Style Setters

  • The embellished and embroidered creations (left) of Naeem Khan (right) often reflect his Indian roots. Photographs by Seth Wenig © AP Images & Bebeto Matthews © AP Images

The role of immigrants in shaping the American fashion industry. 

In 2014, Natalya Koval, a Ukraine-born student attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, entered a contest in which she designed a dress for an unknown celebrity. She crafted a swirling blue halter dress, working off little information, and then held her breath. 

Soon, she was shocked to learn that not only did she win the contest, but also that her surprise patron was the then-First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Koval is among the many immigrant designers to have found success in America. Immigrants, according to Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, associate professor at New York University, form the backbone of the fashion industry in the United States.

One such designer is Naeem Khan. Born in Mumbai, he moved to the United States to apprentice for American designer Halston in 1978. Khan launched his famous eponymous label in 2003. His embellished, feminine creations have been worn by many celebrities, from model Kendall Jenner to actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Global roots

“There’s been a growth in second-generation ethnic designers that, I think, has been very important,” says Tu. She cites the example of Narciso Rodriguez, son of Cuban immigrants, as well as of Asian American designers like Derek Lam, Peter Som, Prabal Gurung and Vera Wang.

This growth isn’t limited to couture. Designers all the way down the styling ladder boast of immigrant roots. “In places like Los Angeles, every jeans designer—every single designer—is second generation,” says Tu. Gradually, immigrants and children of immigrants make their way up from pattern-makers to successful designers. She cites examples of the children of Korean clothing manufacturers and importers who have now become designers in their own right, like Seun Lim of James Jeans and Peter Kim of Hudson Jeans.

From sewers to designers, immigrant workers play a vital role in the fashion industry. “The history of the industry is really the history of immigration,” says Tu. “The first wave were the Jews and the Irish, and then the Chinese and the Latinos. So, a lot of the sewing and all was done by immigrants.”

In her book, “The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion,” Tu describes how Asian American designers, in particular, have conquered the current American fashion industry.

“In many ways, I can’t really even imagine that we would have a fashion industry without immigration and without immigrants,” she says.

Diverse inspirations

Fashion trends are also often influenced by immigrant experiences. Designers draw inspiration from the styles they see in everyday life, across the world.

According to Tu, many designers talk about the ways they are so vibrantly influenced by street life in cities like Los Angeles and New York and Paris and Tokyo. “Often, designers say, ‘I traveled to Asia,’ or ‘I traveled to Africa, and I borrowed those influences.’ ” Or, it could also be from something as simple as an ethnic garment spotted on a subway during a daily commute.

Launch pad

At the same time, the United States provides launch pads for fashion trends and designers from across the world. In 2015, singer Rihanna wore an audacious yellow gown by Chinese designer Guo Pei to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala, or Met Gala, considered one of America’s most important annual fashion events. The resultant media buzz launched Pei into the international limelight.

“One of the things that has been historically nice about the fashion industry in places like New York and Los Angeles is that their barrier to entry is relatively low,” says Tu. “When I was doing my research in the 1990’s, designers would say, ‘I had four samples and I was walking around with them.’ And, the connections in places like New York to the garment industry are really what made it possible. You have designers who have these creative ideas, and they have access to the sewers and pattern-makers who make it possible for them. One of the nice things about having the Garment District here is that you can make a few things and see if they sell. If they do, you can make more.” And this Garment District has been shaped mainly by immigrant workers.

But, as these cities gentrify, there is an increased demand to turn low-rent factories and warehouses into expensive lofts and office buildings. “About 10 years ago, there was a lot of debate about rezoning in New York because it would have really destroyed the Garment District. A lot of designers came out and supported the Garment District and said they could not do their work without access to the kind of infrastructure that was already in New York City,” says Tu. and the Council of Fashion Designers of America published a report in 2017 that found that the industry employs 180,000 people in New York City and produces $11 billion (approximately Rs. 71,665 crores) in wages each year. Although the debate is still on, fashion industry representatives and policymakers have joined hands to introduce legislations to make it easier for immigrants to continue working in this field. 

“One of the things the industry is talking about is the ways in which the entire couture and luxury industry has turned to Asia and the Middle East,” says Tu. “And so, there’s a lot of speculation about this consumer... . Like, what do they want? Do they want ‘Asian chic?’ ” According to Tu, the big question for the industry right now is: How to maintain the infrastructure in the United States, so it gets new blood all the time and, at the same time, it is able to reach new markets.


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.