Fashion designer Jocelyn Yang was a student at St. Kate’s when she received a class assignment to create a collection about the 1970s. The instructors, Yang recalled, said the look should be “hip, cool and fun.” The directions did not sit well with Yang.
The 1970s marked the persecution of her Hmong family in the “Secret War” in Laos, also known as the Laotian Civil War, when tens of thousands of Hmong people were displaced, killed, or disappeared. It was the precursor to her family’s refugee status in Minnesota, and far too personal for Yang. Her family did not spend the ‘70s enjoying the decade’s American advances toward progressivism, liberty, and sexual revolution.
Yang took the assignment as the opportunity to create a kind of alternate fashion collection, which she called Diaspora. Yang chose to design both for a man and a woman—a departure, as she usually creates clothing only for women. She imagined young lovers trapped in a refugee journey, as her parents were during that time. The all-white color scheme is a respectful gesture to the many spirits stripped away from the people who loved them, she said.
While Diaspora is more literal than some of her other work, Yang says she always aspires to tell a story, falling in line with Hmong storytelling tradition.
A year or so into her career, Yang has brought her vision to running a small business, Jocii Designs, which features jewelry and accessories creations. Currently, Yang’s webstore offers a small collection of earrings, including a pair of laser-cut acrylic designs, with a Hmong motif. Another pair includes an acrylic pattern that Yang related to “unity,” above a deep purple tassel.
Yang also plans to produce upcycled garments: generally, thrifted pieces that she’s re-cut, with added fabrics, embroidery, and other elements.
Yang also hopes to take custom made-to-measure orders in the future.
Photos courtesy Jocelyn Yang
Sewn symbols speak to a nomadic tradition
Because of the nomadic nature of the Hmong culture—and Hmong experiences with persecution, genocide, and dispossession—Hmong history is largely an oral tradition. But Hmong women had another way of preserving and passing down history, said Yang: sewing and the preservation of traditional dress.
“There are symbols in Hmong clothing,” Yang said. “Nobody knows precisely what they mean, but they are heavily used primarily in embroidery. Hearts, swirls—these have been used since imperial times.”
It’s important to note, Yang added, that individual dialects and traditions have evolved, based on where in the Hmong diaspora a family moved for sanctuary. For instance, Yang explained that she is Hmong White, from Laos, and she said she would not be able to understand the dialect of the Hmong Green community, from Thailand.
But she is interested in each Hmong population, and hopes to one day incorporate symbols from each into her designs.
Weaving Hmong history and tradition into modern fashion
Yang finds her aesthetic in exploring the friction between preserving history and pushing her creativity to honor the modern, American Hmong woman.
But in using traditional Hmong imagery, “I try to be very intentional,” she said. “I think about how it will be perceived, and how it will impact people.”
And yet, some painful truths about the American fashion industry also drive Yang. Yang recounts the day that she went prom dress shopping, for example. The rite of passage should have seen her giggling with joy. Instead, she said, the experience left many of her friends in tears.
“It was so frustrating to see how they struggled just because they had different body shapes,” Yang recalled. “My friends were crying about it. It was not OK.”
Too many Hmong and American fashion designers still offer limited options beyond a size 8, a cutoff that does not include the average American woman (who wears a “mid-size,” from 10 to 14). Yang feels passionate enough about the discriminatory practice that she decided to make her senior project, Utopia, a celebration of size inclusivity. She said she was the only designer in her graduating class at St. Kate’s to do so.
“This collection captures a utopia of a perfect world where women are able to thrive and flourish without the pressures of society,” her designer’s statement reads. “This collection embraces femininity, individuality, confidence and beauty. Utopia presents elegant garments for every body.”
Anupama Pasricha, a professor of fashion design and merchandising at St. Kate’s, said that Yang’s attention to Hmong cultural elements, plus her eye toward inclusive sizes, puts her in a unique space.
“She empowers the wearer. The fashion industry is so focused on standard sizes and underserves most of us. She demonstrates respect, strength, and compassion,” Pasricha said.
Pasricha added that size inclusivity is, at its essence, a social justice issue—a through-line in all of Jocelyn Yang’s work.
Honoring Hmong history through clothing
Kachia Lee is another Minnesota-based Hmong American fashion designer and a friend of Yang’s. She said that many designers can fall into a habit of designing clothes “for themselves,” or for people like them. Yang is different because she strives to make clothes for everybody.
“She really gets to know people,” said Lee. Yang then makes clothing pieces that honor that individual person’s beauty and personality. To that end, Lee wants consumers to know that it’s OK to wear Hmong fashions even if you’re not Hmong.
“We find an empowerment in it. We would love that we are reaching toward other people, outside of our community,” Lee said.
Like Yang, Lee was born in the U.S. When she used to attend Hmong New Year or other cultural events, she recalled, she would sometimes feel ashamed or embarrassed to wear traditional Hmong clothing. That changed, she said, when she learned her parents’ refugee stories, and realized how important it was to honor their history through her own art.
“It’s about standing up for Hmong culture. It’s more important than just what you, yourself might want,” Lee said.
While Hmong fashion design is a growing field, Yang emphasized that she also identifies as an American woman, and she is no less influenced by her nationality. That includes European histories and perspectives. Yang describes feeling absorbed by the past—she hopes to be a historian one day. In that light, she thinks about melding the Hmong experience with other global historical experiences.
“For instance, I think about the European Renaissance, and I wonder what a Hmong person would have worn during this time,” Yang said.
But currently, she’s most energized by contemporary motifs—from the year 2000 and beyond. She designs modern silhouettes with Hmong textiles, or vice-versa, using Hmong symbols like hearts and swirls alongside rhinestones.
“Clothing is wearable art,” Yang said. “And while some people might intentionally go and see art, you can reach so many more people with fashion.”