anh le, parson's student & fashion designer
Lindsey: Diving in, you’re from Boston, can you talk about growing up and your childhood a little bit?
Anh: Yeah okay, disclaimer, I don’t know if I have anything interesting to say so hopefully something of interest will come out haha. Okay so I lived for a long time in Billerica and there’s a lot of immigrants there so it was pretty cool for a while. I was in these apartments with a bunch of kids and my parents and my sister. I moved to Reading, Mass which is a super white town, upper middle class, middle class, and I was the only Asian girl in every class that I was in. There were two other Asian people but the percentages were not that great. I did a lot, you know the stereotypical “tiger mom”, I’d say my mom is pushing towards there. it’s like straight A’s all the time, super work, I got really rebellious in high school because I was like, this is stupid, and then I started doing whatever I wanted, fighting her a lot. Learning just about art and other stuff that I’d rather do than studying. Because my town and our school system is technically pretty good because it’s this thing like if you're qualified, you get all this funding and stuff. My school was a public school. We’re right outside of Boston so it’s right outside of Harvard, MIT so every kid is pressured to do well or go to college and get into a really good college, not just me, but I think everyone was like that. It’s kind of like a suburban sinkhole I think. Then I was like, nah, this is stupid. The art program was pretty good because we had really good teachers, it wasn’t well funded because we were also a football school — basically High School Musical, High School Musical is my town and high school situation, like almost. The art teachers were really great and they took a lot of time with us, only six kids in my graduating class wanted to go to art school or do something creative, do AP and get those credits and stuff so it was well worth it for us.
L: How did your mom react to you wanting to get into fashion and wanting to go to Parsons?
A: Because she watched Project Runway, she was really into it haha. It’s like that thing where, I feel like a lot of other kids in fashion, especially growing up with immigrant parents, if they feel a pressure to do anything creative specifically, they’re going to do fashion or art because there’s a chance they’ll make money and get some kind of fame — or you’re not going to be a starving artist stereotype. I was like, mom, I’m going to do art, and she was like, why don't you do fashion? I was young and was like, okay that sounds cool. My other friends have said similar things about fashion, where it seems to be somewhat easy to make a living so they satisfy their parents desire to earn money and get a job and blah, blah, blah, work in an office, but you also get to do something creative.
L: Were you always interested in fashion?
A: I was always interested in fashion. You know when kids are little and they’re like, I want to be an astronaut? It was like that. I didn’t consider it seriously until my mom was like, you can go to art school so pick something that will make you money, so I was like, oh okay, I actually like fashion so it was good. Besides the cool and creative part of making clothing, fashion is involved in every part of life, politically, socially, everything has something to do with the fashion industry. I feel like some people don’t realize it but fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world so that’s really important to know. I didn’t know I really wanted to do this until I applied.
L: I feel like I’ve heard from a lot of other Asian students that if they decide to do something with the arts or in the creative field, they’ve got to go to the best art school, the best of the best of the best. What’s your experience at Parsons been like?
A: Actually I agree with that too, if you’re going to do something artsy, you either have to go to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and do design, or go to SVA (School of Visual Arts), or go somewhere that is super well known. Parsons is actually really easy to get into, I think as long as you try and put out the work that you think is worth it to you and explain yourself, they’ll look at it and be like, okay, we get that. It’s expensive and that’s the biggest thing from keeping people from going. Our acceptance rate is like 70% or something like that right now but once you get there, the workload is crazy. If you do the studio classes, we have liberal arts and the music school and everything, but if you do design, fine arts or illustration, your studios are like six hours long, every day, and then you have another studio that’s like three hours long, and then if you’re doing school full time, you’re there for like — well I don’t actually know but it’s like school plus homework, a full time job, I have a part time job, other kids work at the school, commuting and everything so it’s a lot of time, a lot of all nighters and a lot of work. Sitting down and making something takes a lot of time.
L: Yeah I’m just learning how to sew, I’m making this pair of pants and I didn’t realize how much time it actually takes and just how bad I am at doing anything in a straight line. Would you say that Parsons provides a safe space for young creatives in terms of their mental health? You know everyone says in fashion, everyone gets burnt out.
