MATRIX Designer Interview: Thuan Nguyen

fashion designer dress forms at UT Austin

It's 11 AM and the sewing lab is full of students seated at sewing machines or pinning muslins to the platoon of dress forms. Apart from the casting call a few weeks prior, it's been years since I've even been in this building on the University of Texas campus and there are memories of late night visits to my college roommate while she sewed like crazy to finish her collections before showtime. MATRIX, UT's upcoming Spring Runway show, is April 25th and the designers are starting to feel the time pressure.

The designer I've come to meet is tucked in a corner; a helpful student hails him when I walk in. Thuan Nguyen, an open smile on his face, navigates through the maze of craft tables and fabrics to greet me. A brief introduction later, he hands me a muslin garment and shows me the way to a dated bathroom down the hall to change.

muslin fittings for UT Fashion show muslin fitting for UT fashion show designer Thuan Nguyen

Glad I at least wore matching bra and panties because the muslin garment pattern is sheer, I make my way back to the sewing lab so that Thuan can begin pinning and sketching his design so that it custom fits me. While his hands pull and place and adjust and measure, he describes his vision and inspiration for his day-to-night design, his current brand crush (It's Zac Posen), and why he just might win the Kendra Scott Challenge for Junior Designers. 

custom dress fitting for fashion designer Thuan NguyenHow long have you known you wanted to be a fashion designer?
My whole life. Ever since I was 7 years old. This sounds so cheesy, but I watched That's so Raven and wanted to be a designer just like her, creating and sewing my own clothes. I've just always loved fashion and loved everything about her creativity. She designed her own clothes and I thought that was a really cool career. I've never wanted to do anything else at all; this is absolutely what I want to do.

How did you select The University of Texas for your degree?
I had no idea that UT had a design program. A couple of years ago, when I was still in high school, I attended a Spring [fashion] show. It was interesting to see how science and fashion work together.

I grew up in Austin and I didn't want to leave my city for school. As much I'd love to go to New York, it's going to be so hard to leave Austin.

Is this your first runway show?
I did some in high school (they were not great!), but this is my first professional show. I'm excited to learn all these skills and put them to use. It's been a big learning curve from Butterick patterns in high school to now I'm actually making my own patterns.

model Morgan Pashen backstage fitting
Was your garment inspired by a specific moment, person, or feeling?
I really like the 1960s silhouette with a pencil skirt and peplum.
When I'm looking for inspiration, the first thing I think of is the silhouette. And then I was inspired by a men's work shirt -- the way it folds back inspired my off-the-shoulder detail.  He points at the different elements on his board in turn, and I admire the illustrations. So both sleek and structured! I wanted to have two different garment options. One fitted and tailored and the other a little more relaxed. The one that he's marked and pinned is the more structured of the two designs, and I can't wait to wear what I can visualize from the board.

What statement do you hope to make with this garment?
I want it to be like if Rihanna had an office job. I want the woman who wears my design to feel very sexy and powerful and feel good and confident. Very unique and a little out there, but still professional.

From your initial idea to the runway, how much time have you invested in this process? Can you describe your creative process?
He laughs a little. I didn't really decide on this garment officially until my board was due and I had to actually draw something. From my Pinterest board of ideas, probably 2-3 weeks to officially have it on paper.

From all the images I gather on Pinterest, I think how can I combine all this together; I look at the different garments and pull the individual elements I love from each. Then I start doing very rough sketches. Tweak them, make them nicer, and get them on the board.

What comes first - is it the person or the garment?

We all design what we want and envision. We make up this profile of "who would actually wear this?" I thought of the design first, and then the customer.

Morgan ma Belle backstage UT Fashion Show fittingA question from the conscious consumers: when it comes to picking your fabrics, is there any thought behind how you source your fabrics?
I know I want to use suiting fabric. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of fabric stores in Austin.  Joann's & Hancock are very basic. I might order from Mood [in New York]. A lot of designers to buy and source for them.
At UT we are really focused on sustainable materials.
The Seniors do the Zero Waste Challenge - reusing used clothes and old textiles to make something entirely new without wasting any materials.

What are you looking for in a model when booking for a runway show? What does the casting process look like from the designer POV?
The process was really quick for us because we're focused on making the garment. UFG [University Fashion Group] has a roster and want to know if we have any specific requirements. I wasn't too picky; I just put down "someone that's tall. At least 5'8"" Other designers had different requirements. And from there they gave me a model - they gave me you!

What are your thoughts on "industry standards?" Did they influence your model selection or garment design?
Fashion should be fun and lighthearted. We shouldn't stress too much. I do think size inclusivity is very important and there should be a variety. We should have diversity in representation of models.

(Another design student jokingly chimes in with "and more straight models!")

Designers are creatives in a different way than other artists, like studio artists. Do you find yourself comparing or explaining yourself to more "traditional" artists?
There is a difference because even while you're creating what you want, you have to think in the back of your head who's going to wear this? and who is my customer? who is going to buy this?

Maybe a fine studio artist can do whatever they want to express themselves in their art more freely. Being a designer you can be very creative, but there are few more constraints to consider.

It's not just working with fabrics! We still have to learn how to draw and color our designs and croquis for our boards and presentations, but we learn all that here [at UT]. Having the right tools and utensils to draw makes a difference.

fashion model backstage profileThis garment is for the Kendra Scott Challenge,  a competition for junior designers at the University of Texas. Can you describe the Challenge and the rules or guidelines you're operating within?
My garment does have to be a day-to-night outfit. Something that a woman could wear to work but could also wear out for dinner or drinks afterward. One designer is doing a menswear outfit, but the rest of us are designing for women.

This is a competition, but it is also a grade in class so we're all helping each other out.

What does the winner get?
This question causes an uproar in the sewing lab because no one knows for sure! Maybe a cash prize. We also might get Kendra Scott jewelry to style with our garments for the show.

It's the day after the Show. Maybe You've Won! What are you doing?
Celebrating! I'll have completed my first show and I'll be celebrating with my fellow designers.

MATRIX UT Fashion Show 2019 logoThis show will be broadcast live throughout the country on the Longhorn Network. (7:15 p.m.)

Thursday, April 25
7 p.m.
Frank Erwin Center
Austin, TX

Admission is free. Special pre-show, "World of Textiles and Apparel", begins at 5:30 at the Frank Erwin Center.

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