By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It can be argued that each individual is on a personal quest to improve himself or herself in one way or another. For clothing designer Binh Nguyen, his own quest began when his family learned that his then 2-year-old niece, Taylor Tran, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005.
“Before her diagnosis, [my family] never knew anyone with cancer, let alone a kid,” said Nguyen.
His niece began chemotherapy at Seattle Children’s Hospital shortly after. During the following months, Nguyen spent a lot of time at the hospital to oversee his niece’s care. He developed a deep respect for the work done by the Seattle Children’s physicians, nurses, and staff.
Life inspires art
Inspired by their expertise care, Nguyen wanted to give back to the hospital community with his own artistic talents.
He started sketching to express emotions about his niece’s situation. With a background in snowboarding and graphic design, and as an aspiring hip-hop emcee, his drawings yielded graffiti-inspired designs. He decided to turn his art into a kid-based, t-shirt line dedicated to giving 5 percent of its profits to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Nguyen said he had no idea how to launch production on his clothing line. “I started off knowing nothing about screen printing or anything … I was clueless,” Nguyen said.
But he taught himself how to screen print by purchasing basic equipment and setting up a workshop in his basement.
Screen printing is a process where ink runs through a screen with designs on it. The screen transfers the designs onto the materials placed underneath and creates a “printing effect.”
His journey to turn his goals into reality is also mirrored in the name of his line, Questkids. He chose the name after meeting with young patients at Seattle Children’s. He realized how each child had their own health battle to overcome.
“Every one of those kids has one life, one journey, one quest,” said Nguyen. “They’re all on a quest to get healthy — to get better.”
Nguyen’s friends in the local hip-hop industry clamored to buy his clothes. He enjoyed the booming success — but not without regret.
“My clothing sold well, but I began feeling dissatisfied,” said Nguyen. “I started my line with this core mission, and it went away from me. Questkids became more of an ‘adult’ brand … meaning that I got caught up in the fashion industry and business instead of focusing more on promoting the community and kids [at Seattle Children’s Hospital].”
He opted to take a year off from Questkids to reevaluate his business. Nguyen returned to school to finish his fashion business degree at Shoreline Community College. Shortly after, he broke his collarbone in a snowboarding accident.
Armed with his new degree, Nguyen used the healing time from his accident to design new seasons for his line and added new cuts, including jackets and button-up shirts. He also sought opportunities to mature his business through outsourcing, forging new business relationships, and searching for ways to make his work sustainable.
“I’m more humble now,” said Nguyen about his business approach after the accident. “I wasn’t business savvy before. But now, I’m more willing to learn from other people instead of letting opportunities slip away.”
Growing the business for the future
It was by chance that Nguyen attended an event hosted by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, where he learned of his next business opportunity: entering a viral video contest for upstart businesses to explain how Microsoft Office 2010 has increased their productivity and profits.
With the aid of his collaborators, Nguyen shot a video that focused on his business journey and won the grand prize of $10,000 for Questkids.
“I was worried that I wouldn’t win since the other [competing] companies did more comedic spoofs,” said Nguyen. “But I wanted to keep the video raw and real … to really let the journey behind Questkids shine through.”
The grand prize will allow Questkids to expand their clothing line and fund a showroom that will open in August.
Although Nguyen’s clothing line is unisex, he admitted that his design niche veers more towards boys ages 2 to 8. But he plans to tap into more girl-friendly clothing in the future. Nguyen’s niece, who has since undergone successful chemotherapy and is now healthy, hopes to be one of his future models.
“[My niece] is always like, ‘Uncle Binh, when are you going to use me as a model?’ ” said Nguyen. “It’s only a matter of time until I’m going to need her.”
And at a recent photo shoot, Nguyen made good on his promise to his niece. ♦
For more information, visit www.questkids.com.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.