Julie Cheng, an undergraduate senior at MICA, is a Fibers major and Experimental Fashion concentrator who creates collections of fashionable female garments. A reoccurring theme throughout her work is the idea of sustainability – that is, reusing materials and never letting anything go to waste. Her trove of materials includes pages from fashion magazines, paper, plastic bags, aluminum cans, and basically anything that is typically wasted in great quantities.

Currently, Cheng is working on her senior thesis. “It’s going to be about accumulation and being green. The garment industry creates so much fabric and fashion, and then when styles go out, it all ends up in the trash. It’s the most wasteful industry and I want to do something about that.”

For Cheng, the relevance of sustainability comes not only from modern American culture, but also from the traditions of her family. She was born in New York, “Flushing, Queens, to be exact,” she says, to parents who immigrated from Taiwan. “My mom is a native Taiwanese, and she grew up on a farm as a very poor countryside girl.” Says Cheng, “When I was growing up, my mom always saved things, especially clothing. She has about five closets of clothes now.”

The tendency to accumulate things is not unique to Cheng’s mother. A whole generation of Taiwanese born around the mid-20th century has endured a period of poverty as the country developed and industrialized. Many immigrated to Taiwan from mainland China, like Cheng’s father: “My dad went to Taiwan from San Dong, a Chinese province right next to Korea. His dad, my grandpa, was a pilot during WWII, so he was able to fly his family over to Taiwan when the Japanese invaded.” Poverty was also rampant in mainland China when the Chinese Communist Party was taking hold of the nation.

In a time when resources were scarce, a frugal lifestyle was not only a virtue in these countries, but a necessity. The Chinese saying, “Wu jin qi yong” summarizes this mentality: in English it roughly means, “anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible” or more simply, “waste not.

Today, a similar mentality exists in sustainability, the modern-day cousin of frugality. Sustainability also frowns upon waste, but for the purpose of being “green” instead of conserving resources for personal survival. That is, being “green” is not a necessity; it is a noble and increasingly common trend. In many foreign countries, specifically those who have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a legal commitment aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, great efforts are being made to be more earth-friendly. Literally every major foreign country has enforced restrictions on greenhouse gas, but in America, the only country that has no intention of participating in the Protocol, we haven’t gotten quite as far. “ All this waste bothers me because it’s a very American culture. After you’ve used something or don’t want it anymore, you just throw it away,” says Cheng. “Being green is so personal to me because it’s something I grew up with.”

Cheng also grew up with contemporary Asian culture. “I went to a lot of schools which were mixed. It was fun – when you’re young, you don’t really think about diversity. But when you get older…” She trails off, smiling ruefully. “I don’t know why, but now most of my friends are Asian. I grew up with a lot of Asian influences like anime and manga. A lot of my friends are Korean, so I’ve watched a lot of Korean drama.” Cheng’s love of modern Asian culture is evident in her work. Her garments are edgy, trendy, and evoke costumes sometimes seen in anime and manga: they are fantastical with their bright colors and sculptural quality not often seen in day-to-day clothes.

While interviewing Cheng, I had the opportunity to try on one of her dresses. It was made of glossy fashion magazine pages that were intricately folded like origami, another one of Cheng’s interests. The dress followed an A-line shape with its flared skirt and tight, corset-like bodice. For a dress made out of paper, it was surprisingly comfortable as well as flattering (at least, I think so – judge from the pictures yourself). The dress, Cheng told me, was from last year’s fashion show at MICA, and is one of the only surviving garments from that collection. True to her nature of not-wasting, she has already disassembled some of the other dresses in order to salvage materials for other projects.

I asked Cheng what collections she had planned for the future. “Right now I’m working on another collection, which will be J-rock style (Japanese rock).” She said, It can be worn day to day, and it’s made of reused materials. It’s happening in New York so I’ve been traveling back and forth over weekends. I’m super swamped with work. I was also thinking of doing some kind of project and collecting clothes that people don’t want anymore, and making them into something else that people would want to wear.”

Whatever this future collection will be, it will most likely carry Cheng’s influences of contemporary Asian culture, as well as deal with sustainability and aversion to waste. In this way, Cheng has bridged the perceived generation gap between American-born Asians and their immigrant parents: the two generations have been raised in very different times of poverty and prosperity, which has created a huge difference in lifestyles and values. Cheng’s work somehow consolidates the two as she weaves traditional and modern values into fashion-forward garments that leave neither waste nor carbon-footprint behind.

by Jennifer Tam