By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Debbie Nghiem studied business finance in school, worked in San Jose’s booming tech industry, and had been kept away from fashion by her mother.
Nghiem ended up making dresses anyway. It was just in her genes.
Today, finally with the support of her mother, Nghiem is the designer for GG Connections. Her creations have been featured in numerous fashion shows, television programs, and movies, such as Vietnam’s “Passport for Love” and “Dust of Life.”
Nghiem is also an avid community activist who showcases her beautiful avant garde and fusion style dresses in charity fashion shows, including Seattle Helping Link’s upcoming Annual Fundraising Fashion Gala on Sept. 24.
Always had a knack
Holding an acceptance letter to the prestigious University Fashion School in Los Angeles, 18-year-old Nghiem cried when she realized that circumstances would not allow her to attend.
“My family didn’t have money for me to live far from home. I held the acceptance letter in my hands and cried a lot — but told myself to keep that letter as a memory.”
That memory never faded, even after Nghiem decided to study something more practical, so she would be able to assist her family.
“[I studied] business finance. … I think I just wanted to finish school sooner, so I can go to work and help out my family.”
Nghiem found success in business. “When I worked for a high tech company, like Schulumberger, JDSU, or LTX, in its purchasing field and planning department, I helped the company to save [hundreds of thousands of dollars] for a couple [million-dollar] contracts with my negotiation skill.”
Even with a full workload, Nghiem always carved out time to coordinate charity events and used her knack for fashion to make the events fun and attractive.
“I was [involved] with charity events or some [political] functions almost every week [for] many years … from Children Moon Festival, Tet Festival, education seminars, scholarship programs, disaster relief events, fundraisers for orphanages …”
“As a leader, I always want to create new ideas to excite the people to come over to the events, so they can help and support the cause,” added Nghiem. “One of the ideas was to make sure to have a fashion show to drive interests of everyone, from female to male.”
“After [being involved in] many fashion shows, I [learned that] a lot of young models need to have someone to help them reach out to the right person or fulfill their dream.”
That is why Nghiem helped produce “the first model search in 30 years for Vietnamese Americans.”
And it was during the model search that Nghiem’s dream of becoming a fashion designer resurfaced.
A new career
During the model search, Nghiem told a close friend her secret.
“I shared with her … that I used to make my own clothes in high school and even got accepted by a [fashion school] in Hollywood. After I shared with her this story, suddenly, I remembered [things] about my childhood and began to realize — why am I always making my own outfits when I attend any big event? … Why did I always believe in helping the youth to achieve their goals in education or in promoting young talents through scholarship programs? Because [my past] lives on in the kids’ desire.”
At the same time, another friend saw the artist in Nghiem and constantly pushed her to start designing clothes.
“At that time, I got frustrated with him for pushing for something I never thought about.”
However, her friend’s persistence helped Nghiem overcome her own doubts and motivated her to explore.
And on Halloween 2007, Nghiem’s a-ha moment came.
“I woke up and tried to find something to make a costume for the Halloween party. I saw two pieces of fabric. I put it on my body and wrapped it around. … Oh my gosh — I found myself in a two-minute trendy Vietnamese ao dai (traditional dress). It was the most trendy, classy, sexy, and elegant ao dai, and it only took me two minutes to make it.”
Designing in the genes
When Nghiem told her mother she was becoming a fashion designer, she was surprised by her mother’s support.
“I thought she would say that I should be focusing on making money or finding a husband. …Why do I start an artist’s dream at this age? Instead, she told me to shut off my phone and lock myself in the room so I could focus on design — she told me to get a mannequin and to find a lawyer to keep the pattern mine. … [At the time] I didn’t bother to ask her why she told me all that.”
But there was a reason after all.
When she finally asked her mother why she didn’t behave like a typical, worried parent when Nghiem took a dramatic turn in her career, her mother said, “I guess it ran in the family, I guess we can not run away.”