A: Honestly, no, I know a lot of kids decide to drop out, well, I guess it’s college in general because I know a lot of other kids at different schools who were my friends in high school, did fine, but in college it’s like now they can’t handle stuff. There’s a good support network for the mental health issues because our health services is actually pretty good, but there’s this stigma of needing help.
L: I think it’s the stigma behind it is the root of the problem!
A: Yeah because there’s the competition of you always have to do better than your classmates and I’m not really about that but that’s how the system is set up. We have scholarship competitions, competitions to get into classes, competing to get into the show so every step of the way it’s you trying to be better than someone else and if you can’t do it, it falls on you and you feel like you’re not a good designer. Never mind the fact that you have a job or something else that’s bothering, so if you fail it’s all on you so you don't want to ask for help even if there are friends and people who don’t see it as a competition and services that can help you.
L: That’s such an ironic thing too, especially being a designer, it’s so hard to be compared to someone else because I feel like the whole process, especially in school, is learning what it is to have your own aesthetic and do something that sets you apart. It’s hard to say your work is better than someone’s and vice versa but when you’re put in an environment where you’re graded and you have to get into certain classes, it becomes less about finding your individuality and more about comparing yourself to others.
A: Yeah like watching your back. If you think about it, there’s no reason for you to compare yourself, you're right, everything is different, some people like different designs but there’s a constant nagging of, oh, should I be looking at someone else’s work? You’re always fighting that way of thinking.
L: Do you think that way of thinking inhibits originality? Just because of social media and your Facebook newsfeed, we’ve become hyper aware of others and what they’re doing.
A: I think it gets lost. There’s so many talented kids in my class but then you get lost in what everyone else is doing and you forget that whatever you have to do is important as well. You get bogged down by all the assignments we have to do that sometimes, have nothing to do with what you’re actually interested in but it’s the way they think you should learn. So you’ll do a bunch of illustrations to get to a collection but maybe that’s not how you work; but then you have to do it anyway just to learn how to do it that way and then you’re like, wait, I don’t even know what I like anymore. By the time it’s junior year, everyone is kind of like, wait, do I even like this? Do I like it because my professor liked it? It’s a lot of that. Once you hopefully get over it and start trusting yourself — right now, I’m doing my thesis and I’m in my senior year and it’s like slowly people are emerging and being like this is what I like. For this thesis class, they’re pushing the approach of find your thesis statement as if you were going to write a research paper so it’s unique and you have an argument to make rather than just making clothes in a similar aesthetic or whatever.
L: How have you personally arrived at a point where you can trust yourself?
A: That's so hard. I’ve had a pretty good work experience I think and had mentors who’ve already been there. I’ve worked at Thom Browne for a little bit and my bosses went through the same thing in school and talking to them about what they went through and how their senior collections, one of mosses said it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, and he’s always been like do whatever you want, don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore. I think it’s tapping into that kind of rebellious part of high school, that idea of fighting with my mom but actually fighting with myself to be like do what you want. At the end of the day, it’s your thesis, you’re the one paying money to go here, spending all your time so you might as well like it, even if no one else does. So that’s been the thing as well, maybe no one else will like it but it’s yours. I’m not selling my pieces or anything, well hopefully it helps get me a job or whatever, hopefully someone will like it but I’m at this point where I want to like whatever I make haha just a little bit.
L: Definitely, was that the part time job you have now or is that something different?
A: That was my internship and now I work at Le Pain Quotidien. I don’t even say it right.
L: Haha this sounds really ghetto but we used to go dumpster diving when you guys throw away all the bread and shit.
A: Oh my god everyone should do that! We throw away so much and they don’t donate it because it’s not enough for someone to come pick it up. I’m allowed to take stuff for myself and sometimes I take a lot and give it to my friends but there’s no pick up so they waste a lot of it.
L: Hahaha I used to do that once a month with friends, it was hilarious. Was your trip to Cambodia a part of your thesis?
