Designer Prabal Gurung reveals story behind Gemma Chan’s Met Gala homage to Anna May Wong
Donning a look inspired by history, time stopped when Gemma Chan walked onto the red carpet of this year’s Met Gala.
Through her dress designed by acclaimed fashion designer Prabal Gurung, Chan, one of today’s most vocal advocates of Asian representation, paid homage to Anna May Wong — the Chinese American woman regarded as the first Asian American movie star.
“She’s so thoughtful about everything that she does,” said Gurung, who partnered with Chan to create her look.
Fresh from the Gala and New York Fashion Week, Gurung spoke with NextShark about one of the most powerful fashion statements on Monday night — and what it meant to him as an Asian American himself.
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Chan’s Met Gala ensemble consisted of a black sequin mini dress and a removable, soft jade silk faille overskirt with a dramatic front cascade and full train. For her hair, she had bangs and a pair of round braids similar to Wong’s look in her 1924 film “The Thief of Bagdad.”
The sequin dress came with dragon embroidery, which was traced from a textile for a handscroll from the Met Museum collection. The artifact dates back to the Kangxi period (1662-1722) of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Gurung took several weeks to complete the dress. The dress code for the 2021 Met Gala, “American Independence,” brings to memory his 10th anniversary/Spring 2020 collection, which saw models hit the runway with sashes that read, “Who gets to be American?”
In conceptualizing Chan’s homage, Gurung held onto the official theme of the exhibit of this year’s Met Gala, which was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” His process began with a reflection on “American identity” and the invisibility of minorities.
Gurung eventually got into discussions with Chan on American fashion and Hollywood’s part in it, and that’s when the “Eternals” star brought up the idea of honoring Wong.
“I loved the idea immediately and did massive research,” Gurung told NextShark. “Since then, we [he and Chan] had been in back-and-forth conversations on what we wanted to do. We wanted to be seen [as Asians] and we wanted to let people know that our existence is not a new thing.”
Born in Los Angeles on Jan. 3, 1905, Anna May Wong, who was Chinese American, was the first Asian American Hollywood star and the first Asian American to lead a TV show (“The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”).
Wong, whose birth name was Wong Liu Tsong — meaning “frosted yellow willows” — was born to be a star. She spent her childhood years around film sets asking directors for available roles. She chose her stage name “Anna May” at the age of 11. In 1922, she claimed her first lead role in “The Toll of the Sea” at the age of 17.
While she eventually found success, Wong’s early career was stunted by racial barriers that limited her roles to characters perpetuating Asian stereotypes. However, she began saying “no” over time, such as in the 1938 movie “Dangerous to Know,” in which she refused the director’s order to use Japanese mannerisms while she was playing a Chinese character.
Chan took to Instagram to share some of Wong’s photos that ultimately served as an inspiration board for her Met ensemble. Aside from being an actor, Wong was also known as a fashion icon.
In 1934, she was voted the “world’s best-dressed woman” by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York. Look, an Iowa-based magazine that focused on photographs and human interest stories, called her the “world’s most beautiful Chinese girl” four years later.
“A trailblazer, fashion icon and woman ahead of her time,” Chan wrote in her tribute post. “She paved the way for those who came after and continues to inspire.”
Gurung, who is Nepalese American, said that his work has always been about “identity, gender and visibility.” He hopes to utilize the “notoriety and voice” he has gained over the years to highlight these issues.
The Singapore-born designer recalled becoming a “huge fan” of Chan’s after seeing her in “Crazy Rich Asians.” The two eventually became friends, and their connection deepened over the values they share.
“What I really love about Gemma is that she has a clear sense of purpose and intention in the space that she occupies and the relationship that she has with the world,” Gurung said. “As a celebrity, she can be very much not vocal about things, but she is really vocal about issues that are important.”
Gurung described Chan as a “powerful force,” especially with the ongoing spike in anti-Asian violence. Chan has amplified Stop Asian Hate campaigns on social media and has joined street protests herself.
Gurung said Chan was the first person he reached out to because he needed someone who was “not just Asian, not just pretty” but could “embody every value that I believe in, intentions and everything.”
“My goal is to insert ourselves in spaces that may not recognize or allow us all the time,” he added. “And then to do it [work] with people and the community we all have built.”
The multi-awarded designer took more than a month to finish Chan’s dress, whose fabric came from Italy. The embroidery, which was sent to India, took three weeks to return, while he needed another week or two to work on the dress and put everything together.
Gurung said he had been hearing about Wong for some time, but it was in his own research that he realized just how “powerful” and “unapologetic” the Asian American trailblazer was.
“Her style, her glamour, it was incredible. It was so inspiring as a creative, as a fashion designer,” Gurung said. He also praised Wong’s resilience amid all the discrimination she had to face.
Chan’s Anna May Wong-inspired dress ended up a total head-turner at the Met Gala. Gurung himself was taken aback the first time he saw the actor wear it with her hair and makeup done.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god’… It felt like Anna May Wong was there,” he said. “I was looking at Gemma and I was like, ‘My god, what a beautiful way to pay homage to someone who [some] people possibly want to forget.”
“It was really moving,” he added.
Featured Image via Getty (left), Prabal Gurung (right)