The Misfits

Two fashion labels unraveling Asian identity

CFGNY, Island III, 2019, archival photo print, brass hardware, custom acrylic frame, 21 x 16 x 2 1/2".

“REFASHIONING” at the Japan Society in New York brings together two emerging fashion labels—Tokyo’s Wataru Tominaga and downtown Manhattan’s CFGNY—as Asian American cultural politics arrive at a critical juncture. Spikes in reported violence against Asians have tapped into a wellspring of mounting anger, tensions that often become assuaged with commercial ventures like fashion, art, and lifestyle. It is a seductive, glittering dream: that “refashioning” one’s personal choices can bring about sweeping change comparable to total political reordering. This context leaves the designers here with a daunting question: What are the stakes of Asian and diasporic Asian cultural production within an industry that is inherently politically compromised?

The exhibition opens with a video by CFGNY that grapples with this very issue. The collective’s moniker is an abbreviation for “Concept Foreign Garments New York,” which comprises artists Daniel Chew, Tin Nguyen, Kirsten Kilponen, and Ten Izu. Each takes a turn narrating while a borescope camera pans over yellowed paper pulled from the Japan Society’s filing cabinets. The pompous language of its contents has aged poorly. Chew reads from a travel brochure reassuring Westerners wanting to “penetrate into the real interior” of Japan and China that there will be clean hotels comparable to those in Europe. The camera pans over the word “Oriental” and elegant high-society luncheon menus, eventually snaking through what turns out to be CFGNY’s own hollow sculptural forms on view in “Refashioning”: surprisingly corporeal, bumpy surfaces filled with pustule or villus-like protrusions. The result is a colonoscopic investigation of how the institution’s Japanese-ness is produced through the distorting lens of foreign diplomacy; its holdings evoke an idea of the country palatable to distinguished connoisseurs, socialites, politicians, and philanthropists (John D. Rockefeller served as president of the Society from 1952 to 1977). CFGNY’s video, critical as it may be of identity as an elite and nationalist investment, seems to abandon the desire for authenticity altogether. Rather than issue a corrective to pernicious misrepresentations or stereotypes, the artists instead work to dissolve any idea of a national, regional, or cultural essence. As scholar Takeo Rivera has written, “Asian American subjectivity becomes itself through its own undoing.” His insight corresponds to the collective’s own unstable ideas of being “vaguely Asian,” a phrase they have adopted to describe the ethos of the group.

CFGNY, New Fashion II, 2018, polyester, cotton, stuffed animals. Photo: David Brandon Geeting.

Nearby, a mannequin wears what in my opinion remains, ever since it debuted down a winding cardboard runway at 47 Canal in 2018, CFGNY’s strongest design. Titled New Fashion II, the sheer mesh number engorges near a midsection impregnated with stuffed animals in a bulbous, tumescent chamber loosely inspired by the aesthetic theories of Sianne Ngai and Comme des Garçons’ iconic 1997 “lumps and bumps” show. (A version was donned by artist Christine Sun Kim for the opening reception of the 2019 Whitney Biennial.) Whereas many designers attempt to revise the human body into a conformist ideal—old European fashion houses such as Christian Dior or Fendi, owned by the parent company LVMH, come to mind as brands that trot out the same gendered collections year after year, all cinched waistlines and elongated silhouettes—CFGNY sutures into place what already exists but feels unspeakable: psychic projections of the cute and grotesque on Asian flesh.

For “Refashioning,” CFGNY has outfitted a room where fragments from neighboring buildings in Midtown are reconstructed in cardboard. Delicately, even lovingly rendered in this humble material, the ornamental trappings of “the West”—Gothic cornices, neoclassical columns—become fragile and penetrable. This ephemeral architecture contains a dining hall with banquet tables and chairs that double as pedestals for a series of porcelain sculptures borne from pushing together various quotidian objects. In an embrace of the random, absurd, and humorous, one work is titled Consolidated in Relation, Blue (1 Basket, 1 Sports Bra, 2 Bottles, 2 Cups), 2022. Aside from delivering commentary on inbetweenness that might feel a little on the nose, these charming inosculations reflect CFGNY’s prioritization of interpersonal relationships. Daniel Chew described the collective as an effort to bring together like-minded Asian designers navigating a predominantly white industry that would otherwise have them “competing to be a [racial] token.”

