Professionals in the fashion industry have been organizing, speaking up, and raising awareness about racist bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
Yes, even the sustainable fashion movement is often not inclusive. Although Asia is the powerhouse of fashion production, Asian faces are seriously underrepresented in the design studio, runway, magazine covers, or ad campaigns. People of color usually sit behind a sewing machine, but do not have a seat at the board table. Many Asian designers even had to downplay their “Asian-ness” to assimilate into the industry.
I was born and raised in China. One of my fondest childhood memories was visiting the silk hub of Suzhou to pick fabric for a tailor-made qipao, an iconic flattering Chinese dress. I love running my fingers through the smooth, lustrous charmeuse and admiring expert artisans making “Su embroidery” with hair-thin silk thread. As I grew up, I was troubled to see traditional craftsmanship encroached by multinational companies that outsource mass production to Asian countries. When my family moved to the U.S., cheap made-in-China products connected me to health ailments, labor abuses, and rampant pollution on the other side of the globe.
I wanted to be part of the solution. Although neither fashion nor sustainability seems like legitimate career paths to immigrant families like mine, an American liberal art education instilled in me the courage to carve my own niche at the intersection of the two topics I’m most passionate about. I’ve been feeling immensely grateful for the opportunities provided by my adopted country that are unimaginable back in China. Unfortunately, navigating my way through a world of privileged, affluent, mostly-white schoolmates, I have experienced and witnessed other Asian friends, being outside, invisible, and sometimes reduced to a stereotype.
Fortunately, a new generation of emerging Asian designers is rewriting the narrative and celebrating their heritage by reinterpreting traditional garments through a modern lens. Many have leveraged their cultural and linguistic background to partner with artisans and ethical manufacturers in Asia, combining traditional Eastern techniques with Western aesthetics.
Indeed, the rich legacy of Asian fashion and textiles may actually hold the key to a more sustainable fashion future. The Asian continent is home to many of the world’s first civilizations and the most diverse ethnic groups, each with its own repertoire of fine techniques in weaving, knitting, embroidery, natural dyeing, plant-based treatment and finishing, all perfected over thousands of years. Traditional textiles are usually made with minimally-processed natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, hemp, wild grasses.
The difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is recognition. Instead of buying from a fast fashion brand that stole indigenous patterns without attributing their source of inspiration, I recommend prioritizing brands that can tell you the stories behind the craft. Who made your product? How was it made? Are the creators/artisans the owner of the culture? Do they benefit from equitable partnership or toll without reward? Does the design, pattern, print, or embroidery symbolize anything? Understanding, respecting, and honoring the human experience, ingenuity, and craftsmanship will culminate in a deeper appreciation of your purchase.
Below, we have put together a roundup of ethical and sustainable Asian fashion businesses for you to support, not just because the Asian-American experience is under the spotlight, but because you deserve a chance to explore the fascinating, ancient wisdom that harmonizes fashion with nature.
Valani is a biodegradable fashion brand founded by lifelong vegan and philanthropist Vanni Leung. All of her pieces are made from plant-based materials like Tencel, banana silk, and hemp, and colored with OEKO-TEX certified non-toxic dyes. Valani works with GOTS certified production partners in Tamil Nadu, India and ensures fair wage and working hours. To minimize waste, the company uses fabric scraps to make crunchies, fillings for toys, pillows, or other crafts and recycle anything left over. The packaging is made from straw recycled box and tissue paper, hemp and jute twine.
Founded by Wing Yau, WWAKE is a 100% women-run jewelry brand that crafts its pieces in small, made-to-order batches using quality materials and conflict-free diamonds. Each WWAKE item is hand-made and designed in its New York City studio using recycled gold and silver whenever possible, and the finest opals and certified conflict-free diamonds. WWAKE proudly works with local and family-owned businesses in New York.
Founded by Jamie Lim, Kayu is a Californian brand that works with women cooperatives in the Philippines to produce their bags. They’re woven from seagrass straw, a natural weed that is harvested and dried by hand, meaning that eventually, the bags will biodegrade. Kayu also works with immigrant women in San Francisco who hand embroider the monograms onto each Kayu bag, which provides them with practical training and a fair income. With the goal to become a zero-waste brand within the next five years, Kayu focuses on both social impact and sustainability across the design and manufacturing process.
Angel Chang launched her namesake luxury womenswear brand to preserve century-old techniques in rural China that was expected to die out within 10 years. The brand works with ethnic minority groups in Guizhou, the poorest province in China, to combine ancient craftsmanship with modern design. Her collection features elegant, flowing palazzo pants and airy cotton button down shirts, made using traditional weaving and dyeing techniques. For example, the blue, beige, and yellow pieces are naturally dyed by indigo, soil, and gardenia flower pods. All of her pieces are grown, spun, woven, dyed, and sewn entirely by hand in the mountains of Guizhou, without the use of any electricity.
Founded in 1997 by Shouzeng Ye and Shawna Tao, Icicle is a high-end fashion brand and leader in sustainable and ethical fashion in China for decades. It marries urban luxury with traditional Chinese techniques and philosophy to be in harmony with nature, featuring the finest materials, clean silhouette, and impeccable tailoring. Icicle uses high-quality natural materials that have met their stringent environmental and ethical standards, such as undyed cashmere from Afghanistan and Inner Mongolia, organic Belgian linen, organic Italian wool, Chinese silk crepe, Japanese organic cotton, and Italian vegetable-tanned leather. The company says that all its suppliers selected have obtained certifications like OEKO-TEX, Bluesign, or ISO 14000 standard. The fabrics are then naturally dyed with cedar wood, walnut bark, pomegranate, onion skin, or Pu’er tea.
