CFGNY on Using Fashion to Expand Asian Identity

By Daniel Chew, Ten Izu, and Shannon Lee
February 10, 2023

Depending on when and who you ask, the fashion label-cum-art collective CFGNY can stand for either “Concept Foreign Garments New York” or “Cute Fucking Gay New York.” These interchangable definitions both summarize the group perfectly in their own way, one in meaning and one spirit, and together are demonstrative of a deep-seated dedication to the pluralistic and plastic. Established in 2016 by artists Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew, and recently joined by Kirsten Kilponen and Ten Izu, CFGNY uses fashion as a method and medium by which to tease out and blur concrete definitions of identity, race, and sexuality.

They have exhibited their collections at institutions and galleries around the world, including Beijing’s X Museum, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, and 47 Canal, and have become a burgeoning cultural force, bringing together constellations of their “vaguely Asian” community and questioning how we define Asian-ness.

This past January, as part of their current exhibition at Japan Society, CFGNY presented their fourth runway show, titled “Fashion Max 2.” Moving to the grating rhythms of Okkyung Lee’s cello score, CFGNY’s cast of models were a dynamic embodiment of today’s Asian creative universe. Among them were artists like Korakrit Arunanondchai, Diane Severin Nguyễn, Paul Pfeiffer, and Josh Kline, the musician Miho Hatori, chef Chinchakriya Un, and cultural movers like Patia Borja, West Dakota, Blake Abbie, and Nick Anderson. The 35 models flowed through every corner of the museum’s at-capacity atrium wearing bulbous, plushy-stuffed mesh skirts; gleaming faux snakeskin jackets; jelly sandals; mesh; patches; vinyl.

Following their electrifying presentation, CFGNY’s Daniel Chew and Ten Izu sat down (virtually) with the Amp’s editor, Shannon Lee, to discuss the making of their show and what it means to be “vaguely Asian.”

Ten Izu: Should we introduce the other half of CFGNY, even though they aren’t here?
Daniel Chew: You can just change some of our quotes and attribute them to Tin (Nguyen) and Kirsten (Kilponen).
Shannon Lee: Laughs So can you tell me a bit about how CFGNY got started?

DC: Me and Tin first started working together in 2016. We were going to a lot of sample sales together and we would just nerd out about fashion. At the time, we didn’t name it, but it felt like there was this vaguely Asian thing of being at sample sales, being cheap, and getting designer clothes. In talking about that sensibility, Tin mentioned how growing up, his mom would travel to Vietnam and get clothes made for him. There’s a huge tailor industry there set up specifically for tourists and expats where they can make suits in a day; it happens in Hong Kong too.

At that time, we both wanted to spend more time in Asia so we decided to do a project together using clothing. We taught ourselves to sew; we weren’t great at it but that was kind of the point. For our first show, we made really terrible prototypes that were pretty unfinished and raw and gave them to the tailors to refine.

What was interesting about working with these tailors was that they are so used to making clothes for Westerners and they had a very specific idea of what Western taste was. Because they saw us as Westerners and because they had to make a lot of decisions on how to construct these clothes, we always got items back with different designs and shapes; a specific kind of collar or a flare in the sleeves.

When we would ask them about their decisions, they would just say, “this is what Westerners like.” This became the typical communication that existed between us which was a kind of beautiful mistranslation. Those sorts of details were always incorporated into the clothes.

From the beginning, it was always about modes of difference that happen in a diasporic experience. That sat beside this idea of going back to trace our “authentic heritage” or cultural legacy; this idea that I’m the authentic carrier of this tradition into America or something. Our project was always about this tension of being Asian but also not at the same time. It explored the different perceptions we had of the tailors and the ones they had of us and how that’s translated through the clothes.

