How a Streetwear Brand Is Reclaiming Asian Symbolism

By Belinda Lanks

February 4, 2020

Graphic designer Kris Louie launched BACKMATTER as a way of combatting the appropriation of Asian motifs running rampant in fashion.

In 2018, Adidas unveiled its NMD Hu “Greater China Pack” collection of sneakers, a collaboration with the American hip-hop star Pharrell Williams. The set came in four colors, each corresponding to a different word — “Happy,” “Peace, “Passion,” and “Youth” — stitched in Chinese on the left shoe, and in English on the right. The hues were also intended to connote the four natural elements: gold for metal, blue for water, green for wood, and red for fire. When released, the designs drew internet ire from Chinese denizens for being out of synch with modern Chinese culture.

The “Greater China Pack” is just one example of orientalism — the imitation or depiction of Eastern culture through a Western lens — that seems to run rampant in streetwear today. And that pisses off Kris Louie.

Louie, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, is the child of Chinese parents who emigrated to the United States when they were young. Back when Louie was an undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design, they took an East Asian Fashion History class, where the irony of being taught East Asian histories through a white lens began to rub them the wrong way. At the same time, Louie says, “I’d see more and more and more people wearing Asian symbolism — from a simple tiger motif to Southeast Asian characters — on their clothes. But nobody knows what it means because the person applying the symbolism wouldn’t necessarily know what it means, either.” So they decided to wage a counter fashion trend through their own streetwear brand designed to be worn by Asian bodies. Called BACKMATTER, their company expressly combats the misuse of Asian elements while simultaneously provoking conversations over societal norms.

That was back in 2017, after Donald Trump took office, and Louie attended protests to channel their rage at government policies driven by racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. But vocalizing their objections wasn’t enough. The graphic designer felt they had to channel their aggression through their craft, creating something that would express their progressive point of view. So they stitched white Chinese characters translating into “strong woman” on a black baseball cap. The colloquial phrase has been used as a term of encouragement and confidence among some Chinese women but is often used by men as a derogatory label for a woman who is intimidatingly opinionated and career-driven.

Louie talked to people from mainland China as well as Chinese Americans to gauge whether the message would resonate. “Even wearing the cap around Chinatown here, I’d get older women be like, “Ha ha,” they say. “It becomes this inside-joke thing, which is really fascinating. I realized I had tapped into something very interesting.”

For their next hat design, Louie wanted to tackle “toxic masculinity” by introducing the Western slang term “soft boy” to Eastern mindsets. To do that, they spoke to fluent speakers to nail the right Chinese characters to convey the idea precisely. They debuted the hat at the end of 2017 at the Asian American Arts Alliance holiday fair in Manhattan, where they received further confirmation that they had struck a cultural chord. “I was sitting there,” Louie recalls, “and then some girl made a beeline across the room and was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you did this.’ She immediately understood it.”

Louie has followed up their hat designs with a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Decolonize” highlighted in red and a T-shirt featuring “Fuck white supremacy” in white Chinese characters running down one of its long sleeves. The designer, who is now a senior visual designer at the global experience agency Huge, is working with a Pan-Asian group of volunteers on concepts they could roll out in the future under the BACKMATTER brand.

While collaborating with other creatives, Louie says they evolved their perspective from being militant to being more optimistic and open to celebration.“When I first started,” Louie says, “I was just very angry. But I’ve come around now to a more gentle feeling.”

Asked whether they approved of non-Asians wearing their designs, they point to a line at the end of the BACKMATTER site specifying that the “initiative is for Asian bodies” and asks that wearers be aware of their desire to appropriate a narrative that isn’t their own. “All I ask for is consciousness,” Louie says, “because I’ve sat with this issue for so long.”

Belinda Lanks, Editor-in-chief at Razorfish. Formerly of Magenta, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, and WIRED.