Benedict Nguyen interviewed Vietnamese American fashion designer Thúy H. Nguyen, whose custom suits made an appearance at this year’s fifth annual dapperQ show, New York Fashion Week’s biggest event by and for queer folks, hosted at the Brooklyn Museum. In this interview, originally published for Shondaland, Benedict Nguyen talks to Thúy H. Nguyen about her refugee and Vietnamese roots, and about having a strong matriarch in the family who influenced her own road to a fashion career, and about suits, subversion, and queer empowerment via fashion.
Suits embody a kind of queer possibility. In 1930, Marlene Dietrich wore a tuxedo with a top hat and bowtie in the film “Morocco,” in what ended up being a radical rebuttal of gendered clothing. That act alone inspired then-closeted designer Yves Saint Laurent to debut a tux for women in his 1966 couture show. Over time, suits that were traditionally designed for (and in some cases, by) cisgender, masculine men have been co-opted, subverted, and transformed by queer designers and dressers, all in the name of looking good and changing a heteronormative industry while doing it.
While the often-erased history of queer voices and aesthetics in “mainstream fashion” is still coming to light, there’s a whole new generation of queer designers making beautiful clothing for all genders and bodies in 2018. A few of them gathered last night to show their latest creations at the fifth annual dapperQ show, New York Fashion Week’s biggest event by and for queer folks, hosted at the Brooklyn Museum.
One of the show’s featured designers was Thúy H. Nguyen, the mind behind THÚY Custom Clothier in the San Francisco Bay Area. A refugee of the Vietnam War, Nguyen wound up in Puerto Rico before moving to San José, California with her parents and four brothers. There, her mom started a business making traditional áo dài for local pageant models and other members of the community — not unlike what Nguyen does now. Through rigorous consultations with her clients, Nguyen focuses on empowering queer individuals and deliberately takes a step away from today’s fast-fashion, mass-produced business model.
In a phone interview with Shondaland, Nguyen shared how her mom’s work inspired her to become gay (yes, really) and start her own business, how she channels her clients’ sense of self through suiting, and what dapperQ brings to queer communities.
How designer Thúy H. Nguyen went from a self-made tailor to showing custom suits for queer folks at New York Fashion Week.
Benedict Nguyen (for Shondaland): How did you start your line?
Thúy H. Nguyen: I’ve always loved suits. I wanted to do something in line with what my mom did. I wanted to figure a way to do custom suiting, especially for people like me: butch-identified, masculine of center, or transgender. Also, I’m a 5’4.” For me, shopping in the men’s department was always a challenge. Lucky for me, I learned how to alter and mend certain things to fit me better, and I got into custom suiting. It’s a very luxurious thing, to get oneself a custom suit. Consultations with my clients are actually very therapeutic. I meet with my clients privately and do a consultation with them that can last three or more hours. I had this one consultation that lasted eight hours straight — we had so much fun and we shared so many stories. It’s all really fashion therapy.
BN: What was it like having your mom running a business from your home?I’m really attracted to the 1920s and ‘30s look of elegance and dressing up.
THN: We had people coming into our home 24/7. She was also the matriarch and cook. She raised five kids, and still made this elaborate Vietnamese meal every night, and some of her well-known Puerto Rican dishes. I think she made the best arroz con pollo.
Her clients ranged from beauty pageant contestants to calendar models to people from the Vietnamese community. My brothers and I would often sit there just staring at all these beautiful women coming into our home. I like to say that’s the reason why I’m gay. My mom was just so masterful at her craft and had such an eye for fit.
BN: And the rest of your family?
THN: My father also was such a stylish dresser. I learned from him that it doesn’t matter where you go, it’s about presenting yourself in a way sets up how others perceive you. I think for him, it was also a way of coping with the loss of his country, his home. It was hard for my parents to lose their home and have to be forced to leave.
I have a little brother who was born seven years after me. I like to say that he was my first model because I loved dressing him. His whole kindergarten year, there was this one outfit I always wanted him to wear. It was such stereotypical dyke outfit: a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and these little brown hiking boots. I was always a tomboy, wearing my [older] brothers’ hand me downs. Now and then, my mom would make me a little dress and say, “If you could just wear the dress for a photo, you can change back to your boy clothes, that’s fine.” But my parents weren’t very strict about me always looking like a girl. It was like, “OK fine, you can dress like your brothers.”
BN: What was your first show like?
THN: With my first fashion show, I had to get myself out of my butch box. The Kearny Street Workshop, an Asian American art center, does a fashion show called “Celebrate Your Body.” At the audition, I’m looking at the models and they’re all very feminine women. In my mind, I’m thinking, “I need kind of masculine models here.” But I decided to take it as a challenge. I’ve lived as a butch-identified queer dyke most of my life; I love femme women. I’m attracted to femininity. So this part of my business doesn’t just have to be about masculine suits. I should broaden my own perspective of what I can do for other clients.
I had this short suit made for [one model]. The day of the show, she was walking around hair and makeup in her outfit and all of the other feminine women were like, “I want that.” I’m not the first to do this, but for me, it was my own major accomplishment.
BN: What was the process like preparing for this show?
THN: In the beginning, when dapperQ was like, “You’re in!” I was like “Oh my gosh, wow, I’m going to go to New York!” I think for the following two months after that, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling because at same the time, my dad’s been fighting cancer for six years and it’s been very emotional. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to participate. But I realized that I also needed to keep living my life and working on my business. I was like, if something happens during that week, I either go or I don’t go, but at least my models will be there. I wanted to make sure that at least each person would be able to walk.
My mom actually was able to go to one of my shows [in the Bay Area]. She cried. My little brother, my sister-in-law, their oldest son, and one of my older brothers came too. I’ve had other shows where none of my family members could attend. After [this] show, it was like, I feel a sense of completion — this is all I’ve ever wanted: for them to see what I’m trying to do, to see that there’s an audience out there for it. […]
Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate based in New York. Benedict has written for the Brooklyn Rail, Dance Magazine, Rest for Resistance, the CUNY Center for Humanities, among others. Their fiction writing has been supported by an AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship. They insta/tweet @bennybooboo_.