Shanzhai Lyric, 09 July 2021
HOW CAN YOU GET MAD AT ME DON’T BE MAD AT ME AS I AM THAT CUTE 🐾 , 2021. Photo by @noodle_lee. Courtesy Shanzhai Lyric.

CFGNY. An acronym that opens itself up for interpretation: Cargo Foreign Garment New York ie Clothing Fucking Gay New York, ie Cute Freaks Gallivanting New York, ie whatever you want me to be, but always New York because that’s where we are. New York being the key factor of an identity known for shifting based on context, a geographic grounding from which to pull in other streets and sounds, real or imagined. CFGNY summons a world around itself out of materials, ideas and feelings culled from visions of other worlds.

As much a fashion label as it is an unfolding art installation, CFGNY can be read as a project of social sculpture plus cool clothes, and has been blurring boundaries since its inception: walking the line between runway show and gallery show, between public performance and community discussion (their first exhibition was accompanied by a closed session converging around the theme of the visibility of Asians in the space of the gallery or museum). What are we talking about? What is anyone talking about? What are all these people talking about? What should we all be talking about? And isn’t that what it’s all about? Getting people to talk about the things no one’s talking about? In this way, CFGNY is, more than anything, a way to have a conversation.

Started by the self-proclaimed ‘vaguely Asian’ Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew, respectively trained in painting and film respectively, and with roots in Vietnam and Burma via Boston, Massachusetts, and San José, California. Joined now by Kristen Kilponen and Ten Izu, CFGNY takes as its aesthetic inspiration the unsteady designation of what it is to be Asian American, a category that, as Karen Shimakawa writes, is ‘both produced through and in reaction to abjection within and by dominant US culture – a discursive formation that both describes a demographic category and calls that category into being’.

Alongside Asian Americanness, they investigate another concept that derives strategy from slipperiness: queerness. Both categories – coined by a dominant culture to contain and constrain those it marginalises – are reclaimed with curiosity and delight. In the project of CFGNY there is powerful, conceptual wordplay at work: identity labels become clothing labels, materials of cliché are material for shirts, census lines turn into fashion lines. Like those of the best counterfeiters, these alterations are also a mode of innovation and empowerment. Reappropriating the vestiges of Asian American tropes through celebratory hyperbole is a method of queering stereotypes.

Mining the inauthentic and reinventing it anew, CFGNY is a project of myth-making. The journey is one of rejecting tired images and returning to origins to seek authenticity, only to discover there is none. Revelling in this absence, CFGNY fills the void with delight for the cute and whimsical, as well as the seedy and makeshift. To be willfully, almost repulsively, cute is a means of aestheticising perceived powerlessness. But cuteness employed here is meant to slay. CFGNY wants to clothe a growing clan of slaysians. And this is as much about standing out as it is about fitting in, attracting the admiration of others for the very qualities they may have perceived as weak. Cuteness as a mode of deadly seduction.

Access to a true original has never been possible, but if the myth is made (and made well, with the assistance of the renowned tailors of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or its diaspora) then others will want to wear it, too. CFGNY is a fashion collection, but also a collection of other things: images, textures, desires, fantasies, smells and, most importantly, people in a space. Here we are, in this room, touching materials and being touched by materials. Suspended are dollar store slippers, unconcealed nylon stockings, Pikachu, a tarpaulin, a golden carp, elements of craft and other motifs upended as emblems of a distributed and displaced identity, vaguely Asian. And what does this mean exactly, ‘vaguely Asian?’ And isn’t it that it means nothing and also so many things, and figures out what it means in its own unmaking?

A fashion line that’s really an art practice that’s actually a social experiment that is revealed to be a dream-turned-reality and then persists as a fashion line. CFGNY make clothes to dress a scene and, in doing so, makes the scene seen. Costumes adorn a community that emerged to wear the strange and gorgeous garments. Here it is, the thing we didn’t have and wanted and made for ourselves and now we have it and now we keep making it.

All dressed up and, finally, somewhere to go. Well, there goes the neighbourhood! Where? Right here! Chinatown was always a fetishised ethnic enclave, endlessly performing its exotic appearance for the outside gaze of onlookers and sometimes for its inhabitants themselves. This is its sly hustle. On the surface it embraces a projected idea of the Orient in pagoda-esque structures designed to resemble a fabled China, while the real essence remains out of view, behind the exaggerated facades. The essence is not in the simulacrum, but in the complicated contradictions of community that it conceals.

The project of CFGNY is similarly multi-faceted. The fashion collections play with the colonial gaze through hypervisible displays of excess and fantasy, while facilitating the daily gathering of community behind closed doors. Embracing the work of artists and art spaces to acknowledge their role in the displacement of longtime residents, CFGNY remains committed to the conversation around gentrification in Chinatown. And yet, like many in this artistic community, the designers of CFGNY are not originally from Manhattan’s Chinatown, and so are celebrating a neighbourhood they are also responsible for changing. These tensions between dissonant authenticities are visible in the tug of fabrics.

The CFGNY customer adorns themself in soft armour. Mesh tanks and coverlets conjure the imagined stickiness of tropical homelands seeping through, reminiscent of ad hoc marketplaces and romanticised vernacular landscapes. This textured netting implies a network. Clothes function as a metaphor for the real aim of the project: to thoughtfully, lovingly construct a protective cover out of rejected or overlooked elements, one whose poignant precarity relies on the care of the wearer. In this way the CFGNY pieces themselves ask for tenderness, and provide patterns for a way of being together. Fashion functions as a hybrid language and we cloak ourselves in description, for what are clothes if not a way of telling the world who you are, by covering up in order to reveal?