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Kaisik Wong’s Radiant Skins

photo of Kwon
Jun 24 2020

Marci Kwon had not known about Kaisik Wong when she attended a showing of Steven F. Arnold’s film Luminous Procuress. Wong’s role designing costumes for the filmmaker prompted Kwon, an assistant professor of art and art history, to learn and write more about Wong, offering preliminary findings in a talk presented to the Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows titled “Kaisik Wong’s Radiant Skins.”

According to Kwon, Wong, who was born in San Francisco in 1950, primarily made his living designing couture pieces for the likes of Tina Turner, Danielle Steele and Eleanor Coppola. However, Wong used his textile craftsmanship to do more than adorn the bodies of the well-to-do. Citing a 1978 interview for New York Magazine, Kwon quotes Wong’s own words that his clothing served a purpose: “The idea is to get people together and get them in touch with the changing of the seasons. The clothes in the collection are merely functional versions of what we do in the theater.” With his functional textile theatrics, Wong also designed clothing for his family and his peers. This versatility would afford him a career that spanned continents and cultures. 

Kwon implies Wong’s personal history informed his choices as a fashion designer. The artist had attended the Pacific Fashion Institute for three years in his early teens. He also had a brother who served for two years in Vietnam, returning as a hippie. Kwon highlights how Wong embraced dancing, theater, and fashion, collecting eclectic and disparate pieces of fabric that he would then sew together into a unified garment. These garments disrupted gender binaries and brought together multiple ethnic influences. 

Wong’s creations reflected his utopian value that “clothes can change the self and the world.” In particular, Kwon states, Wong envisioned a world that queered gender binaries and melded culture together.

Handmade and often solo projects, Kwon states, “Kaisik’s designs resisted the demands of mass production,” exemplifying tenets of 1970s San Francisco counterculture in many ways. Kwon argues that while some might see “Wong’s use of ethnic textiles and motifs and new age rhetoric” as reflective of “the broader countercultural vogue for Eastern mysticism,” for the Chinese-American fashion designer, “these motifs were more than just vague references to otherness – they were his life.” Indeed, Wong’s creations reflected his utopian value that “clothes can change the self and the world.” In particular, Kwon states, Wong envisioned a world that queered gender binaries and melded culture together.

Kwon brings attention to Wong’s 1974 piece The Seven Rays and how the collection of six fashion pieces came into realization. After meeting Steven F. Arnold and Kaisik Wong, the artist Salvador Dalí invited them to help him open his dual theater and museum in Spain. While there, according to Kwon, Wong often dressed himself in the role of Monkey King, an important figure within Cantonese opera. These Cantonese influences also permeated The Seven Rays. For example, Wong incorporated a frontal flap into the red rays that mirrored those designed to signal armor in Cantonese opera costumes.  

The Seven Rays also relied on other ethnic influences. With the green rays, which Kwon states transformed the wearer into an ear of corn, Wong also used golden threads and a headdress to invoke the funerary adornments of Egyptian sarcophagi. Kwon states Wong’s green rays exemplify a transformation of signification, both polyphonic and multidirectional, made possible by bringing together various materials from across the world. 

Kwon concludes that Wong hoped to use fashion to communicate a future for the world that both preserves and unites difference. Wong's utopian--impossible--vision was to mend “a world riven by borders and boundaries” that also serves to “disrupt the colonialism” that multi-ethnic coalitions like the Third World Liberation Front challenged by creating a space for San Franciscans of color in the 20th century that emphasized ethnic and gender unity as an alternative to an increasingly whitewashed counterculture.

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