For months, it’s been hard to watch the news. Every time an elderly Asian person is violently shoved or beaten on the sidewalk, I worry that my mother—a Chinese woman in her 60s—might be next, and I feel helpless. But as I try to distract myself by scrolling through Instagram, I’ve unexpectedly found comfort following fashion designer Phillip Lim, who has spent the last few months advocating relentlessly for the Asian community.
Fifteen years ago, he launched his label, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and in the years since, he’s garnered many awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But over the last few weeks, as violence against Asian Americans has spiked, he’s snapped into action, taking on the role of activist and community organizer.
He has flooded his Instagram account with resources for his 82,000 followers; gone on CNN to entreat people to stand with Asian Americans; and launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $2 million for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. And in the wake of the horrific murders in Atlanta last week, he quickly organized a two-hour Zoom event to talk about building community in the face of white supremacy. “There is a lot to lose when speaking up,” he says. “But at this moment, I don’t see any other option.”
As he’s thrown himself into this activism, he’s been criticized by some of his fans and followers who say he should stick to designing clothes and stay out of politics. But he disagrees. He believes fashion designers can no longer just speak through their clothes—they must stand for something and have a point of view, otherwise their brands will ring hollow.
Springing into Action
President Trump’s racist language that blamed Asians for the coronavirus hit Lim hard. Phrases like “Kung Flu” and “China virus” triggered memories of growing up in California as the child of Chinese immigrants, when other children flung racial slurs at him. It also reminded Lim of the long history of xenophobia toward Asians, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, to Japanese internment during World War II, to Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in 1982.
“Again, we saw a government-sponsored strategy at work,” he says, comparing Trump’s language to earlier examples of government-driven racism. “This time, it was to scapegoat the Asian American community for the administration’s incompetence in dealing with the pandemic. I couldn’t believe that as an adult these racial slurs were still being flung at me, this time from the biggest platform in the world. I immediately had that sinking feeling like something bad was going to happen: We’ve seen this movie before.”
Lim began drawing attention to these anti-Asian hate crimes on his personal Instagram account, then started occasionally sprinkling posts on his brand’s main Instagram account, which has nearly a million followers. In both cases, he was aligning himself and his business with the Asian American community, which he knew could lose him money, especially during a pandemic that has devastated the fashion industry. His brand has received direct messages and comments from customers saying they would stop buying from the brand because of his activism.
But Lim tells me he doesn’t care. And importantly, he believes that customers actually are interested in a brands’ values. “Early on in my career, there was this idea that designers should let their clothes speak for themselves,” he says. “But I feel like that mentality has expired. The customer has evolved: They want to know what the brand’s point of view and what your value systems are.”
He believes this gives fashion labels a new kind of power to cultivate community and build political movements. He’s able to use his platform to call attention to issues of racism that are underreported in the mainstream media and find new allies in the fight against white supremacy. “There’s strength in numbers,” he says. “If you get more people to give a damn, slowly the consciousness begins to shift. And as a minority, bringing on more people to fight alongside us transforms us into the majority.”
The broader struggle
Lim points out that the attacks on Asian Americans are just the latest manifestation of a systemic and underlying racism at work in the United States. At his Zoom event last week, entitled Doing Something About It, Lim brought together speakers from the fashion and activist communities to talk about how to build a movement to fight racism and xenophobia in all its manifestations.
Creating a coalition with people from other communities of color can be tricky. In particular, there have been tensions between Black and Asian communities in the past. Lim is well aware of this, but he believes that it’s possible to create solidarity. The key, he says, is not to compare or co-opt each other’s grief, but rather listen to each others’ stories and experiences. “I know that there have historically been divisions between minority groups,” he says. “I think we should make room to address these issues. But we can do two things at the same time: We can make space to hear each other out and learn each others’ history, while also standing in solidarity.”
Lim makes the case that one of the tools of white supremacy is causing conflict and division among oppressed groups. This often comes down to spreading a mindset of scarcity that suggests that uplifting one marginalized person somehow diminishes another marginalized person.
He’s seen this play out in the fashion industry. For instance, when he’s experienced success, the media has portrayed him as an “Asian designer,” while his white counterparts are simply described as “designers.” This sometimes has the effect of making it seem that there can only be a select few Asian designers, which creates a sense of competition or animosity among Asian creatives. This also further entrenches the idea of white people as the norm, while turning everyone else into the “other”. “In my own industry, there’s a lot of bigotry and exclusion,” he says. “Fashion likes to paint a picture of inclusion, but in fact everything is about exclusivity. There’s a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes to make sure that it stays that way.”
In rejecting this narrative, Lim has instead doubled down on building relationships with other Asian designers and creatives, like Prabal Gurung and Nora Kim. When their businesses were hit hard over the past year, they shared resources, like extra fabric in their warehouses. With the Zoom event—which featured a broad range of voices including designer Jerry Lorenzo, journalist Noor Tagouri, and stylist Karla Welch—Lim was making the case that it’s possible to build an even bigger tent, inviting people from other marginalized communities and allies to stand in solidarity with one another.
“The focus is on Asian Americans right now, but at any moment, the hate can turn on another community,” he said at the event. “We’ve seen its arc, and how it’s touched every community. If we don’t stand together now to be a human wall against this, then there is no community in the future. We’ll continue to be divided and not in touch with our full potential.”