Fashion designer Cindy Leewood grew up in traditional Khmer clothing in Cambodia, but often dreamed of moving to the US and dressing in a trendy, Western way. “I wanted to wear leggings, I wanted to wear T-shirts,” she recalls. Her father came to America as a refugee, and although he eventually returned to Cambodia, his goal was always to bring his children to America to complete their education.
When Leewood entered high school in Minnesota, she remembers the discomfort of being between two cultures. She found it difficult to fit into existing groups of friends and often felt disconnected from her peers.
“I could speak the language, but I didn’t behave to fit in,” Leewood says. “I grew up not showing skin, not wearing shorts, not wearing tops… It could be like 90 degrees outside and I would be wearing so many clothes.”
These days, Leewood has found company with other AAPI designers, like those who will be showing tonight at the Coalesce Collective MN, an organization focused on Asian American Pacific Islander designers. The group is hosting its second Swedish American Institute runway show tonight as part of MN Fashion Week’s Fall 2022 season. “You feel like you can be you,” Leewood says of Coalesce.
MN Fashion Week is now in its seventh year, MN Black Fashion Week is in its fifth, and the long-running Fresh Traditions fashion show, featuring Hmong designers, is celebrating 15th the 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 by white audiences — can be intimidating for AAPI designers who want to incorporate traditional elements into their collections, she appreciates that there are platforms like Coalesce. . “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 too traditional,” he says. “I think the best way to do that is to just keep the education simple 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 exquisite details of her stitching. Traditional Vietnamese clothing uses a lot of silk, which can be tricky to work with. “The construction is very important and I think I execute it properly,” she says.
Nguyen had previously shown her designs in independently produced runway shows in the Twin Cities, but left Minnesota for sunny Los Angeles in 2019 to gain experience producing clothing in a larger market. In 2022, she returned to Minnesota with a refined skill set and a desire to be more connected to 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 who have different visions, but in the same direction.”
Although Isabel Atkinson does not consider herself part of the AAPI or BIPOC community, she was thrilled to be asked to be a part of the show. The Minneapolis-based designer recently graduated from the U of M 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’s something about it wearing a piece of art that reflects who you are that really intrigues me,” they explain.
She hopes to inspire attendees as one of several designers featured this season with a physical disability. “Adaptive clothing, when it exists, is never cool or fun or a big part of the fashion scene,” she says. It was important that their first collection was disability-friendly. “The line I designed was for able-bodied people to enjoy as well; it doesn’t need to be exclusive.”
While there’s been a push in recent years for fashion and advertising to be more inclusive of different body sizes and different races, Atkinson says they’d be more than happy to see people of different abilities in everyday advertising. “As someone who only has one arm, I’ve probably seen someone like me in an ad twice in my life,” they say.
Feeling seen and free to be yourself 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’s possible to be a designer no matter what,” she says.
IF YOU GO:
Swedish American Institute
$55-$70; 6-9pm Monday, September 19th
Find tickets and more information here