Designer Thuy Nguyen explains the motivation behind her designs and the importance of not having a plan
Visual artists are well-known for breaking traditional molds and rejecting the shackles of conservative culture; free-spirited Thuy Nguyen, one of this country’s most vibrant fashion designers, is not among them. Or perhaps she is—it’s hard to know for sure, her mind moves in swift, colorful circles, and she has no qualms about cheekily and flagrantly contradicting herself while expounding on her own artistic principles—and as we chat, she says some of the most traditional sentences I’ve ever heard from the lips of a Vietnamese woman.
“The traditional way is, you cannot share 50/50,” she says. ”The traditional way is, I’m a woman, so I take care of everything. So I really want that, I really enjoy it. To take care of all four of my kids and my family, mother-in-law, mother and father, garden and house and everything. I enjoy it. I leave my husband 100 percent for himself, and he feels happy, and I feel happy too. So that is the traditional way.” She flashes the kind of liberated smile that usually comes from female artists who believe precisely the opposite of what she has just said, and I wonder aloud if such a life isn’t really a trap that places a heavy burden on women in this country. Her answer to that is simply, “No.”
Perhaps Thuy’s enamorment with conventional women’s roles is what makes her such a perfect channel of traditional femininity in her fashion. Earlier this year, her collection Vien Man was the standout show at the Vietnam International Fashion Week: a parade of glowing pregnant women whose heavy curves swayed comfortably in sleek, brilliantly-coloured and hand-embroidered silks that recalled dynasty-era garments of the Vietnamese peasantry. The accessories she chose for her models on the catwalk were not designer bags, but rather baskets of vegetables and tiered metal lunchboxes; many of the materials bore prints of the Vietnamese Dong Ho artworks that have become synonymous with Thuy Nguyen’s work. Concluding with a blushing mother carrying her baby sitting up in her hands, Vien Man was an exuberant show of womanhood and a demonstration of the maturity of Thuy’s unique artistic perspective.
“You know that I’m from a fine arts background,” says Thuy, whose arrival in the fashion industry was an afterthought to her studies in painting in the Ukraine. “When I came back, I was just like any girl who dreams of being fashionable, or a designer, or owning a fashion shop. But regarding my conceptual art, I want to show I’m from the north, and show that we have that story. Maybe you didn’t see it before, now you see it. I just try to show our story. The other story is just about myself, what I feel, the way I am. Maybe people don’t get it all, but if you have a baby already, you can feel it, that—the moment that you can never forget. So I will show others what I am in that moment. The clothes are just a material to show this; like a writer uses words, I use the material to show my story.”
Vien Man was in many ways a sequel to her similarly outstanding Fashion Week show in 2015, which showcased her Lung Lieng collection, also heavily rooted in traditional garments.
“After Lung Lieng, everyone talked about that show, it was like a bomb, something different from me,” says Thuy. “It was then that I changed my mind to follow a more conceptual art, to consider more ‘what do I want to say?’ Earlier, I thought that fashion is just beautiful girls with beautiful dresses, but now I realize it’s not important just to be beautiful. If you take just one dress from the collection, it’s nothing. It’s not enough. If you don’t come to the show, you won’t get that feeling. If you just look at a magazine, you won’t get the feeling that I want to say. In Vien Man, that is more like me, myself, what I felt at that moment. At that moment I was fully, fully, fully happy.”
We are Vietnamese
While Thuy has placed more of herself in her fashions as her style has developed, this doesn’t mean she intends for her audiences and customers to understand her with any clarity. In fact, Thuy has a very nebulous sense of self-awareness, and approaches all of her artistic output with the expectation that any appreciation of her own identity as an artist will be incomplete.
“My painting is like, everything is not real,” she says cryptically. “Only you know the way you are, the real person you are. I don’t think color and other things in art are ‘here.’ No: You might think, I’m sitting with you here, and maybe I look beautiful, but I might have a fake bum and fake boobs, and my mind may be fake, and all the stories I tell you may be fake. You can never know. So what is true? In my painting I feel I want to be colorful, but maybe I’m a jealous person, not beautiful like in the picture. You will only see the way I want to show you. You will not see the real thing.”
I ask if Thuy sees Vien Man as being closer to her own reality, or if she even wants people to see her more for who she is. “Sometimes,” she says, “But they cannot understand and they cannot see me, because I’m like ‘this way, that way.’ They can’t understand a lot of things. But who cares, real or not real? That moment may be good, but maybe next month or next week you won’t feel good anymore; you can buy a shirt because you want it today, but when you wear it, you might feel ‘oh… why did I buy it?’ So it’s right at that moment. It doesn’t mean forever or even the next moment.”
Possibly the greatest paradox to come out of Thuy Nguyen’s oeuvre is this— while she very consciously communicates in fundamentally Vietnamese artistic baselines, she also firmly believes that her non-Vietnamese markets can never fully penetrate her culture.
“Ten years ago, if you flew business class,” she poses, “you could see that 100 percent were foreigners. Now it’s 100 percent Vietnamese. Why? My answer is that not so many foreigners are left doing investing here. It’s because they don’t understand the way we are. They make business plans, they do things like the way they are. But they don’t mix with things here, and that’s why they failed. Our cultural character is very strong. You cannot change me.”
“I’m here, and I am Vietnamese,” she continues, “but I cannot explain that to you. You will never understand. I just say, ‘do it but don’t ask,’ but you say ‘no, I want control, I want a business plan and marketing plan.’ We are the Vietnamese: NO PLAN. So you don’t get it, why can’t there be a plan? I say, we are flexible. Everybody is flexible. Even our legal system is flexible, so how can people ‘just do it, follow my plan’? So that is the point, we understand what we want. When I work with Ngo Thanh Van [Thuy collaborated with Van on the recent local blockbuster Tam Cam: The Hidden Story, which was replete with her traditional costumery], I understand what she wants. And she knows what she wants. And we get the same point, we run very fast together. When you know exactly what you want, one second, you can go.”
Somehow, Thuy Nguyen’s devotion to her traditionally-styled family life and her genre-breaking design work in high fashion still leaves her with time enough to travel overseas on a monthly basis for inspiration, all the while maintaining her various business efforts, of which Thuy Design House (132 Dong Khoi, D1) is the central store front. Her work in fine arts continues in spite of her transition to the fashion world; she remains a prodigious painter, and she is currently preparing a major installation work that will open this November in Provence, France. One may wonder how she balances such a heavy workload—and her answer emerges naturally from her thoughts on the impenetrable nature of the essential self.
“I feel energy,” explains Thuy. “I know how to share my energy, and I know how to save my energy. Everyone has 24 hours a day, it’s the same. We can’t do more, more than that. So when you pay, when you use your energy to follow someone else’s way, you pay a lot, because you cannot touch them. So you pay maybe 60-70 percent to think, to try, to be like them, but to be yourself, you pay maybe one percent. Because you are the way you are. So you have 99 percent left to pay for other things.”
“Like I said, we are Vietnamese, we never change,” she insists. “If you marry with an Irish guy or a French guy… the way you are, you’re still there. You still cry about something very stupid that that guy cannot understand. Even you hear the noise of a bell or something like that, you can tear up and your heart can stop. But that guy can never, never touch it. I just want to say, feel the way you are, just feel it and go, and don’t fight it. Never change, it doesn’t help you.”
IMAGES PROVIDED BY THUY DESIGN HOUSE