It turns out that Nghiem’s grandfather was a famous fashion designer in Vietnam. He graduated from a Parisian fashion design school and began his career in Vietnam in the 1950s.
According to Nghiem’s mother, “We used to have a big factory for producing clothes in South and Central Vietnam.”
However, her grandfather’s success was short-lived. He passed away when her mother was only 10 years old. Her mother followed in his footsteps and started a career in fashion, but she found it a hard and arduous way to make a living.
“When I grew up, and naturally, I even stepped in the career … by gene,” recalled her mother. “Then … I became famous, too. However, it was a lot of work, and it didn’t make good money.”
After immigrating to the United States, Nghiem’s mother decided to shield her children from a career that lacked rewards.
“I promise myself don’t ever [let my children] get back to this job,” said Nghiem’s mother. “But I guess it ran in the family and it’s destiny.”
After learning of this history, Nghiem thought about her own fate. “[Being a fashion designer] is my fate, my karma,” said Nghiem, “I need to follow my heart as a designer.”
Achieving in fashion
Ever since making the leap, Nghiem has worked feverishly.
She has been engaged in “over 50 fashion shows, including the GXBA Runway of the World, the U.S Women Expo for Ready to Model Magazine, the American Red Cross with San Jose Fashion Week … (among others).
“World Channel television host and a Miss China, Jing Jing, has been wearing my outfits for her show every Saturday. She also asked me to be her personal fashion designer.”
Someday, Nghiem hopes to infuse Eastern fashion into the Western world and popularize ao dai dresses in the U.S market.
“Most Vietnamese Americans have been settled a long time in the U.S. We are successful in many areas, but the only thing that none of us see [is] a Vietnamese ao dai in any department store.”
“I’m [slowly] … introducing [ao dai] to other women from different ethnicities. My hope [is that] one day, I can see ao dai [everywhere]. … I may not [be] a top designer or tailor, but I can be the one to open doors for Vietnamese tailors, so that ao dai can enter the world of fashion.”
Because of Nghiem’s unique design and dedication to charities, Helping Link chose to showcase her work for its Annual Fundraising Fashion Gala.
“Debbie Nghiem is a talented Vietnamese American designer. She is known for her one-of-a-kind couture traditional Vietnamese dress designs and extravagant evening-wear. … Her designs are both modern and culturally rich as she infuses her Vietnamese culture into all of her designs,” said Julie Ngo, of Helping Link. “In addition to being a great fashion designer, Debbie gives a tremendous amount back to the Vietnamese community.”
“Helping Link provides services and programs to meet critical needs of Vietnamese American families in King County,” informed Ngo.
Since its establishment in 1993, Helping Link has assisted numerous Vietnamese immigrants, so they can have the same employment and education opportunities as others.
“One example of this is a woman who was an outcast in Vietnam and arrived in America illiterate and ineligible for automatic citizenship. She also had an 11-year-old daughter and was expecting her second child,” said Ngo.
“She came to Helping Link to learn English in preparation for her citizenship test. She spent three years with us learning the language. During this process, she also learned that a previous agency had lost her paperwork and that she was at risk of deportation. We spent well over a year with the United States Homeland Security and Immigration Services to obtain her citizenship.”
“Since overcoming these obstacles, she’s been at every Helping Link celebration. She arrives with food to share, tells her story to others, and continues to be involved with Helping Link.”
Although Helping Link has had many successful fundraising events, it recently decided to put on a fashion show to reach a wider audience.
“The idea of the fashion show originated in 2009 by this year’s two co-chairs, Allen Shum and Sandy Nguyen. In the past, Helping Link had great fundraising dinners, but they both wanted to come up with an event that was new, different, and provided more visibility for Helping Link to a wider audience.”
Because of last year’s success, Helping Link is hosting a second annual fashion show with the goal of raising more than $30,000 this year. (end)
For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.helpinglink.org/gala.
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at email@example.com.