A regular fixture on global runway front rows, Susanna Lau (aka Susie Bubble) made her name as one of fashion’s most significant bloggers, and one of the Asian originals. Years after starting her Style Bubble blog in 2006 (with a stint at Dazed & Confused magazine), Lau moved predominantly to Instagram and remains a hugely popular digital commentator, known for both her writing voice and influencer work featuring her inimitable style: the dark topknot and heavy fringe, the eclectic dress sense that’s part girlish high-fashion, part youthful street.
“I’ve had a really peculiar and strange and amazing time in the industry, and I’ve loved a lot of it,” says Lau, snug in a hoodie inside an oversized jacket as we pick over lunch at a North London pub that happens to serve as a local for both of us. “I have an amazing audience that constantly feeds me things and new information.
“But I think at this point in time, you’re questioning what really matters in the fashion brands and designers that you’re talking about, what they stand for. It’s an important time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Look at what and who are fundamentally going to make a lasting impact.”
Usually we’d be talking about an event or show we’d just been to. Her 524,000 Instagram followers would be eyeing highlights of big Cruise shows, Fashion Week coverage (“I miss the camaraderie of fashion weeks”) or independent designers she’s picked out. She recently started a new business – Dot Dot, a bubble-tea and Hong Kong-style bubble waffle joint in East London. There’s also a long list of projects with the likes of Gucci, Prada, Coach, Net-A-Porter, Selfridges and Joyce, digitally disseminated to her followers and fans.
But unsurprisingly, many people in fashion are going through a philosophical phase at the moment, after the maelstrom of Covid-19, climate change and social upheaval has bought on a major reckoning for the industry. This year has been different for us all. Lau has long championed “fashion that matters”, but now it seems to be at its most critical, with things becoming social, political and beyond just fashion.
She’s shifted to using her platform as a vocal force to elevate other Asian voices, speaking against racial injustice and a powerful call to #StopAsianHate. The tipping point for Lau was the Atlanta shootings in the US, when a lone gunman left eight dead, six of whom were Asian women – a tragedy that came after months of increased violence against Asians in America, Black Lives Matter protests and a world seized up by the new pandemic.
“The Stop Asian Hate thing has almost been a gradual build up that cumulated in the violence in the US,” says Lau about using her voice to speak up on these matters. “A lot of white people didn’t think of it as a problem and that’s the truth of the matter.”
She’s also called out names in the fashion industry for prejudiced behaviour, taking on the likes of fashion-fixture French DJ Michel Gubert, who posted a Wuhan Girls video featuring slanty-eyed paper masks on his dinner guests. Diet Prada, Bryan Boy and others joined in, and eventually Gubert apologised. Lau admits her “hands were shaking” as she publicly typed her response against a powerful industry figure – but the point is that she’s declining to be silent any longer.
The past year in London has worn the fashionista out with lockdowns and aggressions that perhaps “feels a lot more flagrant these days”. But once she started speaking out Lau says, “All this stuff within me just started pouring out, this cathartic exercise as in, ‘Oh, that happened to me and I just suppressed it.’” A lot of (Asian) people wanted to minimise themselves in a bid to assimilate to not complain and to get ahead.”
As a response, she co-founded a grassroots group called the ESEA (East and South East Asia) Sisters aimed at women supporting and empowering each other. What started off as a casual Whatsapp support group has moved over to a Discord forum – now with over 500 members. Soon the group will launch a website serving as both social support and a creative forum for sharing, collaborations and “things that uplift our voices”.
Through the group, similarity of experiences (both professional and personal) and stereotypes reverberated, “and it does have an overriding effect on your self-worth. I can also speak to that too,” Lau adds. The point is to underscore that Asians and the Asian diaspora are hardly a monolith. With more awareness, especially driven by the younger digital generations, it’s hard to fault Lau saying, “It’s incumbent on everyone just to be more aware.”
Ironically, or perhaps not, this rises to the surface at the very time that Asian power grows in Hollywood and economic power shifts steadily east. The most recent Oscar win by director Chloe Zhao (the first Asian female, non-white woman and second-ever woman to ever win the Best Picture and Best Director categories), the popularity of the film Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s Bling Empire are commonly thrown out as examples of change. But while they undoubtedly increase media visibility, don’t the latter two similarly play to a trope?
“There’s a momentum there, but it’s a two-pronged thing,” says Lau of Bling Empire and Crazy Rich Asians. “Of course there’s positivity to it … and yes, obviously China fuels luxury and fashion, that’s the fact of the matter,” but there’s “a slightly negative trickle-down effect to anyone in the West who looks remotely Chinese or East Asian. We’re not a monolith. Within Asia there’s obviously a myriad of different ethnicities and nationalities – and especially in the diaspora in Europe and the States, there are many stories where we aren’t like that.”
Lau’s own parents came to London in the 1970s from Hong Kong, and she grew up in a Chinese takeaway in Camden Town. They struggled. She played in a cardboard lettuce box while her parents cooked. It’s a common immigrant story. My own mother worked as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, while my father washed dishes whilst completing his PhD.
“I am that kid at the back of a Chinese takeaway doing their homework, while their parents worked!” says Lau with a laugh. Sometimes this modern rich Asian stereotype can have detrimental effects “when you’re just seen as automatically privileged or rich; or that your value is just in your chequebook and spending power”, she explains. “Then it almost negates your other qualities. I’ve experienced that a lot, especially in fashion.”
“I am that kid at the back of a Chinese takeaway, doing their homework”Susie Bubble
And while the Asian market is all important for global fashion and luxury brands, we both wonder why they’ve mostly been so quiet during this recent spate of aggression towards Asians. But the tide is shifting, often via grassroots movements. Awareness is being raised and, as a professional who cut her teeth in writing and content creation before becoming an influencer, Lau is well-placed to empower other Asian voices as well as her own – both in and out of fashion.
“Mainly, I think I just want to write about things that are truly interesting to me and I’ve always been interesting in writing about where fashion is really going,” says Lau. Her dogged coverage of smaller designers, not based in the big fashion capitals, was because “you could already see that fashion was becoming more globalised and that was 15 years ago”.
Today with the rise of Shanghai Fashion Week, conspicuously the only one able to host big events and shows in the last 12 months, the cultural shift east is glaringly obvious. As the power dynamic between West and East evolves, Asian voices are finally becoming more powerful and empowered. Meanwhile brands are further grappling with a younger generation of consumers who are “hyper aware of situations that are political”, social and environmental.
“You can see that this shift away from Western-centrism has almost rattled the houses deep down,” says Lau. “Everybody needs to contend with lots of things in the industry. There’s a reckoning, and it’s very do or die.”
(Hero Image: Lau Outside Dot Dot, her new business in London’s East End)