How This 'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Is Promoting Asian Fashion Designers on the Red Carpet

Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images
Gemma Chan

"With newfound awareness, I do think there is some kind of responsibility," says Gemma Chan of her thoughtful wardrobe choices for the film's press tour.

With a five-day box-office opening of $34 million, Crazy Rich Asians (the first major motion picture in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast) is proving the power of the #representationmatters rallying cry. But will the desire of moviegoers for increased diversity onscreen translate to Hollywood’s red carpet?

Booth Moore wrote in this publication about the sartorial choices made at the film’s Aug. 7 premiere (Tom Ford, Reem Acra, Giorgio Armani, Ralph & Russo) and wondered whether an opportunity had been squandered when only director Jon Chu, and actors Jimmy O. Yang and Gemma Chan selected clothing by Asian designers.

There are a lot of variables that can influence what is worn on the red carpet; chief among them talent's access to designer clothing, usually through stylists. But assuming there were options from Asian designers available, the question is whether it is the responsibility of Asian actors to provide a platform for other Asians in ancillary industries? 

“It’s a tricky question; responsibility,” says Chan, whose character Astrid, is the fashion plate in the film. The London-based actress has made it a point to wear Asian designers at each stop of the movie’s press tour. “I think we are all becoming more aware that the greater platform you have the more responsibility you have, but it just isn’t about speaking about designers it is about speaking up when we see disparity or a problem," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Even then, I’ve worried, 'Who am I to speak for a whole community or people; I’m just one person or one voice.' But with newfound awareness, I do think there is some kind of responsibility.”

In New York, Chan wore a knit top and yellow skirt from Chinese-American designer Joseph Altuzarra. In Los Angeles, she wore Nepali-American designer Prabal Gurung’s mixed plaids, and for a guest appearance on The IMDB Show, she donned Adeam, by Japanese-American designer Hanako Maeda.

A sleeveless, cream high low dress with tiny bows by Huishan Zhang, the London-based Chinese designer made an appearance in Dallas. She Instagrammed herself in Kenzo, the label currently helmed by Chinese-American designer Humberto Leon and Korean American designer Carol Lim. In Philadelphia she wore a blue dress by Gurung, who has spoken out often about his experiences with race.

“Change comes through collective efforts — we have to work together to support and lift one another. And I think that's what we've seen happen with this film," says Gurung, who hosted an early screening of the film alongside other prominent Asian-American fashion designers in New York. "So many of us designers and editors came together to drive awareness for the film, and we have people like Gemma who have done the same for us designers."

With each outfit, Chan has posted to her Instagram mini bios about the designers, careful to tag Korea-born Canadian Laura Kim (and Fernando Garcia) on the Oscar de la Renta semi-sheer asymmetric top with black trousers she wore to the Philadelphia premiere. Chan knows that just as viewers delight in watching her character Astrid drop a million dollars on jewelry in the film, at least a certain percent of her (currently) 213,000 Instagram followers are looking to her for sartorial cues in real life, too.

There is certainly power in Chan’s online voice. But is there a risk that identifying the origins of Asian and Asian-American design talent might trap them to only be defined by their race?  

Years ago, I pitched an article around rising Chinese fashion designers to a well-known newspaper. I argued that China had indeed awakened, as Napoleon predicted, and based solely on the country’s vastly growing population, countless future designers would be Chinese. “This would come across as Chinese propaganda (sic),” I was told, the idea quickly nixed.

By then I had written dozens of articles featuring emerging (and established) talent, almost entirely of Caucasian descent and it occurred to me that in the eyes of my editors, Caucasian culture and fashion was seen as "universal," and Asian as "other."

Gurung echoes this experience. “I grew up in Nepal and attended an all-boys school. From very early on, I knew what it was like to face adversity, to be different, to be made fun of, and to not fit in. We do live in a world where anyone who is the slightest bit different from what is mainstream, normative and typically white male culture does have to work harder, fight more and persevere,” he says.

Support doesn't always come from peers, either. There are a number of prominent Asian fashion designers working in the U.S. and internationally, but they don't always find willing mannequins on the red carpet in Asian actors, they say.

In recent years, New York-based Malaysian designer Zang Toi, has dressed many stars, including Sharon Stone, Eva Longoria and Heather Graham, but practically none of them have been Asian. Two exceptions are Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, who stars in Crazy Rich Asians but wore a gown by Italian label Armani Prive to the L.A. premiere.

“Perhaps some Asian actors don't feel like they can wear Asian designers because there's an inferiority complex or they consider Western brands to be superior," says Toi.

Another designer of Asian descent who declined to be named has dressed Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba, and Natalie Portman, but steered away from dressing Asian celebrities and socialites for fear of being perceived as an Asian designer versus, simply, a designer.

Indeed, it's the global — ergo universal — appeal of Crazy Rich Asians that has audiences cheering. As one editor friend told me, “Halfway through the film, I completely forgot I was even looking at an Asian cast!”

To this end, should becoming everyday mean Asian actors get to wear, well, anything they want?

“When I was a little girl, I wondered if I would be seen as less British if I embraced my Chinese heritage. And when you don’t feel you have been established and you haven’t proved yourself, you worry about being pigeonholed," says Chan. "But now I feel proud to celebrate my heritage.... The more films we have, the more diversity we have, that’s less of an issue.”

She may get another opportunity to take a sartorial risk. Director Jon Chu has announced development on a sequel.

Syl Tang is a futurist and author of 'Disrobed,' a book about the role clothing plays in global events from climate change to terrorism. Instagram: @hipguide