The R Collective is a Hong Kong-based sustainable luxury fashion brand founded by Christina Dean, who is also the founder of Redress, an organization that hosts the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition. Every year, R collective works with winners of the Redress Design award to launch a unique upcycled collection that complements the company’s main collections. R collective sources deadstock from luxury fashion brands, reputable mills and manufacturers, and minimizes waste in its own production through creative designs. For example, the company would reuse their own offcuts to create trims, hangtag strings, or contrast design details. According to the company, the R collective design method generates only 1% of fabric waste, compared to 16% from traditional pattern cutting. The company also offers a take-back program to customers.
Esse is a conscious womenswear label founded by Alicia Tsi that focuses on classic, timeless staples, using eco-friendly materials and made by ethical factories. All of the brands’ designs are made from organic, biodegradable, or recycled fibers. The material list includes GOTS organic cotton, LENZING tencel, OEKO-TEX certified linen, Cupro (a regenerated cellulose fabric made from recycled cotton linter), ProViscose (a blend of viscose and Tencel that enhances longevity through washes and wears), and deadstock fabric. Even the trims are responsibly sourced, for example, more than 90% of the garments use natural shell buttons. Esse uses plastic-free packaging made from recycled paper and has started a pilot with Package Pals to collect mailer envelopes for reuse. And in 2020, Esse started to launch more of their capsule collections on a pre-order basis to encourage conscious consumption and slow fashion.
Ziran, which means “natural” in Chinese, is a sustainable and ethical silk fashion brand established by Kelly Wang Shanahan. The brand exclusively uses Xiang yun sha silk, which translates to “perfumed cloud clothing”, made with techniques that have been passed down for over 500 years. All of xiang yun sha silk is sourced from a single village in China. The fabric is naturally dyed using the juice of Chinese yams, coated with iron-rich mud from the pearl river, and then dried under the sun. The same process has to be repeated several times to reach the desired shade of color. The result is a wrinkle-resistant, anti-microbial fabric that feels buttery soft on the skin.
Boma Jewelry was founded in 1981 in Seattle by a Japanese-Thai American family. Its currently owned by Suzanne Vetillart, second-generation owner of the company. For 40 years, the company has been producing accessible and sustainable handmade jewelry. All metals are conflict-free, and Boma strives to be more circular through repairing secondhand and vintage, reusing deadstock, and sourcing recycled materials. By owning its own factories in Thailand, the company ensures all workers earn a living wage, and provide 90-day maternity leave and scholarships for workers’ children. Some workers have stayed with the company for more than 15 years. Boma also plans to be carbon-neutral by 2025, and is partnering with CarbonClick to provide carbon offsets for purchases.
Lidia May is an artisan luxury handbag brand established by Chinese-American May Yang. Its signature tote bags and purses feature a clean, elegant silhouette with colorfully embroidered Bangladesh cow or lotus bloom. The craftsmanship and uplifting stories behind each bag have won Lidia May a suite of cult followers among diplomats and foreign officials. The company works closely with underprivileged women in the urban slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and established a training program to promote the teaching and learning of traditional embroidery skills. The leather is sourced from Europe or Korea and then vegetable-tanned in Bangladesh.
Founded in 2016 by Kay Wen, SiiZU is an eco-friendly fashion label that designs clothes out of 100% organic and eco-friendly fabrics. It intentionally keeps its fabric manufacturers and garment factories close to each other to minimize its carbon footprint. SiiZu’s merino wool and cashmere sweaters are all sourced and manufactured within Inner Mongolia, while its silk dresses are manufactured within Suzhou, where its silk is sourced. Since 2016, SiiZu moved away from reusable poly bags to recyclable paper bags.
After spending a decade in the fashion industry and learning about the impact of fashion manufacturing on the environment, Hoa Huynh and Sezin Calikoglu started Pause., a sustainable and ethical brand that doesn’t sacrifice quality or design. By merging classic silhouettes with modern architectural influences, Pause. follows a seasonless calendar with transparency at its forefront. Pause. pieces are designed and manufactured in New York City with 100% ethically sourced cotton. Pause. began as a female-forward collection, but has since introduced a collection of Genderless shirts, made from wool, cotton, and faux leather.
AKASHI-KAMA was started by a Japanese-American, Alec Nakashima, with the initial line dedicated to noragis, a classic Japanese workwear piece. It uses Japanese cotton and responsibly manufactures in Oakland, CA. Super versatile, AKASHI-KAMA’s noragis can be dressed up or down. Some of its pieces are organic and others aren’t, so be sure to check before purchasing.
Founded in 2017 by Laura Choi, Par en Par is a modern resort wear brand that combines elegance, simplicity, and effortlessness. Its versatile pieces are either made in Los Angeles or India using sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, lyocell, and linen. The brand’s organic cotton is sourced and handspun by rural artisans in Kerala, India, then handwoven into fabric in Bengal, an area that specializes in fine-weight weaving.
Founded by Hang Osment-Le, All The Wild Roses evolves from the founder’s experience as a Vietnamese Australian refugee who reconnected with her native country with a passion for sustainable fashion and empowerment. Up to 90% of the fabric is from upcycled sources, such as deadstock and surplus. About 20% of the products are vintage pieces restored by repairing, recutting, and hand-dyeing. The trimmings and accessories are either upcycled from other designers or warehouses or made in-house using offcut fabrics.