Commission: The New Design Trio Exploring Their Asian Heritage

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Commission Spring/Summer 2019Photography by Huy Luong

Tired of kitschy dragon and phoenix motifs, New York-based Huy Luong, Dylan Cao, and Jin Kay are exploring how Asian representation looks today. Here, they open up about their vision

Despite the frequent conversations about diversity in fashion currently happening, it is often discussed through a narrow lens – namely, a black-focused one – ignoring the wider implications of what ‘diversity’ actually means. Asian models, designers and audiences are one group neglected from these conversations – an oversight New York-based design trio Huy Luong, Dylan Cao, and Jin Kay are seeking to remedy with new label Commission.

Begun last year with the aim to address the lack of Asian representation in Western fashion – last year’s blunder from Dolce & Gabbana around its cancelled Shanghai show illustrates quite how wrong this can go – Commission is also built around a want to highlight the rich diversity of Asian culture. Particularly, how it differs from country to country: Luong and Cao originally hail from Vietnam, Kay from Korea. “When we first met we were talking about how the Asian aesthetic in design is very limited,” Kay tells AnOther. “It’s usually represented as traditional, using dragon or phoenix motifs or can be kitschy, so we were thinking about personal rather than generic and traditional.”

After initially meeting at Parsons School of Design in New York, the three went out into the industry to hone their skills at the likes of Gucci, Michael Kors, and Narciso Rodriguez before later meeting and deciding it was time to go it alone. Eschewing stereotypical Asian tropes, the design trio looked to their mothers for inspiration – particularly their wardrobes in the 1980s and 90s when they were working women in Vietnam and Korea. “Those were prominent eras in our lives, with memories of our mothers going about their daily lives and how they dressed for work then,” Cao says. “They would usually be wearing some sort of floral blouse with 80s power shoulders, tucked into their pants.”

This reimagining of their mothers’ wardrobes features similarly 80s-tinged floral print blouses, modernised with elasticated backs to fit them closer to the body. In dress form, there is a translucent overlay, a nod to Chinese candy White Rabbit, and its edible wrapper often mistaken for plastic. Designed with the idea of a “modern working woman” in mind, pencil skirts and knee-grazing coats are updated with utilitarian accents, unlikely leopard prints, or accessorised with vintage-looking oversized earrings.

Elsewhere, a boxy brown blazer has a matching skirt, intentionally hitched up on one side to reveal a candy-striped slip underneath. More than just a neat styling trick, the devil is in the details; another nod to Asian culture that a Western eye might miss. “That’s taken from seeing our mothers riding their motorcycles and how their skirts would hike up on one side of their legs,” Luong explains. “All of the prints are custom, inspired by candy wrappers from Korea. The pink striped material is very popular in gift-wrapping paper during the holiday season.”

The attention to detail permeates the trio’s work – and not just in their designs. Like the clothes, the logo takes inspiration from labels on old Vietnamese packaging, with cursive lettering that looks more hand drawn than the bold computer typeface that is often used for contemporary fashion labels. Even the name itself nods to their design backgrounds prior to launching the brand. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of paying homage to the body of work that was commissioned by somebody else,” Cao explains. “Now, we owe it to our community and culture, so it’s time to commission and represent ourselves.”

That representation goes beyond the surface level of the designers simply being of Asian descent, the debut lookbook not only features just Asian models, but the entire team behind it was also from an Asian background. The decision to work with Asian-owned factories in New York reflects this too. “It’s important to be able to reach out to women who appreciate the story behind the brand,” Cao says. “We really want to push the representation of Asian culture and East Asian identities with what we’re doing.” While the idea of being ‘for them, by them’ is appropriate, the label is not simply for Asian audiences. “We don’t want to put our brand in a box,” Cao continues. “Anyone who appreciates style and craft can understand and resonate with the story too.”

Despite their heritage allowing them to accurately portray the nuance of Asian culture, the trio are acutely aware that they’re three men creating a narrative for Asian women around the world. “Often times there’s a miscommunication with men designing for women and what satisfies the fantasy of woman, but doesn’t actually resonate,” says Cao. “Besides talking to our mothers, we spoke to our girlfriends and looked at the way that women dress in New York. We wanted to figure out what’s practical and what a woman would actually wear to work.”

Looking to the future, the Commission team is already working on a second collection – a continuation of the first that will offer more staple pieces. Despite interest from buyers and press following their debut collection, the trio is taking things one step at a time; much like their peers, who are stepping away from the preppy aesthetic the city is known for and aiming to fill a Phoebe Philo-, Céline-shaped hole in fashion. “For us, one of the things we’re realising now is not to grow too fast,” Cao concludes. “Our close friends keep saying, ‘Why don’t you do a shoe?’ or ‘Why don’t you do a bag?’ We can expand into any category in the future, but for now, slowly and surely is definitely the best.”