty.  Rather I speaking about how much beauty is a product and reflection of culture.  While there may universal truths about physical symmetry and health as markers of beauty, it’s so evident how our rituals around, beliefs of and issues with beauty tells us a world of information regarding our values, social politics, environment and the list goes.  This is one of the key goals of Beautyskew: to shed light on culture through the lens of beauty. More than that, as evidence of my new relationship with UNIPX media, beauty can be a vehicle to connect with and learn from others, even those from a totally different world.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this great new relationship, sharing what I know and learning from others too, maybe just maybe, helping to build some amazing bridges.

To get a taste of some of the Chinese-American beauty influencers on U.S. soil, check out Soothingsista and Francis Lola.