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How Vivienne Tam Helped Me Get Over My ‘Asian-Inspired’ Fashion Hang-Ups

The late '90s/early 00s fashion is back—but writer Amanda Walujono learned to wear Asian motifs with pride before they were a trend again

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Words by Amanda Walujono

For most of my life, I thought high fashion was out of my reach: I wasn’t rich enough, skinny enough, and certainly wasn’t cool enough. Since I was young, I was always drawn to the traditional Asian motifs that trended in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s fashion, most notably in the works of Jean Paul Gaultier, the controversially Chinese-hating Dolce & Gabbana, and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girl phase. However, I was hesitant to fully embrace this aesthetic because I understood, even at age 13, that it was different for Asian American girls like me. Traditional Asian imagery has been so culturally appropriated that it bears more baggage than it’s worth to actual Asian Americans. As a friend once said, “If a white girl wears a qipao, everyone thinks she is cool. If I wear a qipao, everyone will think I’m a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.”

When I would decide on an outfit for the day, the goal was to cover up and apologize for the amount of space my body took up. Any garment that featured Asian imagery or was remotely form-fitting was out of the question. Instead, I settled for the kind of things I knew my mom would approve of: plain Bermuda shorts, Roxy t-shirts, and hoodies (after all, I was born and raised in Orange County when The O.C. and Laguna Beach were airing on television). I was desperately uncool and miserable, inside and out.

As a friend once said, “If a white girl wears a qipao, everyone thinks she is cool. If I wear a qipao, everyone will think I’m a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.”

Writer Amanda Walujono models Vivienne Tam’s tiger print motif from SS 1998 mesh top and runway matching skirt. Worn with Lace By Tanaya body chain. Styling by Amanda Walujono and Isa Spies.

Isa Spies

The moment I established my financial independence as an adult with a digital marketing day job, I began impulse purchasing basic fast fashion that was “flattering.” During the summer of 2019, my “hot girl summer,” as coined by Megan Thee Stallion, I would mindlessly buy fit-and-flare dresses in bulk because I thought that silhouette made my body look most attractive to men. It took the pandemic for me to do some deep soul searching on who I was beyond my body image, which turned into an embrace of high fashion, made possible by secondhand shopping.

Through lots of research, trial and error, and conscious unlearning, I began to see fashion as an art form. I learned that high fashion is an art form, and designers are craftspeople. Fashion is a medium of creativity, innovation, and personal expression rather than a tool to “accentuate your waist,” “make your calves look leaner,” and various other ways women are told to make their bodies look as small as possible. Instead of focusing on flattering, I started to get creative and express myself through sartorial art.

Through lots of research, trial and error, and conscious unlearning, I began to see fashion as an art form.

Thankfully, while luxury fashion at retail price is out of my budget, I found that secondhand, archival pieces (from a designer’s past body of work) were not. While it requires more research and effort, it’s possible to discover archive fashion pieces at similar or slightly higher prices than fast fashion brands such as Zara and Aritzia for infinitely better quality. There is nothing quite like holding a well-made luxury garment in your hand and noticing the little details that photographs often do not capture. For example, little embellishments might glimmer in the daylight, or complex stitches inside a garment help drape over the body. When fast-fashion retailers plagiarize designs and churn out second-rate copies, they fail to replicate the little details that made these garments so special in the first place.

Gabrielle Union (right) in “She’s All That,” in a Vivienne Tam top.

IMDB

Thanks to countless hours of pandemic-induced online shopping time, I amassed an archival Vivienne Tam collection, specifically her “China chic” mesh pieces from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the era of Y2K fashion. During this era, Tam’s pieces were seen on many influential celebrities, particularly black female celebrities such as Beyonce, Gabrielle Union in She’s All That, Brandy, and Jill Marie Jones in Girlfriends who set the trends during this era. Tam, who is Chinese American and grew up in Hong Kong, was known for her “China chic” style, which was a mix of traditional Chinese (and later Asian style in general with Indonesian “batik” and Indian “mandala” motifs, among various other pan-Asian imagery) and Western influences, on everything from coats to bags, but most notably mesh dresses, tops, and skirts.

A young Beyoncé (right) in a Vivienne Tam SS Kuan Yin top from 1997.

As the 20-year trend cycle has made its mark on today’s fashion, Tam’s pieces from this era have re-emerged into the spotlight, most notably in the Gen Z fashion fever-dream of a show that is Euphoria. Specifically, a spring/summer 1998 tiger piece made its way onto Barbie Ferreira, an outspoken plus-size actress and model.

Writer Amanda Walujono models Vivienne Tam’s Runway SS 1998 Opening Look mesh dress. Worn with Anna Sui SS 2009 Runway heels. Styling by Amanda Walujono and Isa Spies.

Isa Spies

As someone whose body is also curvy but mid-size (I’m on the higher end of straight sizing but not in the plus-size range), I’ve found that my options for vintage and designer clothing are minimal. Often, a dress can’t zip up over my bust, or the one pair of trousers that can accommodate my wide hips are too loose in the waist. As a result, I began gravitating towards mesh, a more forgiving and comfortable fabric than cotton, linen, or silk. Focusing my archive collection on mesh pieces also ensures I get to wear my collection every day. I love how these mesh pieces drape over my body and utilize it as a canvas. After all, the human body is magical home for our inner organs, brains, and spirits. So why is society constantly telling us to hide or shrink our bodies?

In addition to helping me be more confident in my body, Tam’s archive pieces have also helped me get over the hang-ups of wearing “Asian-inspired” clothing.  By wearing such intricate, high-quality Asian-inspired clothing from an Asian American designer, I’ve been able to reclaim wearing these Asian motifs with pride. I love my Vivienne Tam pieces and often fall asleep to firstview.com, an online resource for historical runway photos, pouring over her ‘90s and early ‘00s runway photos and dating vintage pieces myself (follow along on my fashion Instagram here). With that much love for my archive Tam collection, I do not care how others perceive me. Maybe the white girls will decide in a few years that Asian imagery is no longer in, just as they did after the early '00s, but I will still be here, cherishing Vivienne Tam’s sartorial masterpieces all the same. I look and feel like art, and I love it.

Writer Amanda Walujono models Vivienne Tam SS 2000 dragon motif print spandex top, worn with a vintage Anna Sui skirt, vintage Anna Sui denim bag and vintage Emilio Pucci heels. Styling by Amanda Walujono and Isa Spies.

Isa Spies

Published on October 6, 2022

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Words by Amanda Walujono

Amanda Walujono, an Irvine native currently based in Los Angeles, is an interdisciplinary writer with a digital media day job. She has written numerous anime-inspired scripts for the TV screen, and is currently working on her first literary novel.
Find her on Twitter at @misamandary and Instagram at @curvyazngurlfits.