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Originally published August 26, 2012 at 5:32 AM | Page modified August 27, 2012 at 2:17 PM

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Wing Luke's 'Fashion' exhibit features designers' garments — and their stories

"Fashion: Workroom to Runway," on display at the Wing Luke through April 21, features nearly two dozen garments by Asian Pacific American designers, locally and nationally known

Seattle Times arts writer

Museum review

'Fashion: Workroom to Runway'

Through April 21, 2013, at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 719 S. King St., Seattle (206-623-5124 or www.wingluke.org).
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Beautiful both the dresses and the models. MORE

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The dresses on display at a new exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience stand quietly; one, with a filmy skirt, sways just a bit in a passer-by's breeze. But if they could talk, they'd say plenty.

"Fashion: Workroom to Runway," on display at the Wing Luke through April 21, features nearly two dozen garments by Asian Pacific American designers, locally and nationally known. Some are high-end and high-fashion, such as a timeless, serene-looking maroon silk gown by Monique Lhullier, who's dressed movie stars for the Academy Awards (remember Kristen Stewart suddenly looking elegant in a Lhullier navy confection?) and whose elaborate wedding gowns command high price tags.

Trina Turk, whose colorful collections are available at Nordstrom (and who once studied at the University of Washington), and Jason Wu, known for crafting gowns for Michelle Obama, are also represented; Vera Wang is present in the form of a chic, chatty-looking emerald-green cocktail dress.

And yet, standing nearby are clothes you just might have worn yourself. The name Gei Chan likely won't ring any bells; though a designer for many years, her name never appeared on a tag. But anyone who was a girl in the '70s remembers yearning for her dresses, created for Gunne Sax and Jessica McClintock: small-scale Little-House-on-the-Prairie-ish cotton prints, usually with long sleeves, empire or lace-up waists and the implied fragrance of lavender.

Two of her dresses stand side by side in the exhibit: one a homespun-looking cream-and-navy toile that looks like it needs a knight to stand next to; the other a more robust high-necked blend of prints in red, rust and navy.

It's hard to imagine today's teenagers dressing this modestly — but seeing the dresses in the corner, looking pretty and fresh and ready to go to the after-school dance, is like greeting an old friend. Chan, who now lives in Seattle, never became a household word, but she helped dress a generation.

Across the room, grouped together, are three made-in-the-Northwest gems. Seattle couture designer Luly Yang contributed a trio of gowns to the exhibit, one of which is her signature Monarch Dress — a butterfly fantasy, executed in an exquisite swirl of orange, red, cream and black, with elegantly drooping black feathers tucked into the bodice and crystals sparkling from the skirt. It looks like it just landed there for the occasion, tucked behind glass to keep it captive.

Nearby stands a chic acid-green column with a wild, unrestrained burst of swirls on a shoulder; beside it, a silver-gray gown (once worn to a D.C. state dinner by Mona Lee Locke) seems to whisper in its ear.

The exhibit isn't just garments on mannequins: We also see an elaborately detailed replica of the colorful workroom of Malia Peoples (a local designer who works under the label Lady Konnyaku), equipped with an old-school sewing machine and an even older-looking iron.

A wall features start-to-finish sketches and photos from sportswear designer Banchong Douangphrachanh, showing us a vest — rendered in an unexpectedly regal purple — from start to finish. A hallway of "fast fashion" reminds us of the downside of ultracheap throwaway clothing manufactured under questionable conditions overseas.

And, in a corner, there's a sampler of garments to model yourself, created by Douangphrachanh and Jen Gay of the local shop Cicada Bridal. Toss on a peacock-feather skirt or a whimsical cream-and-indigo butterfly print top — all cleverly designed to be tried on over clothing.

But the most moving part of the exhibit is its beginning — which, exhibit manager Michelle Kumata said, builds upon the 2001-02 Wing Luke exhibit "If Tired Hands Could Talk: Stories of Asian Garment Workers." We're reminded that the Port of Seattle was once a bustling hub of garment manufacturers until the 1980s, when nearly all moved overseas.

Local Asian-American women — many of whom learned to sew from their mothers and grandmothers — were the backbone of that industry. In a photo shown in the exhibit, a group of women from a 1925 sewing school (located just around the corner from the Wing Luke's present address) pose for a long-ago camera, many beautifully dressed in outfits quite possibly of their own making.

Though all are carefully not smiling, as befits the seriousness of the occasion (a graduation?), your eyes are drawn to a few: a woman in the front whose dress features a whimsical cascading bow on the shoulder, or one in the back in a frock with an elegant lace yoke. You imagine them dressing for the photo, and taking pleasure in the details of their clothing — all the more so if they created the outfit themselves. The dresses speak, even after so many years.

And the exhibit's most eloquent garment stands by itself, near a photo of its wearer: Yasuko Kawakami, who founded the Kawakami School of Costume Designing at her parents' Seattle home in the 1930s, long ago designed and sewed her own gown for her 1936 wedding to George Shigaki. (She later ran the school, renamed the Shigaki School of Costume Design, out of her own King Street home.)

The dress stands next to a wedding portrait of Yasuko and George, its once-creamy satin faded to pale yellow, lovingly detailed with elaborately ruched shoulders and a slender belt, frosted with a cobwebby veil dotted with delicate flowers. It was made to last — and it has.

Moira Macdonald:

206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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