By Vivian Luu
Northwest Asian Weekly
If he had listened to his parents, fashion designer Thai Nguyen would have become an accountant.
Instead of crunching numbers, Nguyen spends his days creating couture at Thai Nguyen Couture in Orange County. From evening gowns and bridal gowns to ready-to-wear lines, he immerses himself in each step of the process.
Sketching new pieces, picking fabrics, fitting his models, and selling couture is nothing new to this up-and-coming designer.
What’s new is Nguyen’s role as a fashion expert in “Launch My Line,” a series that premiered on Bravo TV Dec. 2. Serving as an adviser to fashion critic Merle Ginsberg, the duo designed pieces of couture in hopes of winning a deal to launch Ginsberg’s clothing line.
Nguyen says he was very lucky to have been paired with Ginsberg because they have similar tastes in style.
“The first instance we met each other, we knew what we wanted to do,” he said. “What I want and what she wants is one idea. I finish her sentences. That’s how compatible we were.”
The show was as real as reality TV gets, Nguyen added. He loved every second of it — even the stressful parts.
“As a designer, you’re always behind the scenes,” he said, giggling. “Being on the show is like I actually get to be on the show. I get to be on TV and people cater to me. I have car service, makeup, people choose my wardrobe. That’s something I have to do as a job, and here I have someone doing it for me, and I just love it.”
The designer’s addition to the show was quick and unexpected. Renowned choreographer Kristin Denehy referred Nguyen to the show — whose representatives called him out of the blue and requested an interview within two hours.
“It was raining [and] we were two hours late,” said Helen Nguyen, his business partner (who is unrelated to the designer). “He had the interview and they loved him.”
Nguyen didn’t get here without paying his dues. He learned to sew at age 9, and his love for fashion only grew from there.
His first debut was a prom dress fashion show at his high school’s talent show, where he showcased dresses for 20 classmates. Nguyen later attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). There, he learned to blend elements of the east with those of the west — exotic prints with sleek and timeless design.
Nguyen later flew by the seat of his pants — literally — to top fashion line BCBG Max Azria.
“Right after I graduated from FIDM, I went to a party and I wore a pair of jeans designed by me,” he said. “It caught the attention of a designer from BCBG. I met her on Sunday, had an interview on Tuesday, and got a job offer on Thursday.”
The designer stayed at BCBG for two years and went on to work for various artists and groups. That’s when he dipped into the Vietnamese music industry and designed ao dai. The experience went beyond evening wear — it was where Nguyen got in touch with his roots.
“I came here as a young kid from Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “I forgot. If I didn’t get to do all those shows to learn about the Vietnamese culture, I wouldn’t know half the things I know about Vietnam that I know today.”
Although he grew up in the United States, Nguyen says Vietnamese values are still a central part of his identity and his family.
Nguyen kept his role on Bravo quiet and only discussed it with close friends. “I didn’t want to be a bragger,” he said. “I want them to see it on their own. It’s better like that.”
His parents were the same way.
“They’re very happy, but they’re very humble. It’s the Vietnamese way. We’re very conservative and we’re very reserved. They don’t want to say much about it.”
Nguyen’s family owned a sewing shop in Vietnam before immigrating to Olympia in 1993. Supporting their only child wasn’t difficult, but supporting him to go to a fashion school was another story.
“They didn’t want me to be in the fashion business,” Nguyen said. “They knew how hard it was and they knew how unrealistic it is if you don’t make it right. They saw my passion and how much I love fashion and really wanted to go to school, so they supported me.”
For other aspiring Asian American fashion designers, Nguyen says he hopes they will be able to overcome this obstacle as well.
“If you really love it, you should just go for it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Being in the fashion industry is difficult. It’s very competitive and you just have to go for it and don’t give up.”
Even though he isn’t an accountant, Nguyen’s plan adds up. His path toward success makes perfect sense. ♦
Vivian Luu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.