Fashion designer Cindy Leewood grew up wearing traditional Khmer garments in Cambodia, but would often daydream about moving to the U.S. and dressing in a trendy, Westernized way. “I wanted to be wearing leggings, I wanted to be wearing crop tops,” she recalls. Her father came to America as a refugee, and though he eventually moved back to Cambodia, it was always his intent to bring his children to America to finish their education.
When Leewood entered high school in Minnesota, she remembers the distress of being between two cultures. She found it hard to break into existing friend groups, and often felt disconnected from her peers.
“I could speak the language, but I didn’t act quite right to fit in,” Leewood says. “I grew up not showing skin, not wearing shorts, not wearing tank tops … It could be like 90 degrees out and I’d be wearing so much clothing.”
These days, Leewood has found camaraderie with other AAPI designers, like the ones who’ll be showcased tonight at Coalesce Collective MN, an organization with a focus on Asian American Pacific Islander designers. The group is hosting its second runway show at the American Swedish Institute tonight as part of Fashion Week MN’s Fall 2022 season. “You feel like you can be you,” Leewood says of Coalesce.
Fashion Week MN is now in its seventh year, Black Fashion Week MN is in its fifth, and the long-running Fresh Traditions fashion show, featuring Hmong designers, is celebrating its 15th season this year. Meanwhile, Coalesce is just getting started.
Leewood says that while the possibility of ideas being misrepresented or taken out of context–not to mention concerns of cultural appropriation from white audiences–can be intimidating for AAPI designers who want to incorporate traditional elements into their collections, she appreciates that platforms like Coalesce exist. “It’s spreading knowledge and giving us a safe space,” she says.
Hmong-American designer Kennedy Lor of LOWKEN agrees. “You don’t always have to make it big or very traditional,” he says. “I feel the best way to do it is just keep it simple to educate and show people a cool touch of my heritage.”
Returning from last season, Mimi Nguyen of Melevated Designs incorporates her Vietnamese heritage into her work through the fine details of her stitching. Traditional Vietnamese apparel uses a lot of silk, which can be tricky to work with. “Construction is very important, and I think I execute it properly,” she says.
Nguyen had previously shown her designs at independently produced runway shows in the Twin Cities, but left Minnesota for sunny Los Angeles in 2019 to gain apparel production experience in a larger market. In 2022, she returned to Minnesota with a refined skill set and a desire to be more connected with the community.
“I thought I was the only one,” Nguyen jokes when asked about being an Asian-American designer in Minnesota. “It’s been fun to find other people like me that have different visions but in the same direction.”
Although Isabel Atkinson doesn’t consider herself part of the AAPI or BIPOC community, she was excited when she was asked to be part of the show. The Minneapolis-based designer recently graduated from the U of M’s apparel design program, and their designs have been featured in student produced Golden Magazine and Vogue Italia. “You can have art in your home that reflects who you are, but there is something about wearing a piece of art that reflects who you are that really intrigues me,” they explain.
She hopes to inspire attendees as one of a few designers featured this season with a physical disability. “Adaptable clothing, when it exists, is never cute or fun or a big part of the fashion scene,” she says. It was important that their first collection be disability adaptable. “The line I designed was for able bodied people to enjoy, too; it doesn’t need to be exclusive.”
While there has been a push in recent years for fashion and ads to be more inclusive of different body sizes and different races, Atkinson says they would be so happy to see differently able-bodied people in everyday ads. “As someone who has just one arm, I have maybe seen someone like me in an ad twice in my life,” they say.
Feeling seen and free to be themselves through fashion is an important aspect of tonight’s show. “Representation matters, and I hope someone sees me in this show and knows that it is possible to be a designer no matter what,” she says.
IF YOU GO:
American Swedish Institute
$55-$70; 6-9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19
Find tickets and more info here