A: I think it’s going to have to be informed by it because the trip to Cambodia was so much info, I’m still trying to sort through all my thoughts about it. My thesis is about my dad’s journey to America, he was a refugee after the Vietnam war, like a boat person, and it’s about how he settled here. I was researching refugees, immigration, nationalism, identity and translating that into clothing or wearables. My professors were like, you should get more personal so now it’s become about how I see him as a hero to me and his identity as an Asian-American male in Asian-American rhetoric. Ugh, I explained it so well the other day haha but you know like, if you’re Asian, there’s this dichotomy and only these specific ways you can be represented in mass media. You’re either sexy, ultra-feminine, super cute, or you’re like a genderless, male caricature, it’s super sexualized, super binary on either spectrum and there’s no spaces in between for different expressions of gender or that identity. I’ve always considered myself non-binary so I’m like how do I uphold the image of my dad and myself side to side?
L: Yeah so answer your own question haha how do you uphold your identities side by side? What conclusions have you arrived at?
A: Yeah so because I worked at Thom Browne, not conservative but very defined menswear, I’ve kind of been using menswear as the image of what it means to be American and the image of super macho, super rugged, American menswear and distorting that with images of my father and different draping of a suit. Those are kind of the experiments I’ve been doing like taking super classic menswear and being like, no.
L: Who are some of your favorite designers? It sounds like you’d belong to the realm of Comme Des Garcons and Craig Green and stuff. What are some of your biggest sources of inspiration from the industry today?
A: Oh um, that’s so hard haha I really do like Comme Des Garcons. I’m like always scared that I’m just trying to copy Comme Des Garcons haha.
L: When I found out that she was doing the Met Gala next year I was like, OH. MY. GOD. I actually might die.
A: That’s gonna be so good! And getting to see everything?! And then when you go into the exhibit. I’ve only seen the Charles James one and that was really cool but now it’s like Comme Des Garcons.
L: Going back to your father and how you were saying you first lived in more of an immigrant neighborhood at first and then moved to Reading, that must’ve made you all of a sudden super aware of your identity as an Asian American in a place like Boston and up until now with Trump being president and all that, it’s crazy. People are scared for themselves, their loved ones, scared of who they are, where they come from.
A: I didn’t cry until I was on the phone, side note, my mom has been working to get my aunt to immigrate here for a while because they’re really close and all my aunt’s kids are grown so my mom was like, well come to America, live with me and we’ll live the rest of our lives together. Super cute. But I didn’t cry until I was like, oh shit, what if that doesn’t happen now? It was a sudden fear and I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t get bullied until I moved to Reading and all of a sudden it was like oh, I’m Asian, okay? When I was in Billerica, the apartments I lived in were full of Indian immigrants and Koreans and my family. We all lived there because we were commuting into Boston to work or close by so it was kind of insular, even the white kids at school were fine, they really didn’t mention anything, everyone got along, chillin’. I didn’t think kids could be mean until I went to Reading and I was like, why are you trying to pick on me right now? What’s happening? I got super bullied, you know when they do the slanted eyes at you and then they yell “ching chong”, I think I got called a “chink” a couple times but because I lived in Billerica, I didn’t even know that chink was a bad work because no one ever said that to me. I was really shy in elementary school but in middle school. Because I was constantly yelling at kids to shut up and not try to bully me, I don’t know why I didn’t just run away, but my fight or flight instincts kicked in and I was like okay, it’s time to fight. There was this band of kids and I would yell at them and eventually they stopped, either because they got bored or they grew up, I don’t know. I think I got less shy from yelling all the time and I got really hyped and was like, okay, I’m gonna yell at everyone now haha. I had a solid group of friends who stuck with me throughout middle school. Because my high school's High School Musical like the Mean Girls high school too where they have all the tables they sit so it was the three of us and we were fine. Having those friends stick with me was a good way of dealing with bullying. Wow, I never really think about it but when I re-tell it, I’m like, wow, that was actually a lot of bullying.
L: Yeah and it makes you really aware of yourself and how much underlying racism there is even subconsciously as kids. Growing up here, I never experienced racism, my grandma would warn me about going to school on the mainland but I was like, no this is the 21st century.
