Karina Chan never quite intended to be waxing poetic about fashion and sustainability as “Your fashion nerd” on TikTok. In a full circle moment, she sat down with The Daily Californian to have a conversation about the impacts of growing up in a tech-dominated environment, what the fashion media landscape is missing and more.
“I grew up in Palo Alto, where the thing to do was be a software engineer, be a woman in STEM,” Chan shared. “The respectable thing to do is go to a university for a technical degree, graduate and then make your six figure white-collar job after that.”
And that’s what she did.
After graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in Computer Science, she became a software engineer. It wasn’t until she was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic that she felt like she could start talking about fashion, a thing seen as “frivolous” and “a waste of time” in the environment she grew up in.
“When I was laid off, I was really internalizing a lot of feelings of pressure from the environment that I grew up in that really glorified this profession, and I felt like lots of feelings of impostor syndrome, that I’m not good enough,” she shared. “So fashion became a form of therapy for me — not just in a retail therapy sense because I didn’t have an income, but just learning about fashion from a historical point of view, from a critical lens.”
Having nothing else to do yet needing something to take her mind off the realities of the pandemic, she started posting on TikTok to have a discussion about fashion beyond just aesthetics.
“The conversation has been dominated completely from the perspective of fashion as media and as culture like runway shows, Vogue, nepo babies, it girls,” she said. “What’s really lacking in that whole space is people like us who are very interested in the concept of fashion in itself — its history, its intersection with sustainability — which I think is kind of an existential question for a lot of people in our generation.”
She also called out some of the central tensions within fashion — it is her higher education, perhaps, that renders it difficult to enjoy consumption of fashion without feeling guilty.
“I know what it does to people, I know it takes advantage of marginalized communities, I know it’s awful for our planet,” Chan said. “You can’t go to college and learn these things and not think a little bit critically about how you consume things, how the institutions around us via … apparel, manufacturing, fashion intellectual property have a part to play.”
Another conversation is the difference between enthusiasm for fashion and fashion elitism, something that is oftentimes recognized to be the same thing. In reality, there is a large distinction.
For Chan, growing up in an environment that is not glitzy means there isn’t an emphasis on designer luxury. To her, fashion is simply about expressing oneself through what one puts on their body.
“There are people who make their own clothes. There are people who create beautiful things from scratch and, you know, did not spend a lot of money on something that is designer and that in and of itself really merits appreciation,” Chan said. “It’s kind of sad that we placed so much emphasis on how expensive something is and correlate that with how much design value something has. It’s not the same thing.”
When asked about her thoughts on the community’s increasing awareness on the impacts of the ever-changing trend cycle, Chan voiced her approval of an evolving consciousness.
“There’s definitely a growing discussion on TikTok to be more resolute in your personal style as a method to overcome succumbing to trends and the trend cycle in order to be more sustainable, etc.” Chan said. “But a side effect is that your fashion gets better because you have a very strong-willed point of view. And people can tell that you’re not reactive and that you have your own unique point of view.”
At the same time, she recognizes that hopping from trend to trend and arriving at a very personal style is an act of self-exploration and unlearning, as well as an evaluation of what one is being sold. In this sense, going through trends may be a rite of passage.
“I think, innately, everyone has an interest in fashion, no matter where they come from. It’s just whether or not you feel allowed to express it.”