Something new out of something old — Vietnamese designer brings his modern touch to a classic

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

If he had followed his parents’ advice, he would be working in an office as an accountant. They once ran their own sewing school in Vietnam and knew that success in the fashion industry takes an enormous amount of hard work and patience.

Thai Nguyen, 27, said it takes “blood and sweat.”

He now works hard and knows with patience, his name will someday come to mind as easily as Asian American fashion designers Vera Wang and Luly Yang. Instead of reviewing company financials and balance sheets, he prefers to bring his custom-made, brightly colored silhouettes of Vietnamese feminine beauty and elegance into the mainstream.

His next show, a showcase of 10 modernized Vietnamese dresses known as “ao dai,” will be on display Oct. 28 at Seattle’s Triple Door. An ao dai is a snug-fitting, full-body silk dress consisting of long tunics with embroidery and beading and slits running down the sides with wide-legged pants underneath.

The showcase and auction of his ao dais will be at the fourth annual banquet of the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Washington.

His parents, who now live in Renton, are now happy he’s achieved some success in his career.

Nguyen admits working as a one-man business was a major challenge in the beginning, starting “from scratch, from zero.”

“I would say age (is another challenge),” he added. “In the American (fashion) industry, they think that I’m still young, and I’m like a nobody … but I want to incorporate (Vietnamese fashion style) into what the American industry wants.”

With the support of his friends and his “passion for fashion,” he began selling his creations online in October 2007. He developed a strong client base. Seven months later, he and co-owner Helen Nguyen opened his first retail store – Thai Nguyen Couture – in Westminster, Calif., about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Nguyen stages monthly fashion shows – mostly at Vietnamese American community events – throughout California and Houston, Tex., and values “going back to my community.”

“I’m very proud of who I am,” he said. “As long as I’m not making us look bad, then they’re fine.”

He was born in My Tho, a city in the province of Tien Giang. In southern Vietnam, Tien Giang is located in the Mekong Delta.

In 1993, at the age of 13, he immigrated with his family to the United States, arriving in Olympia.

During his senior year at Olympia High School in 1999, he discovered which career path to take while preparing for a school talent show. Nguyen said, “Everyone did music, dancing, singing. I decided to do a fashion show.”

He designed and created dresses for 15 of his female classmates, who volunteered to walk down a long catwalk as his models. Nguyen said, “I got a standing ovation at the end. Right away, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

He moved to California and attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising where he gained both the business and technical know-how for his chosen career. In 2002, he graduated with an associate in fashion design. “It’s a two-year program, but then they pick out the top 10 to do the advanced program, and I was one of the top 10. So, I had to go through three years instead of two years,” said Nguyen.

From 2002 to 2004, he was again singled out as an associate designer for BCBG Max Azaria. He has worked as the fashion designer for such Vietnamese entertainment production companies as Van Son Entertainment, Asia Entertainment and Thuy Nga.

“I love what I do and waking up every day to get to do what I love,” Nguyen said about his work and his plans for a future clothing line. “That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today.” ♦

For more information about Thai Nguyen, go to www.thainguyencouture.com.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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