Interview with Menswear Designer Ninh Nguyen

Astonish World 

April 6, 2012

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Pushing the Right Buttons
Written and Photographed by Julio Cortez
Edited by Jane Yu

There’s more to a brand’s identity than making it to fashion week.  Success is so dependent on the business end of the art that it makes it even that much harder for up-and-coming designers to get their momentum going.

“They don’t teach you how to survive the fashion world, create your own business plan, or develop a strong aesthetic,” says emerging menswear designer Ninh Nguyen, a year and a half in the game after graduating from the menswear program at FIT.

NINH Collection is the modern namesake brand based out of the designer’s Spanish Harlem apartment, a third-floor multi-purpose railway apartment that serves as a workspace, showroom, warehouse, and home the 27-year-old shares with his older brother.

We’re sitting in Ninh’s living room while the brick building’s handy man is yelling into his cell phone and repairing Ninh’s bathroom.  However, even I can’t keep up with his enunciated Spanish when Ninh asks me to translate the rant echoing from across the kitchen.

The sound is somewhat muffled by the mountains of clothing racks, samples, production materials, and personal belongings crammed into the apartment. It’s not as chaotic as it sounds – if anything, it shows how immersed Ninh is in his collection’s world. It could also be his biggest driving force in expanding his business towards an independently owned brand studio.

Ninh was born in Paris, France on October 6, 1984 and raised there until his family relocated to Texas nine years later.  In 2006, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, along with a minor in Psychology, to please his parents.

After moving to New York in August of 2007, Ninh was one of 45 students enrolled in FIT’s menswear program. By the time he graduated in 2009, only 23 students remained. “Fashion design is one of the toughest programs at FIT,” says Ninh, “especially menswear.”

At FIT, Ninh formed close friendships with some of his classmates. The designer admits that when it comes to other designer friends, he only hangs out with womenswear designers and the menswear designers he graduated with. “Even if their clothes [are] different [from] mine, I don’t really want to hang out with other menswear designers,” says Ninh, citing that it’s a small world in New York City fashion where everybody knows the same photographers, stylists, and production facilities. “The aesthetic and price point might be different, but I’d rather not get involved in sharing anything, especially with the rumors that easily start in this industry,” says Ninh.

For some, inspiration is a difficult creative element to quench; but for Ninh, it’s only an Absinthe glass away. “You know how artists are – they’re crazy in the head,” he jokes.

There’s a lot more to Ninh’s creative psyche, resulting in a variety of architectural and military details in his Spring 2011 New York Fashion Week debut F/W collection.  Carefully curated buttons and hardware are heavy in use but light in weight for some of Ninh Collection’s aviator inspired jackets. The line feels formal while drawing in the eye with non-traditional cuts and a touch of street.

NINH Collection is first and foremost an outerwear line, but the designer is more than well rounded in exploring precise piecing with tailored shirts and trousers, leather handbags, denim belts, and a side project – Mad Handsome – which solely focuses on modernized bow ties.  All of his endeavors have one thing in common: they each offer a new twist on classic menswear favorites that today’s commercial fashions can’t provide.

In fact, thanks to Ninh, ASTONISH can now tell the difference between authentic and imitation oyster shell buttons. When real oyster buttons are held against the cheek, they stay cold. Meanwhile, plastic oyster buttons contract body heat. That’s not to say the designer is straying away from one or the other. For concealed buttons, the imitation version won’t hurt the design or the budget. But for everything else, it’s all about maintaining a standard of quality when it comes to the details of production.

Ninh is currently switching up his production process, looking for a new pattern maker and no longer giving into nice results. “People always switch [production] back and forth for quality reasons,” says the designer. “You don’t want holes in your pockets or poor stitching.” Although he produces all of his own samples, Ninh enjoys the challenges of the business and keeping production entirely in New York City. While the fabrics for Ninh collection are imported from Korea, Ninh has his troubles with the language barriers among the pattern makers, factory workers, and quilters whom he collaborates with in New York’s multicultural industrial fashion background.

Ninh learned a lot about the importance of quality control after winning the Arts of Fashion Contest in 2009. Titled “Illusions”, the concept was to create a wearable garment with avant-garde innovation.

Along with the awarded title came an internship with N.I.C.E. Collective in San Francisco, where the designers says he acquired priceless experience, both good and bad. He worked directly alongside founders Ian and Joe, as well as the assistant designers, marketing and production teams, and even the sewing ladies.

Ninh wasn’t familiar with the brand before coming to San Francisco, but he appreciates the production process because he was in charge of sewing. “It was a lot of work,” says Ninh, “but I loved doing the dirty work of making patterns and sewing samples.”

The dirty work continues as Ninh hustles the day-to-day grind of managing his own brand from the ground up. He’s waiting to hear back from the producers of NBC’s The Voice – which snatched American Idol’s wig – after sending off about 15 pieces for the contestants and judges. This kind of platform provides mainstream commercial exposure that generates a multitude of Internet fashion credits and references — hopefully enough to help small businesses like NINH Collection continue to grow.

“It’s easy to be creative,” admits Ninh, “but fashion is a business, so if you can’t manage a company, your brand will sink.” Like he said, we must keep sailing on.

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