It’s early evening at the workroom on the set of Project Runway Vietnam, now filming its third season set to debut in December of this year on VTV3. Inspirational fashion quotes adorn the walls, including Ralph Lauren’s stern reminder: “Fashion is over quickly. Style is forever.” Scraps of fabric from the day’s challenge litter the room, as do bare mannequins waiting for their next creation. The show follows the reality TV format of its hugely successful American counterpart, using weekly tests to whittle down design hopefuls in order to crown a single winner. While contestants film their monologues in front of a green screen, exhausted crew members are sprawled out catching a bit of shuteye before resuming work. Overseeing everything is Nguyen Thanh Tung, better known as Tung Leo (nicknamed after his zodiac sign), the show’s mentor/judge/producer extraordinaire.
How did you get your start in fashion?
When I was a child, I was good at literature, especially traditional literature. And in Vietnamese literature, we have so many stories that involve clothes. I used to imagine what they would look like. But it wasn’t until after my second year in university when I had to choose my major that I realized I was falling in love with fashion design. After graduating, I received a scholarship to study fashion in Shanghai and then interned in Hong Kong. I came back to Vietnam to become a lecturer in fashion design at the architecture college, and after 10 years, I transitioned into media. When Project Runway Vietnam started, the producer wanted to find one person who could combine fashion and media and that was me! That’s how I became a mentor on the show.
Reality TV is a relatively new concept here. What challenges did you have to overcome?
So many challenges! First, people didn’t really know what reality TV was. They assumed that everything they saw in the show was fake, that everyone is an actor. But that’s not true. It’s all real, but we have to push the reality to be bigger. For example, in real life, you’re always going to meet some bitches that make you angry or upset. Reality shows push you into a stressful situation where everything goes “boom” [mimes an explosion with his hands], and it becomes real. Everyone goes out in public with a mask on. But in reality TV, the ‘real’ you comes out. It’s not fake.
How does your own background in design help you to better mentor the contestants?
As a mentor, it’s all about working with the designer. A good mentor isn’t necessarily a good designer. You’re there to help them improve on their ideas, not your own. In the show, I’m probably the person who’s closest to the contestants, but I have to always maintain a distance. Instead of saying, “I love/hate your design,” I ask questions. “What do you think about…?” I just give them advice, not necessarily my opinion.
At the audition stage earlier this season, a contestant unveiled an off-the-shoulder gown designed for men, and you reacted pretty strongly against it, implying that society has a right to dictate fashion, whereas the designer felt that fashion has no boundaries. Are there limits?
First, I love creativity. It’s the most important characteristic for designers. That’s why I believe that if you are a unique thinker, you will be a very good creator. If you have a look at the fashion world, when miniskirts first came out on the runway, people said that they were distasteful and too short. But now, we have microshorts. So it’s the creator who is the first to do something. Maybe he lives in a society where people judge [his creations] in a bad way, but after, they may realize that it was a good idea. I love people who dare to do new things. For Nguyen Thanh Tai, he dared to do the right thing, but at the wrong time. Vietnam is very traditional, very closed, not open-minded. People think the way others think.
So it’s not the right time to create something too unique. If you create something new, it has to be perfect. Men wearing women’s clothing wasn’t the perfect design for males. It was very feminine. If it is a perfect design, then people will love it.
What’s the outlook for the Vietnamese fashion industry?
Right now, the fashion industry in Vietnam is not yet developed. To have a big fashion design industry, you need to have a very good lifestyle, with the whole of society being developed. This isn’t yet the right time. There are a few good designers in Vietnam, but I’m not worried because we’re on our way. At the beginning of the year, I went with [Project Runway Season 2 winner] Ly Giam Tien to New York Fashion Week. He was a tiny designer in New York, but as he was pulling out his clothes at rehearsal, lots of people and models came to look and were really surprised. After the show, he received a standing ovation. People were surprised that Vietnam could produce such fashion. We have very good talent here but fashion education isn’t very good so we need to have outside support.
Because there’s not yet a big fashion industry here, what can be done to educate people on fashion?
I educate the public about fashion through Project Runway. Each episode, I convey a message about fashion. For example, when I give the contestants a challenge to use rubbish, that tells the audience that everything in your life is fashion. Not, “This is cheap. That is expensive.” No. Even if it’s cheap or dirty, but you have a good idea, it can become a good design. Or there was a challenge about sport couture, combining sportswear and haute couture. I wanted to convey the message that sportswear isn’t just clothes you wear when you play sports, but if it has a good design, it can become haute couture. Every episode over the past two seasons has had a message about fashion. That’s the most successful thing that Project Runway has done in Vietnam.
What would you say to people who view fashion as a useless pursuit?
It would be a very long explanation for people who don’t love fashion. [laughs] I would ask them to look in the mirror or in a photo album to see who they were day to day, month to month, year to year and how the styles have changed. That’s fashion. You might not realize that you’re wearing fashion every day, but it’s your second skin.