A: Yeah there’s always that pushing of oh, let’s be colorblind, we’re all one race. That’s what you tell the kids anyway. In my high school, there was this program of accepting differences but you tell these kids this but then in the media, they find out the “n-word” is and they try to be cool by calling people a chink and there wasn’t a way when I was growing up, for adults to understand the media and kids and teenage culture.
L: What you were talking about too with fashion being involved in so many aspects of life, politically, socially, how we express ourselves etc. Do you think that fashion is a democracy?
A: Oh that’s a really good question. I think style maybe, well no, a lot of the times you can’t afford to wear what you really want to wear and then sometimes you can’t afford to make what you want to make. It’s so hard to leave school and be in debt and then become a designer and actually have the money to make what you want to make. I think some people are privileged in the fashion industry and everyone else is trying to catch up. At its core, if it’s DIY and that kind of stuff, I think that’s really cool, individual style and how people dress themselves. I think that’s a cool democracy because then you can DIY anything but when you’re trying to design or buy stuff, it’s harder to do whatever you want.
L: There’s a reason why, creative people or people who have been known to society as “outsiders” or people in the minority in general who are labeled, have felt like fashion could offer them a safe space to be creative and express. What do you think it even means to “understand fashion?”
A: Well fashion, if you’re trying to understand the way it works, I think that’s too much. I don’t think any one person can be like, I know all of fashion. It is so individual but I think there are two different parts of fashion or two sides that are contradicting each other like fast fashion, everything is produced in multiples of multiples, like UGGS or subculture. If you’re trying to be punk or look punk, and you buy all these punk things, you end up looking like all the other punks but you get it in that group — but someone else, not in that group, wouldn't get it because they’re not a part of that conversation. I think there are so many parts to it and you have to find the part of fashion that makes sense to you to be like, this represents who I am and this is what I’m trying to say with how I dress.
L: For you being non-binary, how has that helped you with your work and being able to carve out a space in this industry?
A: Now I think there’s a trend, I hate that it’s a trend but everyone is doing mixed runways and unisex. Sometimes you’re like, is fashion really changing or is it a trend and it’ll go back to the way it was before in a couple years? I’m hoping fashion is changing and it will be genderless, with multiple genders or whatever but because of the way I think about gender, sometimes I pick, sometimes it’s different every day, I’ve gotten to understand clothing and dressing per gender so specific that you can’t do genderless clothing. Oh, who was that model? Some model (Hari Nef) who is transgender was talking about it and she said it so perfectly, you erase the body when you don’t think of the person wearing the clothing. I’ve been trying to approach design according to gender anyway, as more individual, as if you would design for a person, and it’s the way of thinking which works better than thinking there’s no gender. I like to think of it as, this is for this person, this is their gender.
L: Can you talk more about the problems that the concept of gender poses in the fashion industry?
A: Personally, I think from my shopping experience and listening to my friends talk, the problem is more to do with retail spaces and ready to wear more than runway fashion. Because you can get away with more things if you have more power as a designer/influencer. It's hard when you want to dress outside your assigned gender, but you don't have the funds for whatever designer clothing and retailers are still stocking things/advertising in pretty binary ways. So having access and safe spaces to explore gender is important, which is prob why a lot of kids go online (Tumblr was how I learned more about my own gender identity tbh). But that was a big problem for me as a kid thinking I had no place to be if I wasn't a woman. So now in NY, the culture is a lot more open minded, so I think a problem is the disconnect between life in the city and outside -- and this is coming from someone who came from Massachusetts, but my family was pretty conservative.
As a student and designer now, I see a lot of people expressing gender in clothing as still pretty binary, where there's only masculine, feminine, or nothing at all (genderless). I think you have to look at gender at a much more personal level, because I don't see my gender as either/or and I def don't see it as nonexistent. There's a lot left to explore, which is why I think my generation's work will be exciting now that the space for conversations are opening up more and more.
By masculine, feminine, or nothing at all-- I mean like a man in womans clothing or a woman dressed in a suit...or those collections that's like "Drawing inspiration from menswear to make womenswear". I think we've had those kinds of conversations already (and kudos to the ones who worked to open that up!!) but now we should push forward and see what else there is
L: Do you find pop culture to be inspiring?