TI: I think a lot of our project revolves around the act of looking. In that act of looking at someone else, you’re in relation to them; you’re understanding them in relation to your own understanding of yourself. At the same time, that same person is also looking at you. It’s this very specific, time-bound moment in which you can define yourself within your own context and that other person is also defining themselves within the context of the relationship.
“We use the concept of the vaguely Asian as a connecting bridge between all of us, encompassing all of the different experiences that being Asian can be.” -Daniel Chew
DC: At the time, in New York, conversations about race were not anywhere near where they are now. Me and Tin were dealing with the fact of being rare Asian faces in the pretty white-dominated social scene and industry of the art world. Being the only one creates a type of competitiveness with other people; we wanted to work through that together. Our solution was to collaborate. CFGNY was always a conversation; between Tin and I, and more recently with Ten and Kirsten, and all the people we work with. It’s pulling all of these different people into the same conversation and allowing it to evolve and transform.
SL: To your point about wanting to create in a way that broke out of the competitive traps of being tokenized, one of the most striking takeaways from your presentation was that there was a really rare kind of feeling of joy and community. It did an amazing job of breaking down preconceived notions we have about our own authenticity as Asian Americans; it created so much space and possibility.
DC: It really ties to this idea of the vaguely Asian that our whole project revolves around. That term came out of the concept of authenticity; we’re not trying to supply this authentic notion of what Asian-ness means when most of the people in the world are Asian. But the thing we do all understand is the way in which you’re racialized as Asian. Everyone knows what it means to live under the label, “Asian.”
TI: In a diasporic context.
DC: We use the concept of the vaguely Asian as a connecting bridge between all of us, encompassing all of the different experiences that being Asian can be. It’s kind of like how women artists would sometimes reject being called a “woman artist” because they felt it limited them. It’s this idea that identities are limiting. To me, being Asian has so much potential and is limitless. I’m not going to say being Asian is limiting to me. That’s where our project comes in. We’re actually seeing the non-limiting versions of what Asian can be.
TI: I think it’s understanding how media tends to be quite reductive in terms of how it talks about minority identities where it either has to be a tragedy or a massive victory. What we’re interested in is, as Daniel phrased it, just sitting beside that. We have an entire lexicon that we’re interested in building and an entire world of relationships. There’s a way that this galaxy has a reductive sensibility to it but we’re not interested in that.
DC: With these fashion presentations, our casting is a way for us to showcase what vaguely Asian is, and that exists not only between us four but also within a wider community. Vaguely Asian is relational. And so by bringing all these people together in relation to one another, we’re not defining what vaguely Asian is, but we’re showing the many instances of what it could be
TI: The casting does happen organically. The people we’re typically surrounded by and feel reflected in and expanded by and are in constant dialogue with are also artists whose work we respect.
DC: And at this point, with this presentation, people kind of know about us. But with the first show, we basically reached out to strangers. Instagram wasn’t really a thing yet. The first time we did this, we just hoped we could bring a whole bunch of people together and that good energy would come out of it. And that actually did happen!
TI: It’s been cool seeing how the discourse among Asian Americans in the arts has evolved so much over the years. In the mid-20-teens, it was like we were at the dog park and just going around sniffing each other’s butts. But it was during that time when many people were trying to articulate racialization in the art world for the first time. It’s been really meaningful to see how this has grown.
SL: Going back to your working relationship with the tailors in Vietnam, have you seen the ways they perceive the west and Western fashion sensibilities and trends evolve over the years?

DC: I think their perception of the west has changed a lot through their interactions with us. We’ve worked with some of these tailors for years now and they’ve kind of come to know the CFGNY style. For our RISD Museum we did in collaboration with Triple Canopy, we asked the tailors to design a CFGNY look based on having worked with us. It was a way for us to try to open up a conversation around a diaspora identity with them.

Their framework for thinking about these things is so different; they don’t think about racialization in that way because they’re not diasporic. It became this meta-critique of us, how in trying to bring our work to this other place, it highlighted just how American we are. Like, they wouldn’t describe themselves as Asian.

