New York Fashion Week: Immigrants, Diversity, and Creativity

As New York Fashion Week wrapped Thursday and London Fashion Week ramps up this weekend, industry commentators in the U.S. are taking stock of this season’s collections and shows. In the past several years there has been a focus on increased diversity in fashion—both in terms of the looks presented and sold, but also on who models them. However, beyond what we see on the runway and in store windows, the fashion world encompasses much more than the models wearing the clothes. The creative forces behind today’s most admired and talked about independent labels and grand fashion houses have long been a diverse mix of people, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Looking at this latest season’s shows, similar to PNAE’s report on the “New American” Fortune 500, we see that out of the nearly 100 shows presented by U.S.-based labels or global fashion houses, more than half were by designers or houses with head creative designers who are immigrants. If we include designers and creative leads who are the children of immigrants, this number increases further to nearly 60 percent.

This kind of diversity in fashion, unlike discussions on diversity in the visual representation of fashion and models, is less controversial. Some of the largest and most venerable fashion houses founded or based in the United States, were started by immigrants like Diane von Furstenberg or Oscar de la Renta, who hail from Belgium and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Alternatively, some of the most exciting labels that have gained prominence in the past 15 years, like rag & bone, Prabal Gurung, and Yigal Azrouël, are the creations of a series of immigrant designers, many of whom came to the United States and were drawn by the quality of American art and design schools and the creative energy of New York City.

Indeed, even at the highest levels of visibility, like state functions and galas, immigrant designers have dominated the sartorial choices of America’s First Ladies. While much has been made of First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to wear dresses and outfits by immigrant designers, like Jason Wu, Phillip Lim, Monique Lhuillier, Naeem Khan, and Tadashi Shoji, to high-profile functions, several former First Ladies also made similar choices when in the White House. The late Montreal-born Arnold Scaasi (an inversion of his family name, Isaacs) was famous for having dressed five First Ladies, from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush. Even Nancy Reagan’s provocative and lavish inaugural dress in 1981 was designed by James Galanos, the son of Greek immigrants who settled in southern New Jersey.

As the outward-facing aspects of fashion continue to evolve, becoming ever more global in both market size and influence, the behind-the-scenes, creative end of fashion will likely remain as diverse, bringing together the disparate backgrounds, experiences, and inspirations of people from all over the world. For U.S. cities that welcome the fashion world and clothing labels, most importantly New York and Los Angeles, the fact that the United States remains a destination for creative forces and designers is not only an artistic and creative boon—it is also a monetary one. Keeping and attracting creative industries helps support local manufacturing trades and industries in the United States. Many American labels today pride themselves on having their clothing made in America, where finished-product quality and workplace standards are higher, leading to a rebound in manufacturing jobs in many cities across the country. As such, while the glamour of fashion week may seem little more than extravagant spectacle, the creative energy fostered and sustained by U.S.-based designers, whether native or foreign-born, has real, positive implications for the U.S. economy, something that looks good on all Americans.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…