When I speak with Jin Kay, Dylan Cao, and Huy Luong—the trio behind the New York-based label Commission—about Mother’s Day fashion, I tell them that moments before getting on the phone, I’d received a care package in the mail from my mom.
The box contained, among other things, a container of antibacterial wipes and a box of brownie mix, and Cao immediately understood. “Care packages from moms are always emotional, too emotional for me,” he said. “Like, I don’t even want to throw out the boxes.”
In many ways, Commission is a love letter—the only other preferable kind of snail mail—to moms. For the three designers, the label is an ode to how their mothers dressed back in the day, inspired by memories of growing up in Asia—Cao and Luong in Vietnam, Kay in South Korea—in the ’80s and ’90s. For each collection, they pool their collective memories into sleek collections, in loving homage to big-time prints, silk blouses, tailored suit sets, and lots and lots of pleats.
Saigon, 1991. Beijing, 1999. Oakland, 1997.
In the last few months, they’ve especially been trying to stay in touch with their moms, in part by keeping busy with a new project: Commission 1986, an Instagram photo archive featuring really good mom ’fits of the era, submitted by friends and people they’ve never met.
“Ever since we started Commission,” Cao tells me, “friends who know about our story and the sources of our inspiration would send us texts with images of their mothers back in the ’80s and ’90s. People would go back to their home in their hometown and go through old photographs for some other reason, and stumble across a few photos that they think, ‘Okay, these are really Commission,’ and sent them to us.”
Beijing, 1984. Seoul, 1987. New York, 1976.
“Suddenly we’re sitting here sorting out really personal photos from people that we’ve never met,” he said. During a pandemic that has been notably marked by anti-Asian racism, the emotionality of the project began to take hold: “A lot of these moms were immigrants and they managed to build a life and have children and survive in different parts of the world. It almost feels like they [granted] us the access to their history and their life, in a way.”
As Kay wonders, if Instagram had been around in the ’80s and ’90s, “would all of these moms be friends?”
In a time when we’re all trying to keep up with those near and far during quarantine, Below, Kay, Cao, and Luong share a few ideas of how to cope with missing loved ones—especially our moms—this year.
“I know my mom, she spends a lot of time in the kitchen,” Cao said. “Cooking more [now], it brings back a lot of memories that we share with our mom and the lessons that she’s taught us. Being at home kind of directly brings you back to childhood.”
Cao and Kay, who live together in their apartment-turned-headquarters in Chelsea—which is now filled with this season’s samples—have been cooking more than ever. “We’d been refraining from cooking, just because we didn’t want to get the smell all over,” Cao says. But since the ticking clock of quarantine began taking a toll on their takeout budgets, they’ve started making lots of Korean food, like kimchi and seaweed soup and stir-fried rice cakes, plus all sorts of pasta with, as they say, “like, a deconstructed Bolognese?”
“Huy,” Kay adds, “is actually a good cook,” though Luong’s been making some reasonable exceptions lately: “I like to cook, but I think during quarantine I just make a lot of cookies and brownies and that’s it.” Not not a mom-approved decision, as evidenced above.
Looking at old family photos, or just scrolling through Commission 1986’s Instagram, might inspire you to play dress up… even if it’s only with the clothes you have in your closet. Wearing a pleated skirt or a pair of big plastic earrings might make you feel closer to home than you normally would. As Kay, Cao, and Luong say, the project has been a good reminder of why they do what they do—clothes are a powerful tool for memory. “When you see all of these photographs in number, it speaks to this universal language of dressing,” Cao said, and prints can feel especially emotional.
“It really depends on what kind of florals or patterns that you grew up with,” he said. “For us, it’s pretty much the typical Asian mom animal print—all the animal prints that we’ve done, from leopard to zebra—or all the super-bright florals that we've done also, that kind of resemble the tablecloth and the gift wrap paper that we grew up with.”
Looking through the submissions, Cao said, “big shoulders are one of the key things that we see, [but] obviously that’s not something that is so work-from-home friendly to wear, to be decked out with a whole suit set.” So, next time you're out to run errands, “just throw on a big-shouldered, ’80s sort of tailored jacket.” With a mask? A look.
The three designers been calling their parents back home in Vietnam and South Korea for emotional support, and they realize that people who have submitted photos for Commission 1986 have been doing the same, sharing that the process of finding the photos, and asking about the stories behind them, made them feel more connected. The act of seeking photos out is in itself, as Luong said, “a way to feel closer to home.”
“I think just randomly calling up your mom for an old photograph at any other time would have been lovely, but I think especially now, it’s something that brings you even closer to each other because it opens up different conversations that you wouldn't normally have,” Cao said. “If you have to be at a distance, I think the conversation becomes so much more emotional and valuable in a way.”
“[The project] kind of offered us another window to being nostalgic, and to remembering our [moms] and our home in a way,” he said. “It’s kind of like filling in the gaps, almost, because we don't have access to our personal photos. By looking at other people's photos, it also reminds us of our moms and then the clothes will come in, the hairstyles… It’s sort of like a universal memory.”
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