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Kenzo SS18 mens womens paris show backstage
Backstage at Kenzo SS18Photography Arnaud Lafeuillade

Kenzo’s all-Asian show made me feel I had a place in fashion

In an industry that so often gets diversity wrong, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim’s authentic tribute to the brand’s heritage is a shining example of how to do it right

OK, let’s face it – fashion isn’t exactly the best at diverse representation. As an Asian woman working in media – and, within that, fashion too – I’m very often aware of how little I see my experience reflected in what surrounds me on a daily basis. From endless examples of Hollywood whitewashing Asian stories and characters, to the irony of Karlie Kloss, as opposed to an actual Japanese model, dressed as a geisha in what American Vogue plugged as a diverse issue, I’m unfortunately used to the industry I’ve always wanted (and worked hard) to be a part of getting this so wrong – if they even bother to tackle it at all. That’s why, though, when Kenzo’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim sent out an all-Asian cast onto their catwalk in Paris earlier this week, I couldn’t help but smile despite my cynical heart.

Here, for once, was a shining example of authentic representation in fashion – though Kenzo has always been good at that, to be fair. Collaborating with artists from Lemonade director Kahlil Joseph, to the dream team of filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr, stylist Ib Kamara and photographer Ruth Ossai, who produced their last project – Kenzo has a reputation for representing PoC perspectives in an authentic and celebratory way. The secret? Letting the people with actual lived experience of the culture have the chance to take part and tell their own stories – who knew? Both Asian themselves, it’s unsurprising (but still great) Leon and Lim extended this practice to their SS18 show, which proved diverse representation need not be a ticked-box quota of models of colour, in an industry where ‘diverse’ too often means one or two black models tacked on to meet a percentage.

“Kenzo’s SS18 show was a statement of cultural ownership made by and dedicated to the people it belongs to”

Instead, the real joy and success of Kenzo’s all-Asian cast show lay in the rare alignment of its inspiration – the two cult Japanese icons, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto and original muse to founder Kenzo Takada, supermodel Sayoko Yamaguchi – with the people actually modelling the clothes. Sounds simple, but fashion has a long history of ‘borrowing’ from Asian culture without giving the same level of exposure to the people that it belongs to.

I know this happens across the board, but fashion – and society as a whole, with our love of simplistic dichotomies – has a tendency to see race as a black and white issue, when really there’s a whole spectrum of experience that these things apply to, and that deserve just as much exposure. Just watch The First Monday in May, about that year’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, for proof that Asian experience becomes even more of a grey area of frustrating excuses. Curator Andrew Bolton suggests there’s a kind of balanced reciprocity of inspiration between the East and West, while Anna Wintour is actually annoyed when a Chinese interviewer asks questions she perceives as pushing a political angle. But the superficial, often stereotypical, interpretations of that year’s Met Gala theme was testament enough to how widely and subconsciously accepted it is to use Asian culture as an aesthetic, without thinking to credit those who actually contribute to it. These were those girls who wear chopsticks in their hair or cheongsams because they once saw a still from a Wong Kar-Wai film on their Instagram feeds – but on an international platform. As The Guardian asked then – where were all the Chinese designers? This, and the rest of those inconvenient questions that were such a nuisance to Wintour, are ones that are clearly necessary. 

As an unapologetically Asian celebration of its heritage, Kenzo’s SS18 show was a statement of cultural ownership made by and dedicated to the people it belongs to, that was still a spectacle of great fashion (trust us, there were even aerial dancers involved). Without resorting to lazy motifs, Leon and Lim truly created something that was as “beautiful and poetic” as Leon told us they had hoped for casting the all-Asian line-up. Seeing a space so often dominated by a parade of white faces, now with a roster of Asian top models like Fernanda Ly, Mona Matsuoka, Manami Kinoshita and Mae Lapres walking en masse and not just as token diversity points, was something I wish I’d seen more of growing up with only really Devon Aoki looking anything like someone who could represent me. As someone who always wanted to be a part of the industry, I was always looking for people I could identify with in fashion because it’s hard to imagine yourself succeeding where there doesn’t seem to be any precedent that came before you – especially when you live somewhere as rural as I did.

The internet helped a lot with that: I found Susie Lau’s Style Bubble blog and make-up tutorials from the now countless Asian beauty bloggers on YouTube helped me accept that my face wasn’t ever going to look like Kate Moss’s, but I could still work with what I had. In 2017, these people are even easier to find but, with all the progress in expanding what a model looks like through street casting and changing attitudes, last season’s 27.9% non-white models remains a record high. By contrast, Kenzo making its mammoth combined men’s and women’s show 100% Asian resoundingly squashed that too-often heard (and frankly, poor) excuse that there are somehow “not enough” of us in creative industries to be given these opportunities to shine. 

“The fashion establishment still regards the 27.9% overall from last season’s shows as a record high for model of colour representation”

It’s not just a message for those wanting to work in the industry, though. Fashion, after all, is inherently a way to express your identity – especially when you’re younger. To paraphrase that infamous ‘blue sweater’ speech in The Devil Wears Prada, the clothes we put on our back say something about us to the world, regardless of whether that decision is conscious or not – and, as a self-aware teen, I awkwardly navigated this distance between the images I admired and the fact I rarely saw myself reflected in them. It seemed, according to them, the acceptance of myself or my cultural identity was a pick-and-choose situation, as if they were separate; that one came at the cost of another, and I should stick to their narrative of ‘Asian-ness’ – dragon motifs, kimonos, floral qipao fabrics, etc. – to be accepted and celebrated. Kenzo’s SS18 show made none of these concessions. It put actually Asian models in clothes inspired by the cultural contributions of really interesting, but rarely spotlighted, Asian figures and gave them both an uncompromised platform during one of the most photographed and reported on events in the world – Paris Fashion Week. If you’re still confused, Leon and Lim’s Kenzo show essentially did the equivalent of Rihanna at the Met Gala: they did their research, they used their position to give credit where credit is due, and they showed everyone’s the richer for it. Let that be your lesson in authentic representation.