The economic opportunity the luxury fashion industry sees in Asia is undeniable. The economic opportunity American retailers see in symbols of Asia — often of the most stereotypical and sometimes offensive nature — is also undeniable. Forever 21's got an "oriental girl" necklace; American Apparel offered a "conical Asian hat"; Chanel's bags were, literally, Chinese takeout containers; and Anthropologie is now selling a $2,200 rickshaw (plus $300 for shipping), inspired by what employees saw on the streets of India. When I make it over to Asia I'll have to check the stores for "white girl" T-shirts, or better yet, "poor white girl" tees, because too often the Asian-inspired items stores sell are symbols of poverty.
But it's not necessarily a given to expect more from an industry in which sales are driven by glossy magazines that too often present Asia in a stereotypical and narrow-minded fashion, where it seems okay for the expensively dressed white girl to joyfully preen in a factory staffed by young girls that look anything but expensively attired. On the one hand, at least they acknowledge China's widespread poverty, even if they don't realize this or intend to. But flip the page and it's back to China's version of the 1 percent. Isn't it fun to sell fancy things to them?
Less noise exists about the way fashion treats Asia and Asians than some other hot topics in the business, such as models who are too thin, or perhaps even Fashion Week seating. Drawing attention to whitewashed runways, magazines, and ad campaigns is an ongoing uphill slog, as all those outlets remain misrepresentative of the real multicultural world we live in. Asian models are making gains but are still largely token. Asian-inspired items are making gains, too, but come off as little more than trinkets for ignorant consumers. Shoppers deserve better.