A: I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about pop culture until we were talking about stuff in my fashion studies class and people were like, do you follow this person on Instagram? I was like, what are you talking about? I don’t know anything. The stuff of pop culture that I love are films and television so I follow those things and watch new films all the time and I like to read.
The social media stuff, it’s something I just can’t handle because I don’t know how to use it, I’m like an old person, I don’t like to learn to use technology. I have an Instagram and I have a Snapchat but then I get bored in a week. Even when we went to Cambodia and I was taking so many photos of factories, I was like, aww I’ll post this on social media and it’ll be really cool, and then I didn’t know how to do it haha. I can’t follow that stuff but I think it’s important and I think people that understand it have a gift.
L: Why would you say it’s important though?
A: I guess I think it’s important because it’s a part of our culture and I don’t think you can ignore it if so many people care about it, there has to be something about it that can be talked about or critiqued or can be discussed and thought about. I don’t think I know enough to do that but if it’s about television, politics or movies and Sailor Moon, I can talk about that stuff.
L: Oh my god yes haha. It’s an element of youth too that comes with pop culture.
A: Yeah it’s important that it’s kids that may not have had anything to say, or known what to say, previously without social media and now there’s a world of this attitude of, I can say anything and learn everything. I didn’t know a lot of stuff until I got on Tumblr in high school and I would meet people on Tumblr that knew how to do all this stuff and I could just ask them things. Yeah I like the youthful part of it.
L: What’s the best part about being young?
A: I think it’s having the chance to learn so much more and you’re not jaded yet and have a set way of doing things. Even if you fuck up, you can still learn and it gets harder to admit you did something wrong the older you get. My biggest problem with my mom sometimes is that she’s so set in her ways and her reasoning is that she’s old and she has life experience but I’m always like, there’s more you could learn, but she’s like no, I’m already too old for that but it’s like there’s so much to learn. I think sometimes young people are really smart and wise but no one will listen to them.
L: Going back to Cambodia, can you just tell me everything about that haha.
A: This woman Ayesha, used to work for this consulting company and they would help big companies to be more sustainable or more responsible with the way they source stuff. One of the biggest issues in fashion right now is that things are being produced really cheaply made in developing countries and that’s why it’s cheap; but, there’s not enough protocol or responsibility taken to make sure that things are produced in an ethical way, wages are fair, there’s health benefits or even that the workers can get to work okay, there’s no accountability for that kind of stuff because the development has been so quick to make sure that everyone gets their clothes. So, Ayesha has a company called Re-Make, their website is remake.world, and I love them. She’s been doing these videos to get to know the makers in these factories. Have you seen the documentary, The True Cost?
L: No, I haven’t!
A: Yeah I’d recommend it, it’s a good background on the issues of the fashion industry and fast fashion which is like Forever 21, H&M, those cheap clothes that are made and there’s a lot of them — all the department stores as well who produce stuff in China and Cambodia. There are people from companies who may have not known anything about the supply chain or designers and she takes them on trips to meet the makers in the factories that they produce in. So they’re collaborating with Parsons and they took three students to go to Cambodia to interview makers and do a video and I was lucky enough to go. We started off at a really big factory that Target produces at and that one is heavily audited and regulated so Target people come and check up on it and people from a labor laws committee come and check up on it. It has thousands of workers and they make jeans, so target jeans, Jennifer Lopez jeans, Liz Claiborne jeans. It’s interesting because Liz Claiborne is considered more expensive than Target but they’re made in the same factory and under the same conditions, so that kind of says something about what the worth of those jeans actually are, and the workers get paid the same. So then we went to this NGO, they exist in a bunch of countries, in Cambodia they help makers learn their rights as laborers and kind of do collective bargaining if they want to talk to their factories and get better wages. We met up with a bunch of makers who don’t work in big factories that like offshoot factories that are on contracts. They work under a short term contract which means they sign a contract for three months then there’s no way they can extend the contract. Sometimes they don’t even get paid, there’s no way to regulate it because some of these factories, people don’t even know they exist, the brands don’t even know that that’s where the stuff is being made. We met them and they were learning how to collectively bargain, they have a union and they were really, really angry because they were not getting paid for their last contract, some had just been fired. We met makers who their factories had just shut down either because usually the factories have a management company and they’re based in China or Korea, that’s where they interact with the brands to source in other countries; so either the buyers had refused to pay the workers so they just shut down the factory or whatever, whatever, but these makers had just lost their jobs and were trying to sue the factories with a solidarity center and they gave us all the labels of all the brands that they had been making for. They honestly wanted everyone to know that these are the brands that are taking advantage of them and that was really emotional listening to them. We also met the US ambassador to Cambodia, piece of work. I don’t even know why he agreed to meet with us, maybe because he knew that we were shooting a documentary or whatever but he answered everything in a roundabout way. I went with these two other girls, Ally and Casey, Ally is in journalism and she tried to push him so hard for him to answer stuff and he just talked over and around everything.
