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A Sai Ta: 'It was never really about a pretty dress'

CNN logo CNN 11/24/2020 Hena Sharma, CNN
Herieth Paul wearing a blue dress: Asai photographed at Arise Fashion Week, styled by Daniel Obasi © Ruth Ossai Asai photographed at Arise Fashion Week, styled by Daniel Obasi

British designer A Sai Ta creates vibrant garments inspired by both his heritage and upbringing around strong women.

Since founding his eponymous label Asai in 2017, Ta has become known for his tie-dyed prints, clever subversions of Asian iconography and a commitment to using his platform to help marginalized groups. He attributes the latter to growing up as a first-generation Londoner, as a child of Chinese and Vietnamese parents who immigrated from their countries and settled in one of the city's multicultural districts. "This idea of fighting for representation, fighting for justice," he said, "is not a momentary thing."

Though the cult brand is just a few years old, it's already gained significant ground in the fashion industry, with a London Fashion Week solo debut in 2019, and a top celebrity endorsement: Rihanna posted a video wearing the brand's figure-hugging Lagos Hot Wok Dress last year, which has generated over 25 million views on Instagram.

Ta's interest in fashion began early. Growing up working-class and being the second youngest of seven children, he often received hand-me-downs, customizing old T-shirts and sneakers with graffiti. He would frequent thrift shops with his siblings and visited factories where his mother worked as a seamstress. But while she was in the industry, it didn't feel like fashion. "It felt like a means to an end," he said.

Though initially conflicted about pursing a creative degree, Ta eventually enrolled into Central Saint Martins (CSM) to study fashion. As a student, the promising young designer landed an internship at Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's The Row and, following his master's, a position at Kanye West's Yeezy.

But while he gained experience working for the top brands, his aesthetic evolved quite differently from the precise tailoring of The Row and sports-leisure style of Yeezy.

Instead, Ta has been consistently informed by his "experimentations" and creates garments that embrace the idea of "being seen and creating visibility."

For Ta, it "was never really about a pretty dress." Rather, Asai is the product of channeling his energy creatively to deal with past experiences and struggles, he said. "You can see the difference when someone has a burning need to express trauma and pain and really use their work to materialize something outside of themselves."

Strength through style

The idea of strength runs through his bold, technicolor pieces. He has incorporated symbols of power -- such as dragon motifs and military-style silhouettes into his designs -- to represent the resilience of his mother and sisters, who he is very protective of. Wearing his garments should provide a sense of security, he said. Seeing someone in Asai is meant to "sort of intimidate you," he added.

That was certainly the case with Rihanna. Recalling his reaction to the star's Instagram post, Ta said he "ran up and down the stairs" in excitement. "It wasn't even the dress, it was the whole video of her just walking out like that -- it felt like confidence and it's that kind of attitude of her just fully embracing herself, really understanding her power."

He also draws from his heritage, incorporating Ming Dynasty prints, chinoiserie patterns and nunchucks for example, in his handbags. Such designs demonstrate Ta's ability to play on as well as subvert the stereotypes he faced growing up.

a person posing for the camera: A Sai Ta outside his London-based studio © Jamie Stoker A Sai Ta outside his London-based studio

As a minority, Ta continues to be hyper-aware of how far the industry needs to go, in order to truly embody diversity and representation at all levels. Utilizing his platform to help others is core to the brand's ethos, which also doubles as an acronym -- Actively Standing Against Injustice.

That is exemplified by the piece that Rihanna made famous. It was originally part of a collection that showed at Lagos' Arise Fashion Week, but up until recently, was only owned by the designer and the star, despite the obvious sales Ta would have made had he put it into production straight after her post went viral.

"There was always something holding me back about profiting or selling that collection, especially when I didn't pay for the models and I had been flown out there (to Arise Fashion Week)," Ta said. Having been invited to Arise to showcase his work, Ta said he did not want the collection to become about commerce. "I decided not to sell anything."

The brand only starting producing the piece after the killing of George Floyd in May and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, with 100% of the profits made donated to charities including The Voices of Domestic Workers, Black Minds Matter UK, and Solace Women's Aid.

Asai will continue to take a stand, being inclusive and statement-making Ta said, well into the future. "I do see fashion as having the power to create change. Fashion has always been political. Our bodies are political. Our skin is political. And if I, as a designer, am going to dress the body, I need to take that into account."

Asai's Seaweed Hot Wok top

Asai's Seaweed Hot Wok top
© Zhang JiaCheng
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