Designer Claudia Li Speaks Out Against ‘Model Asian’ Stereotype: ‘I Need to Shut Up? No. Not Anymore’

Nationwide protests unfolded over the weekend as fear and frustration reached a fever pitch following this month’s Atlanta spa shootings that left 8 people, including six women of Asian descent, dead. It’s just one of many attacks against the Asian-American community over the past year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A series of harrowing events have made critical the need for unity against anti-Asian violence and hate — and scores of fashion brands and designers are rightfully joining the fight.

“We need to speak out, be unafraid,” designer Claudia Li told FN. “We need to help those who are too quiet to speak out and encourage them. We need to let them know that it is more than okay to be loud, to make their voices heard. Many of us won’t ask for help because we’re taught not to ‘bother’ or ‘burden’ other people. But it’s important that to reach out and let [those who are experiencing discrimination] know that you want to help and that it is not a burden.”

According to a new report from nonprofit Stop AAIP Hate, the number of Asian hate incidents hit 3,795 between March 19, 2020 — just days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic — and Feb. 28, 2021.

In addition to standing in solidarity, Asian Americans, lawmakers and activists are calling for effective solutions. Within a week of taking office, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum condemning xenophobia targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. And on March 19, the president made a statement urging Congress to swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.

In fashion, raising awareness about anti-Asian racism and xenophobia must go beyond the surface level and one-off Instagram posts.

“I really don’t want to see dragon and phoenix embroideries going down the runway to ‘raise awareness,'” said Li. “It’s putting all types of Asians into one tiny box with a giant bow on top. We’re not singular and people need to realize that.”

Li encouraged Asians “create a community that makes us stronger.

“Reach out to those you don’t know, those you’re not familiar with, and talk about how we can support each other,” she added.

The Chinese-born, New Zealand-raised and New York-based designer launched her label in 2015 and has been made increasing Asian representation a top priority from the get-go. For her first runway show at New York Fashion Week in 2018, she exclusively cast Asian models, including women of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Nepalese, and Filipino backgrounds. It was a way for Li to not only advocate for diversity but to showcase a broad vision of Asian femininity.

Claudia Li, Spring 2019
Claudia Li’s spring ’19 runway presentation at NYFW exclusively used Asian models.

But, for years, stereotypes created or endorsed within the fashion industry have served as obstacles for Li and many minority designers. For instance, the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” has proliferated across fashion — causing a plethora of issues for those on either side of the consumer-brand equation.

“‘Hardworking but invisible’ — that’s what a lot of people think Asians are,” explained Li. “In most Asian cultures, we have been taught to not be too ‘noticeable,’ not to cause any trouble, keep to ourselves and try to be polite at all times. For me personally, that has been problematic for years.”

Growing up, Li described herself as wild child, loud and the “different” one amongst her friends.

“But after joining the fashion industry, somehow I slowly became another ‘model Asian,'” she added. “I didn’t notice until the past two years why that was. I became okay with a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been okay with before entering the fashion industry. Then I realized that it was the fact that this was the result of what others projected onto me, trying to put me inside this box and I jumped right into it — this ‘Asian Designer’ box — always smiling, bowing, [being] okay with ridiculous requests but not making a fuss at all. Just being [what they perceived to be] ‘Asian.'”

But Li is finding a renewed confidence to be bold amid tough times — shedding the propensity forced upon her to be apologetic about her feelings, her words or who she is.

“There were interviews that I [would] read and my first reaction was, ‘I shouldn’t have said that!’ Then later I [would] always ask myself: ‘Why not? It was how I felt.’ Just because it doesn’t seem like something that a nice Asian designer would say, and doesn’t fit into their box of what Asian designers should say, I need to shut up? No. Not anymore.”

As the Asian-American community continues to remain vulnerable, those with the platforms to do so are more crucial than ever in eliminating hate and racism. Fashion is rightfully finding a place at the forefront of the conversation. Brands such as Nike, Under Armour, Columbia, Monse, and designers Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, and more are sending powerful messages, making financial pledges and rallying to raise funds among other efforts.

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