Deborah Chai Garris, better known as “Chai” or “The Black Oriental”, is a half-Korean, half-black model, who walked the world’s hottest runways from 1976 to 1985.
She is believed to be the first model of Korean descent to walk for major fashion shows. Gucci, Valentino, and Yves Saint Laurent, are just 3 of the 70 luxury fashion houses she walked for during the course of her incredible career.
With credits like that, it’s hard to believe that this trailblazer has been completely forgotten by Koreans, but she believes it may be because she had no opportunities to meet Koreans.
“During those years, there were no Korean models that I knew of. The well-known Asian models who were working at the same time as I was were Japanese and Chinese. I was always wondering in the back of my mind what it would be like to work in Korea … I always wanted and still want to visit Korea and experience the fashion and beauty industries which I so admire.” — Deborah Chai Garris
In the past, Deborah Chai Garris worried about how Koreans would react to her mixed heritage especially because, having been raised in the US, she did not know how to speak Korean.
“Back in the day, I was concerned about how I might be received as a black Korean model who didn’t speak the language. I truly wish my mother had taught me Korean, because if she had I’d be able to feel even more connected to the culture and this significant part of my identity.” — Deborah Chai Garris
Deborah Chai Garris was born in New York, a year after her Korean mother and her African-American father, a soldier, moved to away from Korea at the end of his military tour. In an effort to help her fit in, Deborah Chai Garris’s mother encouraged her to assimilate into American society, rather than embrace her roots.
“(When she and her siblings were kids) my mother was mostly concerned about us learning English and assimilating into American society. But for me it was a huge loss because I think language is an immediate cultural bridge and unfortunately my connection to Korean culture is limited by this factor.” — Deborah Chai Garris
Deborah Chai Garris, now 63, retired from modeling in the mid-1980s. She, her husband, and their three children moved to Switzerland in 1993 and have been living there ever since. While in Switzerland, she befriended Koreans and, over the years, has begun to reconnect with her Korean roots.
“I’ve felt connected to the culture through its cuisine. My mother taught me how to make kimchi, japchae and bulgogi. It wasn’t until recent years that I realized how inside I feel very Korean. I’ve been able to notice this in my relationships with my Korean friends.” — Deborah Chai Garris
The world may have forgotten Chai, The Black Oriental, but her career has no doubt paved the way for many more mixed Korean models, like Han Hyun Min, Korea’s first Korean-African runway model.