L: That’s the worst.
A: Yeah so we were like, that’s sketchy. The way he was talking about the workers and how they were just a work force to him, it was not cool. That all happened in a week so that was a lot to process. But then also, I originally went into it being like, okay I’m gonna learn about factories and never shop in these factories again and I hope all these brands close and people don’t shop there. But then I was like, no, a lot of brands are actually trying really hard to make their factories better, like Target has a team for that and so does Gap and it’s like five people trying to improve working conditions, it’s going really slow but that’s way more than I thought was happening. You can’t just close factories because then people will lose their jobs and their income comes from people in the US buying clothes. I didn’t realize how big of a net it was, I’m buying jeans in the US and someone’s life depends on it in Cambodia, that’s crazy!
L: Did that change your mind at all about what kind of job you want to have?
A: Yeah I think we all kind of questioned like if new designers were even necessary. There’s so many designers in the world, do we even need more? Am I even doing anything that will — what’s the point kind of? Then going on the trip, a lot of the time, I’m like fashion is so artful and creative but then looking at this kind of stuff, it’s just like oh fashion is just like capitalism and consumption, nothing creative at all, and then you feel like, oh am I even doing anything that is helpful to anyone? Then I was like, clothing matters to a lot of people and I can always do clothing that could source as ethically, who could help the environment, could give someone a job and that would be really cool. It’d give me a job, that’d be awesome. Then there’s different pathways, if you are a designer, I think that’s why Ayesha wanted to partner with Parsons because if we can get more students aware of these issues then when they become designers in a big company, if that’s something where I could get a job at a big factory and slowly push for these kinds of changes — because in school, you don’t learn about where the clothes are made. You kind of just buy stuff in the garment district and you make it. You’re the one who's producing it; but if you’re in a company situation, there is a wide scheme of people doing stuff for you and you don’t even know anything about that. So now, getting students to know about it, caring and then say that, I’ll only want to work here if you do this this way. Say you’re a really talented student and they really want to hire you, and you push for this sustainability, it’s like oh, maybe they’ll listen. I’m hoping that that’s kind of the end message that students get. You may think that you being a designer may not matter but it does if you use your influence in certain ways. I guess.
L: Yeah what you were saying about the two different spectrums that seems to coexist in the fashion world, one being this capitalistic side, and one being an artistic side, how do you think we can better balance those two realities? You can’t do one without the other.
A: For thesis, I’m kind of always thinking someone is going to wear this at the end of the day which makes it more real — not that someone will buy it, but someone will wear it, this is designed for someone, someone will enjoy it, that’s when I think it’s worth it. The human aspect of connecting with someone else through what you’re making makes it easier to digest. My ideas will then take on a new life on someone else’s body and it’s something they’re choosing to put on. That’s a good thought at the end of the day. Always I think thinking of sourcing and where you’re getting your stuff made, how you’re making it. Obviously as a student, I’m not going to China to make stuff so right now I’m thinking that I’ll use recycled fabrics instead of buying fabrics at a place that I don’t know where they’re made. I’ll spend a little more money to know that no one is dying to make a fabric for me. Yeah I have to spend more of my money, but that’s a thing that I would always spend my money on.