TI: In the west, vaguely Asian just means Chinese. I’ve never done a production trip to Vietnam but one funny thing I’ve noticed is that it often comes down to bodies. In working out samples and sizing, the tailors often will have very specific ideas about what an American body is shaped like. For example, we made this mermaid-style skirt out of patches that Dakota was wearing during the presentation but I think they envisioned this cartoonish idea that an American who wears a skirt has massive hips. But instead of the hip curves, they made these teacup-handle extrusions that were sticking out of the side of the dress. Laughs It looked like those drawings of a sexy lady’s body. So it’s nationality and affect but it’s also this idea of the foreign body.
SL: I was in Korea for the first time in ten years this past fall and I had so many moments where I realized I had no idea how Koreans perceive me. Like, can they automatically tell by the way I carry myself and dress that I’m from America? Am I passing as Korean? It was pretty disorienting.
TI: In Asia, people guess where you’re from based on how you dress more than anything.
“This phrase kept floating around: ‘possessed by e-commerce.’ We were interested in having some of the models enact that possession.” -Ten Izu
DC: I was in Turkey in 2021 and they have a huge Central Asian population. They’d always see me and I could see them trying to discern whether or not I was Central Asian. But there was this one guy in the tourist district that could tell immediately by my affect that I was American. He said I carried myself in a different way.
SL: I’ve been told the same thing! I carry myself like an American.
TI: I have a funny anecdote too! I’m half Japanese and half Chinese but no shin nikkei (someone who came from Japan to the US after World War II) would ever think of me as a Japanese person. But when I went to Taiwan with my friend, everyone assumed I was a Japanese tourist!
DC: Really?
TI: I don’t think I’ve ever been assumed to be Japanese by anyone. I don’t know if it was the way my hair was cut or something… it was very weird.
SL: Fashion has always been a kind of globalized canvas but I think what CFGNY is doing is so vital for today’s world because in terms of style, it feels like things are just colliding at a faster and faster rate. For example, when I was in Korea a decade ago, people could definitely identify me as an American because the styles were very different but now, Asia has such a massive influence on global fashion.
DC: And also Instagram style! The same thing is happening in Vietnam.
TI: My friend just got to China and has just been sending me screenshots of everything on Taobao. It’s all these ‘80s-looking graphic tees that also kind of look like concert tees but also have Jack Ma, the founder of Taobao, all over them. Everything is XXXL in that super streetwear style and it’s totally just the internet smashing things together.
DC: Because global capitalism has put so much garment infrastructure in Vietnam, what’s happening is that young people are actually using this same infrastructure for their own voice and their own labels. There are a ton of young labels coming out of Vietnam. That’s something we’re going to be exploring in the future.
SL: The same thing happened in Korea in the ‘80s and '90s. I think it’s part of why Seoul was able to become such a huge fashion capital.
TI: I think this more local fashion scene has existed for a while but it’s because of the way that Instagram and these platforms exist that people can communicate with one another and have an international audience.
SL: Totally. Going back to your presentation, can you talk a bit about what it was like to work with an institution as storied as the Japan Society?
DC: It was a dream! The team we worked with was so supportive of our vision and really allowed us to do what we wanted to do. Tiffany Lambert, was recently promoted to curator at Japan Society and has really been trying to change the vision of what the institution is. They’ve done amazing, well-researched, and beautiful shows of course, but their vision of Japan was very specific, and clinging to this narrow idea of nation-states that doesn’t really exist anymore.
TI: It’s a very 19th, 20th-century kind of place.

DC: Yes. In inviting us, Tiffany was really trying to open up what Japanese-ness could mean. How does a diasporic conversation about Asian-ness affect Japanese-ness in America? And how has Japan influenced America’s perceptions of being Asian due to its enormous cultural footprint in the ‘80s and '90s?

The Japan Society team has been so helpful in putting our exhibition together. The show itself was us going into the Japan Society’s archives and making work in relation to it; it being this American organization founded by American businessmen a long, long time ago…

TI: The team under Tiffany (Daqian Cao, Ayaka Iida, and Stefani Oh) went above and beyond what they were required to do to make sure our needs were met. They were so generous and helpful.
DC: And they all really understood CFGNY. When we first met them, we could tell they had really studied our work. We were able to engage with them at every level.
TI: It was really crazy to work with them because it seems like this very tight organization that works very hard to control its own narrative but to be able to work with that team within that space and open up what we understood about that space was really special.
“We were interested in using Japan Society as its own prop.” -Ten Izu
SL: I think that was also part of the feeling of joy that was so palpable. This was already such fertile ground, but the exhibition and presentation felt like it was breaking down these old structures and definitions in order to revitalize them and make them relevant to how we think about identity today. Speaking of breaking things down, could you talk about Okkyung Lee’s score for the runway?
DC: It was a compilation of a few songs we love of hers. We were also thinking about how Japan Society is so beautiful and proper and high-brow; we wanted something kind of unsettling to contrast it. I wouldn’t call her music ugly but it’s beautiful in a very dissonant way.
TI: The architecture at Japan Society was designed to impart this essentialized idea of Japanese-ness and you can really feel that in the space; all these right angles, the light is coming in just so, the water feature. It even has a noise element. We just wanted to work against that.
DC: Part of the sensibility of CFGNY is this kind of messiness and unruliness. The stools we used were those cheap laminated wood stools which were put in contrast to Japan Society’s amazing collection of Nakashimas. We liked the mix of those two together.
TI: It gave more texture.
DC: Okkyung’s music isn’t melodic. It’s all this dissonant noise. We were talking about how we might describe the feeling of alienation as an experience of dissonance; understanding yourself a certain way but being created another way. So her music was a really great musical metaphor for CFGNY and this idea that alienation can be this source of joy, solidarity, and connection.
TI: She’s a cellist and the way she uses the cello is as a whip and rope and voice that drags you along. We wanted this beautiful experience to be a little uncomfortable to sit through; we didn’t want to make you crawl out of your skin, but as a viewer you were being pulled along throughout the performance.
SL: That was very felt. To me, it also railed against the trope of Asian serenity.
TI: We’re always thinking about tropes of serenity, wholeness, and perfection. As Daniel said, we’re interested in the unruly and the spillage.
SL: CFGNY’s alternative acronym breakdown, “Cute Fucking Gay New York”, is definitely a testament to that. Can you also talk about Sigrid Lauren’s choreography?

