For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business.
Illustrator and designer Sophia Chang grew up with a love for drawing.
“My dad would come home from the office and bring me Xerox paper and highlighters, and I’d be like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever,'” she recalled. “I remember being a kid with my parents going to the bank, I’d just sit there with the pen on the chain and just draw on the deposit slips all the time.”
Chang is a product of Queens, N.Y. — specifically the diverse Flushing neighborhood — and was greatly influenced by her surroundings. She fondly remembers listening to the hip-hop of the 1990s that dominated airwaves and seeing the graffiti-adorned buildings from the 7 train while dressed head-to-toe in Ecko Red, Baby Phat and Enyce.
She was raised by her father, a civil engineer with the Department of Transportation, and her mother, who sacrificed singing and performing to stay at home.
While Chang had clear artistic passions, a career in art was a tough sell for her parents.
“Growing up as a kid, if my dad and I were to walk through Times Square, he would say, ‘If you want to be an artist, you’re going to be like that guy sitting in the street. That’s what a career in art would be like,'” Chang remembered. “[At] 9 years old, I said, ‘I’m not going to be like that guy.'”
She followed her heart and ultimately landed at Parsons School of Design in New York City to pursue a bachelor’s degree in illustration.
“A big part of Asian culture is built on shame. In our communities, the first filter that goes through our brain is, ‘Is this is going to bring shame to me? Is it going to bring shame to our family?'” Chang said. “For my family, they had a hard time in social environments, whether it [was in] church or [with] other with family members [who would say], ‘Where is Sophia going to school? My son is going to Harvard.’ Chinese culture is subconsciously competitive, which is unnecessary, but it has been like this for many generations.”
Chang — who now resides in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, which she described as the West Coast equivalent of Queens — has spent the last decade working to become a respected name in footwear and fashion. She has worked with industry heavyweights on several acclaimed projects.
Among her career-defining achievements was the collaborative “Brooklynite” footwear and apparel range with Puma, which hit stores in 2014. This collection also got the attention of her parents — in an unexpected place.
“[My parents] are a little older, so they try to do more vacations, and when they were in Europe, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Puma had a store there with a huge billboard with me on it and my sneakers,” Chang said. “They’re starting to recognize my success in this space and in my career. They see that there’s an actual path here, that there’s opportunity.”
Although the Puma project brought notoriety to her name — and recognition beyond her Queens stomping grounds — it also reminded her of the lack of Asian representation within footwear and fashion.
“Where I grew up in Queens, it was so diverse that I was just used to it. I was like, ‘Everyone is different.’ But for the rest of the world, this was just so different for them,” Chang said. “When the press was reaching out, people were asking, ‘What’s it like being a female designing sneakers?’ And, ‘What’s it like being an Asian woman designing sneakers?'”
Not blind to the racial and gender inequities of the industries she works in, Chang has worked on several other projects that have addressed industry shortcomings head on.
For instance, in 2012, with self-proclaimed adventurer Nai Vasha as her partner, she launched the health and wellness platform Undo Ordinary.
And more recently, the multihyphenate — alongside Romy Samuel — launched Common Ace in May 2020, a female-focused online sneaker shopping platform designed to offer consumers seamless shopping with variety and accessibility.
“For me, I felt like there was a void in the health and wellness space when it came to diversity and inclusion, so I worked on Undo Ordinary for nine years,” Chang said. “And I started Common Ace because there’s a huge void [in the women’s sneaker market], and I’m part of that community.”
For Chang, focusing her professional efforts on underrepresented or marginalized groups is nothing new. However, with heightened discussions around Asian hate, many people are looking to become better allies now more than ever. She believes being an effective ally is simpler than one would think. “Start with where your passions lie and then find those opportunities from there. What speaks true to your heart? That’s the best way to support any cause,” Chang said.
Her go-to method of support, aside from using her unique artistic skillset to support causes, is charity. “There are a lot of people out there who are doing great work, and I’ve been involved in donating to different charitable nonprofits. One is called Heart of Dinner, and they help prepare Asian cuisines for Asian seniors,” Chang said.
For brands and retailers within the footwear and fashion spaces, there’s an even greater responsibility, she noted.
“Whether it’s dedicating real estate on their websites or within physical locations to diverse designers, supporting them monetarily or getting involved in their communities, established players have the platform to elevate voices,” Chang said. “Beyond that, they can make a more intentional shift by looking at their internal teams, looking at their C-suite, looking at the vendors and contractors. Instead of donating to a random website, which you don’t know where the money really goes, hire a local Black graphic designer. You can start small. It just comes down to sacrifice.”