Like the designers of CFGNY, Wataru Tominaga began his career in fine arts and saw fashion as just one way to expand his practice. But the Japan-born and -based artist came to engage with the concept of “Asia” differently and has experienced otherness in ways distinct from the racial dynamics of the United States, having studied in London and worked with European brands like Marimekko and John Galliano. During the panel, he questioned whether his work contends with identity at all. “I have never really felt, ‘I am Asian,’” he said. Given Tominaga’s perspective, the designers might at first feel mismatched, and yet Tominaga aligns with CFGNY’s project to sabotage monolithic ideas of Asia in the West. Here and elsewhere, the designers’ work avoids the East-meets-West clichés that often beset fashion exhibitions (as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Orientalist extravaganza “China: Through the Looking Glass”); CFGNY’s video work and installation expose the vectors of power that make this relationship fraught.

Wataru Tominaga, Untitled, 2022, Autumn/Winter 2020. Photo: Keiki Banja.

Further, Tominaga’s work rebels against the restrained minimalism that still dominates American perceptions of Japanese high culture. He indulges in the gaudy and tacky in ways that feel liberating or delinquent, layering—for example—stripes over plaid over argyle: a kaleidoscopic punch to the eyes. His designs often take inspiration from vintage pieces, using screen-printed and tie-dyed T-shirts to construct dresses that lend the wearer the effect of having collided with a clothing rack. They hang like specimens for scientific study, suspended within industrial metal frames designed by the Brooklyn-based duo Chen Chen & Kai Williams. Their ghostly forms are interspersed with rectangular textile fragments stretched with metal clips, as animal hides would be while being tanned into leather. These flattened fragments flaunt the painterliness of the artist’s textile experiments, their vibrant strands arranged into patterns or left loose like doodles before being pressed into place with heat.

Wataru Tominaga, Untitled, 2022, Spring/Summer 2023, jacket, shirt, trousers, cotton. Photo: © JFWO/INFAS.COM/Wataru Tominaga.

Both brands—if you can call them that—seek out imperfection against the antiseptic neoliberal aesthetics that make contemporary life seem so empty. Their work evokes the butcher’s apron, the unwieldy schoolchild, lovers in a photo booth, the street vendor’s cheap wares, and even the dapper dandy: a dissonant ensemble that does not conform easily into the upwardly mobile visual culture of the “racial bourgeoisie” that scholars like Mari Matsuda have warned Asian Americans were in danger of becoming.

“Do people of Asian ancestry in this country want to be Asian Americans?” The critic Andrea Long Chu recently posed this provocative question for a New York magazine issue themed “At Home in Asian America.” At a time when racial identity in the popular imagination is so often legible through injury and death, it is difficult to imagine answering this question with enthusiasm. However, CFGNY and Tominaga confront identity as a cloth to cut from and fashion anew, their garments providing a welcome exuberance and levity amid the self-serious faux austerity that has become trendy in response to our current moment.

Chu’s question is about belonging, but it is also about desire. Do people of Asian ancestry in this country want? Why is it that Asian American jouissance and libido, like the joy of looking in the mirror, seem like untouchable subjects, or even contradictory to a political project like making Asian America real? Scholar and writer Saidiya Hartman names “counterinvestment in the body as a site of pleasure and the articulation of needs and desire” as a critical component of Black liberation. Asians and Asian Americans endeavoring to overthrow racial capitalism, then, might also find bodily desire in crisis. Tominaga and CFGNY’s designs offer new skins, letting us see ourselves changed at a moment when change increasingly feels impossible. And yet what “Refashioning” pursues is not so much the thrill of feeling distinguished in a crowd: It invites us to face the much harder challenge of fully occupying the flesh that we are in.

“Refashioning: CFGNY and Wataru Tominaga” runs at the Japan Society in New York until February 19. 

Danielle Wu is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently communications and database manager at Asian American Arts Alliance (A4) and was previously a digital fellow at Democracy Now!