TI: Our starting place was these speed Taobao modeling videos. Specifically, this one famous older woman doing all of these glitchy gestures that are also really studied, smooth, and controlled. This phrase kept floating around—"possessed by e-commerce.“ We were interested in having some of the models enact that possession.

We were also thinking about the way that we had produced this collection. Only Tin went to Vietnam over the summer and we were all on this insane text chain. Because of the time difference, Tin would go to the markets at 10am, take a million photos of fabrics, and then be like, "choose them!” and he would go to sleep. Then we would wake up, give feedback, then we would go to sleep. He was also using WhatsApp to keep track of and communicate with all of the tailors.

In that aspect, the internet was a very important part of our thinking about this collection.

DC: We also really wanted to use the space in a different way. Not all of the models came down the stairs; some came up the stairs, some did rounds, some came out of the elevator. We wanted it to feel a little bit chaotic and so the choreography needed to be surprising.
SL: To me, it echoed the organized chaos and density of a lot of Asian cities.
DC: Definitely. We wanted that.

TI: We were interested in using Japan Society as its own prop; it’s our source material for our whole exhibition. There’s this crossover of corporate symbols and intense cultural cultivation with objects like the [George] Nakashima benches… there are actually offices at Japan Society that are furnished solely with Nakashima furniture. We also saw folders and folders in the archives of interior decorating receipts and they’re so specific about all the details. But they let us build a whole bridge through their water feature!

But going back to Sigrid’s choreography, I was amazed at how she was able to get 35 models in order within such a short time period. She has a really amazing presence and ability to direct people, even if they’re not models or performers. She’s able to make people who don’t necessarily work with their bodies feel comfortable.

SL: Something I noticed was that because the collection is so ready-to-wear and rooted in a kind of amplified version of everyday aesthetics, it had a really great relationship with the audience. It didn’t feel stratified between spectator and model; it felt like we were all participants in the presentation, looking at each other and all embodying some version of vaguely Asian-ness.
DC: It echoes how we show the clothes in the exhibition as our primary interest in garments are the social and relational aspects of them. There, they are all draped over the chairs, as if a person who was inhabiting the space was wearing CFGNY. It’s nice to hear that it’s felt in the audience during the runway-performance because that is fundamentally why we’re interested in clothes, as a way to form some type of aesthetic community.
TI: It’s like what we were talking about before about being able to perceive someone in another country because of the way they dress.
SL: Like, what’s cheugy in Vietnam or Korea? So, I’m sure you’re probably tired of having to articulate this and we kind of spoke to it already but was there anything more you wanted to say about the idea of the vaguely Asian?
TI: Something that’s kind of nonsensical but is something that has always stuck with me is that one of the models a while back was describing a specific style of Filipino shirts. But as we were trying to pinpoint what they meant, we realized it wasn’t actually about a specific shirt. They meant like… someone walking-down-the-road-with-a-bucket kind of Asian. And we all knew what that meant! That was the whole conversation. To me, that’s so much more evocative than a specific item or idea of what vaguely Asian is. It’s “bucket Asian”.
SL: It’s a vibe.
DC: Laughs It actually is a vibe!
SL: Did the pandemic have a big impact on how you were thinking about CFGNY?
TI: Totally. I think, like everyone, we went through a bit of an existential crisis but it was also this strange, really generative time for us. We had to figure out what it meant to be in community, and what it means to be alive with other people whose futures you’re bound with. When all of the structures that held you in place in your life are vanishing around you, what new structures can you build for each other that make being in relation with each other sustainable and joyful in a time of deep sadness?
SL: Any takeaways from this presentation?
DC: So, Ten and KK (Kirsten Kilponen) joined CFGNY in 2020 right before the pandemic.
TI: We had many plans.
DC: Because the fashion presentations are the most fun and social things we do, it was really great to reanimate that part of the project. It was really nice to finally get to share that experience with Ten and KK. They’ve been on the other side of it as models but they never were on the organizing side… which is a lot more stressful. But! It’s also rewarding and so special at the end of the day.
TI: It’s funny because as a middle schooler, I wanted to be a fashion designer. Then, I thought that stuff was so dumb. And… now I’m here!
*“Refashioning: CFGNY and Wataru Tominaga” is on view at Japan Society through February 19th, 2023. *

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