- The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion
When First Lady Michelle Obama chose to wear the now famous Jason Wu gown for the Inaugural Ball in 2009, the Asian American fashion designer instantly catapulted from obscurity to global recognition overnight. While the world clamored for more information about the relatively unknown design sensation, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu possessed inside knowledge about the various paths Asian American fashion designers like Wu had taken in order to become the successes they are today. In her relevant and timely book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, we discover that Wu, along with other prominent young Asian American designers such as Alexander Wang, Peter Som, Derek Lam, Doo-Ri Chung, and Philip Lim, are part of a cohort of cultural workers that make up the new shifting globalized world of fashion. While this group of fashion designers does not form a coherent movement, Tu suggests that they share "a professional and cultural milieu; a collective desire to create objects of beauty and fascination; and perhaps, most important, a common migration history that shapes their work in strikingly similar ways" (7). Tu's elegantly written, thought-provoking book takes readers through important cultural sites of inspiration and production complicating the inextricable interconnections between material and [End Page 139] nonmaterial resources, aesthetic and mechanized labor, individual and collective work, and cultural and moral economies at both the local and global levels. She deftly builds upon Angela McRobbies's study of fashion designers and Richard Florida's idea of the "creative class," while elaborating and complicating Arjun Appadurai's logic of distance by narrating the "histories, discourses, imaginations, and creations" of the designers through "an architecture and aesthetic of intimacy" (9).1 These concepts enable Tu to articulate and narrate how Asianness becomes incorporated, manufactured, (re)produced, marketed, and consumed in the fashion world.
The Beautiful Generation exemplifies emerging cultural studies scholarship in that it theorizes the complex intersections of race, immigration, globalization, and culture's contributions to our current neoliberal economy. This highly original study demonstrates the author's strength in navigating interdisciplinarity. While insisting on the impossibility of separating material and aesthetic production, the book is cleverly divided into two sections organized by methodology. The first section synthesizes Tu's extensive ethnographic research, where she dedicated countless hours to understanding the process of "material production" by formally and informally interviewing and observing designers, design students, fashion curators, and fashion publicists. She immersed herself in the fashion world by accompanying her interviewees to places like their shops, studios, and industry events. The second section consists of close readings of visual culture in print ads and fashion spreads, where the author examined "over 500 fashion magazines, spanning the years between 1995 and 2005," to trace the discursive construction of what she refers to as "Asian chic" (6). Produced over a period of time, the "cultural economy of Asian chic" provides an important thread that links Tu's analyses of both the aesthetic and the sartorial, giving history, structure, and meaning to how Asianness has been perceived and received in the fashion world.
It is no coincidence that both the symbolic and material construction of Asianness in fashion, along with the rise of the Asian/Asian American designer, are intimately linked to the history of the Asian immigrant labor force in the garment industry and the emergence of the global garment trade. Tu explains that the conflation of categories such as ethnic identity, citizenship, nationality, and other makers of difference elides the specificity of the myriad histories that culminated in the rise of the Asian American designer. It becomes essential to trouble the boundaries that racially mark these designers and examine them as subjects located within a multifaceted set of relations governed by transnational, institutional, governmental, and economic forces. Part of the "cultural economies" within which the designers operate can be identified by the familial relations and [End Page...