Meet Canada's Unapologetically Queer-Asian Designer | Charlotte Carbone

  • 7 min read

Charlotte Carbone (she/her) is a full-time designer. She has recently graduated from Ryerson University's School of Fashion in Toronto, Canada, and can't wait to shake up the world with her incredible take on fashion and gender myth-busting! Get to know her on Instagram!

When did you begin your fashion design journey?

I became interested in Fashion Design when my mom taught me to sew in Middle School. I experimented with scrap fabric, making the ugliest, impractical bags ever. Eventually, I practiced enough and tried sewing my own clothing designs. I was a stubborn kid, so took personal offense when my mom helped me too much because I swore I knew what I was doing. Of course, I didn't, but she was forever patient teaching me new sewing projects and guiding my wild no-rules sewing experiments. I decided in 8th grade I wanted to pursue fashion in university, and now here we are; I have a $40,000 paper saying I can sew.

Is there a relationship between your identity (queer/gender/ethnicity/otherwise) and the work you make?

Definitely! All my work is linked to my identity, whether consciously or subconsciously. My Asian identity was the first influence I recognized through art, as being raised by an all-white family in an all-white town made me painfully aware of it. I draw inspiration from my unique position between cultures, as I fuse Chinese and Canadian concepts together to express the inner conflict. My queer identity as bisexual wasn't influential until my late teens when I felt safe enough to explore it. I do a lot of illustration to explain how I feel about gender and romance, and also women are just so beautiful so of course I draw them daily. I was harassed for being Asian, and then harassed in for being an Asian lesbian, so my most authentic work is from University.

Was there a specific reason you wanted to pursue a career in fashion and illustration, especially one that largely focuses on the inclusion of trans and queer folk?

What pushed me to empower queer folk with fashion was my ex-boyfriend from University. In my first year, there was an assignment where we had to analyze a person's wardrobe. The purpose was to draw links between identity and how we dress. I chose my ex, who identifies as a trans guy and was going through a lot of changes. Researching gender and fashion through his experience changed my entire perspective of the industry. It made me a better sympathizer, hearing from a trans perspective how fashion can both affirm and invalidate identity. Everything I did in fashion from that point on I tailored to understanding and celebrating queerness.

You recently appeared in the Canadian Reality TV competition called “Stitched” where you won 1st place on your episode. Do you think your win will impact the LGBTQ+ youth who watched?

Unfortunately, none of my narration about being queer or destroying the gender binary with fashion was aired. I hope my quirkiness and honesty inspire youth in general and makes them feel proud of their uniqueness. It is so important for queer youth to see queer adults in media because it proves we will always be here and cannot be silenced. LGBTQ+ youth face disproportionate amounts of homelessness, bullying, and mental illness, so it is of utmost importance queer adults are visible.

How has your success as an Asian-Canadian Designer impacted you?

I wouldn't call myself successful yet. I've had successes, but I don't feel completely successful. I am always hungry to grow, to push my projects from concept to concrete, so I often forget to enjoy the accomplishment. Anyways, my success as an Asian woman has made me more in touch and proud of my culture. There were tough moments in university when professors would question my Asian-ness, which taught me to stand up for the right to my own culture. For example, I was asked why I signed work with my Chinese name as if it was a gimmick I used for attention. Um no, that is just my name, so cut it out with your language imperialism. My success as an Asian designer motivates me to fight and reclaim cultural space in the industry.

Do you think there is enough Asian representation when it comes to the fashion industry and the LGBTQ+ community?

