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Inside Alexander Wang’s controversial return to the runway

Samantha Tse

It almost felt like a pre-pandemic fashion event. The cool kids gathered inside Los Angeles’ Chinatown Central Plaza, without masks, on Tuesday to check out Fortune City, an event and runway show pegged as a celebration of Asian American food, culture and music, hosted by Alexander Wang. The designer was making his return to the runway after an almost three-year-long pause of catwalk events.

To be honest, I was a bit weary of even attending. I wondered why Wang would stage a show now, just one and a half years after sexual misconduct allegations against him emerged. CNN reached out to Wang for an interview prior to the event, but he declined.

But I was curious to see whether or not the designer, once a key player in fashion, could bounce back after the scandal and how he might move his brand forward in a culture demanding more transparency and awareness. I also wanted to see how Wang — who has spoken extensively about his Asian American heritage — would express the show’s idea of “celebration.” The promotional clip released ahead of the event, an animated clip complete with a fortune cookie, red lanterns, a Chinese gateway structure and dragon, had already made me wince. Would this actually be a celebration of culture and heritage or would it rely on tropes that reinforce stereotypes that Asian Americans have been subjected to for decades?

A designer’s rise and fall

There was a time when Alexander Wang was fashion royalty. His model-off-duty aesthetic exuded an effortless glamour, reflective of the club kids in downtown New York that were part of Wang’s coterie — the so-called Wang Gang — and included actress Zoe Kravitz, models Bella Hadid, Dree Hemingway and Erin Wasson, and interior designer Ryan Korban. Wang’s reimagining of streetwear-inspired designs through a luxury lens — slouchy knits, elongated tanks, destroyed denim and loads of leather — penetrated the fashion zeitgeist and along the way, he threw some of the most memorable afterparties during New York Fashion Week. He transformed a gas station into a venue with Courtney Love performing, threw debaucherous events like one that included pole dancers and Hooters girls carrying late-night bites, and in 2017 he hosted #WangFest, an amalgamation of his runway show, a music festival and an afterparty in Brooklyn.

But in December 2020, Wang’s career seemed to come to a halt when he was accused of multiple accounts of sexual misconduct that emerged on social media. British model Owen Mooney claimed on TikTok that he was groped by the designer in a New York City club in 2017 — the TikTok video subsequently went viral and spurred other people to come forward with their stories. At first, the designer vehemently denied the allegations that first surfaced on social media but in March 2021, after meeting his accusers and their lawyer Lisa Bloom, Wang issued an apology on his Instagram saying, he had listened to their accounts and “regretted acting in a way that caused them pain.

“While we disagree on some of the details of these personal interactions, I will set a better example and use my visibility and influence to encourage others to recognize harmful behaviors. Life is about learning and growth, and now that I know better, I will do better,” the post stated. Bloom meanwhile tweeted that her clients “had the opportunity to speak their truth to him and expressed their pain and hurt,” adding that Wang’s apology was acknowledged and “we are moving forward.” No further comment or details were released from either side.

While Wang has kept a low profile since the allegations, he has been slowly hinting at a plot to return. The Taiwanese American designer unveiled a new campaign starring Lucy Liu back in December and Rihanna wore a custom design from Wang in March during a night out in Santa Monica.

But when plans for the Fortune City event were announced at the end of last month, backlash began spreading across social media immediately. Fashionista’s editor Tyler McCall questioned on Twitter whether Wang could bounce back from the allegations and whether his design aesthetics would fit in today’s landscape. Those tweets were re-posted on Instagram by the unofficial industry watchdog Diet Prada, which then opened a discussion around the allegations, Wang’s choice of venue and whether he even deserved to show again.

Celebrating Asian American culture

Before the runway show kicked off, Wang opened a night market to the general public who applied for tickets, featuring 10 local eateries serving complimentary food. I was impressed that the food offering was a broad survey from different regions of China. And, it was delicious. Bubble tea and fresh coconut water replaced the alcohol that fueled previous Wang events, and duck baos and scallion pancakes were particularly popular. But, food aside, there didn’t seem to be much celebration of Asian American culture.

Set against the backdrop of Chinatown — with elements like the district’s red lanterns and arched kiosks — the event felt like it played on, rather than challenged, Western tropes of what “Asianness” is. Wang could have pushed the concept further and explored what it means to be Asian in America today, at a time when anti-Asian sentiments are at an all-time high. It was a missed opportunity to showcase a modern iteration of Asian American culture, which was disappointing as Wang’s events have always been visually very strong.

The runway started shortly after 9pm and latecomers were turned away. The stage was a raised platform with a pair of Chinese guard lions perched upstage. Traditionally, these lions were placed at doors to protect a building from harmful spirits or influences. They are often seen at Chinese banquet halls, which was the inspiration for the set. Red lights flooded the stage and celebrity supporters included Kimora Lee Simons, rapper Bia, Chloe Cherry of Euphoria, international DJ Peggy Gou, K-Pop artist CL, Erika Girardi and Lisa Rinna of Housewives fame and TikToker Noah Beck. Interestingly, Wang’s campaign star Lucy Liu and Rihanna were missing, as were Bella Hadid, Zoe Kravitz and Kendall Jenner — all once a part of Wang’s inner circle.

There was a lot riding on this collection. It would be Wang’s attempt at navigating his way into a new fashion landscape with more awareness and inclusivity. To the brand’s credit, the show’s casting sent a diverse set of models down the runway. And former Victoria’s Secret models Alessandra Ambrósio and a pregnant Adriana Lima, as well as Korean-American supermodel Soo Joo Park and American model Amelia Gray Hamlin added to the star power on the runway. But it was the handful of models of Asian descent wearing white jersey dresses who walked the final section that caught my eye. It’s so seldom that one, let alone a group of Asian models, gets to close a major show. It was a powerful statement.

Hairstylist Charlie Le Mindu slicked hair back or left it in its natural texture, while makeup artist Diane Kendal painted dark lacquered lips to give models that distinct downtown edge.

While the wider event celebrated Asian American culture, the collection did not and drew its inspiration instead from the brand codes, which were reworked for the 2022 Wang woman.

The designer’s aesthetics have always had an irreverent sexiness but with the allegations still on people’s minds, it seemed quite bold to send out models baring so much skin. It featured a lot of denim and leather, from oversized gilets worn low on the hips and paired with micro bra-tops. Boots were crotch-high, shorts were tiny and suiting was deconstructed. Knitwear was shrunken into crop tops and shrugs while leggings were rouched and layered.

Wang knows his audience love a good bag — who can forget the ubiquity of the Rockie studded duffle circa 2010? This season, he played with the scale of his bags, elongating some, while pushing others into very slouchy clutches that were almost comical. It felt like Wang had tweaked his approach and elevated the nonchalant minimalism with more tactile fabrics and modernized it. His models don’t just roll from the clubs to go-sees anymore; they’ve matured into multi-hyphenate women with their own brands who go from the runway to meetings.

The show ended with the customary running bow that Wang is known for, minus the cartwheels, and a cannon of confetti that spinkled the stage and the guests in red — the color of good luck and prosperity in the Chinese culture.

Overall, the event felt subdued compared to his notoriously raucous New York shindigs. Fortune City may have marked Wang’s return to the runway, and it was a strong collection with many covetable pieces.

But the verdict is still out as to whether Wang’s career can truly recover. His front row was missing the usual high profile squad, but local celebrities seemed happy to come out and support him. And, despite the strong backlash against the designer and the event on social media, there were no in-person protests opposing the show, only eager guests waiting in anticipation for the latest Wang spectacle.

This article has been updated to reflect that some decorative elements were already a feature of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

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