Oh hell no! Asians are not nearly visible enough in either area. In fashion, Asian designers are stuck beneath a bamboo ceiling built by Orientalists. Fashion loves stealing from Asian creatives, street style, and heritage but hates giving credit where it's due. Cultural appropriation has been a buzzword lately. It has created an awareness but lacks action and accountability by both consumers and designers. Also, the Asians that are visible are over-relied on to represent the whole continent. In the LGBTQ+ community, Asian visibility is a complicated issue. I feel that Asians are not comfortable in queer spaces because of there being no other Asians, creating a loop of non-representation. The reluctance to gather with the community may be because of fear of bringing shame to the family if they found out, fear of being a fetish, or feeling that Asian issues don't matter because of the model minority myth. Like I said... complicated. I have to sort out a lot of my own feelings still, asI sometimes feel rejected by the queer community because I'm Asian and the Asian community because I am adopted. I don't even try to disclose my queerness in Asian environments, because of very negative reactions.

For your senior year of college, you created a pop-up shop called “pH7” which mainly focused on unisex clothing and models who are LGBTQ+. What was the inspiration for pH7?

My experiences and empathy motivated me to tackle the issue of gender inclusive fashion retailing. I really believe the experience of shopping while queer was the root problem, not the products being sold. The struggles of my friends made me question, "how can a store make everyone feel included and celebrated?". pH7 is not only for LGBTQ+ people though, as I didn't want to further alienate the community by labeling them a special case. pH7 is a safe space to create a dialogue about gender, and force people to confront their binary thoughts of menswear and womenswear. My models, photographer, makeup artist, research participants, and designers made it so successful, because of their sincerity.

Your sense of humor is impeccable. Is humor a way you express yourself? if so, does that sometimes translate into your vibrant clothing and makeup choices?

First of all, thank you for saying I have a good sense of humor. Humor is how I introduce myself to people. I crack an overly honest joke, and hopefully, the person can get to know me that much quicker. My goofiness and carefree nature can be seen in my artistry. I love experimenting and often do it just to defy norms. My mom has said I tested boundaries as a child to see what I could get away with, like when I cut off all my hair right before picture day. By not taking myself so seriously, through embracing the temporariness of life, it has made me a fearless designer. It's made the Charlotte of today.

What is inspiring to you right now -- other makers/artists/musicians/ideas/cultural trends?

Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, Wongfu Productions, and Drakbarry. Hayley and Kehlani are two musicians who happen to be QTPOC, who write songs that celebrate loving women (I have cried on the bus listening to "Sleepover"). Wongfu Productions is a group of Asian-American filmmakers who eloquently critique Asian issues through short film series. There are many Asian YouTubers advocating these issues too, but Wongfu has always spoken to nuances and in a tasteful way. Drakbarry is actually two of my past professors; married power couple Ben and Daniel Drakbarry. They call themselves "fashion activists", as they disrupt the gender binary and promote LGBTQ+ causes in teaching and research practices. I was their research assistant in my final year, helping them facilitate a workshop for LGBTQ+ high school students to explore their identities through fashion design. They are creating so many positive and well-informed changes for fashion. Definitely my number one role models.

Who are your fashion/beauty icons? Whose look inspires you?

Coco. She is a 7-year-old from Tokyo, whose parents own a vintage shop. I really admire her fearlessness to mix rare pieces, bright colours, and weird prints. I commend parents who encourage fashion play, as it is another way for a child to express how they feel, who they are, and whom they want to become. Fashion is such a powerful communicator. I wish I had been her as a kid, and think if I had a kid they'd dress with the same Coco attitude.

What was your first “makeup moment” and what do you wear today?

I actually didn't start using makeup regularly until university. I had a big aversion to makeup in high school because of internal misogyny as I thought, "I'm not like those other girls". When I finally got out of the toxic teenage years, I considered makeup as an expressive art rather than a cover-up. It was when I took my picture for my University ID card that I felt better with makeup for the right reasons. I felt like the best version of myself, with glittery shadow and purple lips. My daily look is graphic liner, messy bright eyeshadow, and contrasting lip.

What are your plans for the future of your fashion and illustration career?

I want to revisit pH7 when I have more resources and experience. I want to fully realize it as a functioning business, opening it permanently in Toronto. I also want to do my Master of Design, as I aspire to teach fashion culture and design courses at a University level. My dream school is Parson's in New York, but it is very expensive as an international student, so I likely will attend OCAD in Toronto.

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