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A Designer's Arduous Journey Into Haute Couture

By Guan Tan

 
XUAN
 

If you ask fashion designer Xuan-Thu Nguyen when she first found herself curious about fashion, she will bring up her parents. "My parents are in textiles as well. They have a production company when they were a bit younger. They did production for huge brands or companies." 

Nguyen and her brother would watch their parents work in the atelier at the back of their house in Holland. Her career in fashion design was perhaps decided for her that way. Nguyen eventually went to the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and graduated at age 23. 

Her parents struggled to grasp the point of fashion design. "[They said,] 'You can't live from making one piece!'", Nguyen mimicks. "I think when you're in a massive production, it's more about quantity and selling. To me, it's more about creation, [and] showing collections that are me." 

"It's [quicker] for them. Mine is a long road," she adds. 

XUAN
 

Straight out of school, Nguyen started her eponymous label, XUAN, which turned 14 years old this year. 

Just as her parents had warned her, it has been gruelling journey for the independent designer. "When you start out... everything I earned went into the collections. Sometimes I didn't even have money to eat. I'd buy fabrics instead... I can remember just having five Euros in my pocket." It's quite contrary to the glamorous, one-shot celebrity status that renowned fashion designers enjoy. The industry doesn't usually speak about designers' humble beginnings. And that silence has spawned an illusion in the younger generation that fashion design is an easy shot at fame when it is, in fact, quite the opposite. 

"I somehow always managed to have a collection. I never stopped producing or making a collection every season. We didn't have a budget but we always managed. That is something consistent. Not all collections were the best, but I did the best I could with the budget I had." 

XUAN
 

Nguyen has come a long way. 14 years is a long time. Even so, Nguyen still feels fresh and is bubbling with excitement. On the 2nd July, Nguyen showed her second collection as a guest member at Paris Couture Week. She remains a conditional invitee of the Federation de la Haute Couture, meaning her performance will be continually reviewed by the Federation. 

"You apply to be a guest member. And then every season after the show, the Federation comes to see if they like it. If the work is up to their standards, hopefully, I will be a guest member [the next season] as well." 

Her Haute Couture Autumn Winter 17-18 collection was a projection of her exhilaration. Thousands of floral motifs applied to the bodice, ruffles upon ruffles swaddled the models. To Nguyen, it's organised mess. 

"This collection I was really excited because a lot of new things were happening. It's my second season of being a guest member. I was very excited and there was a lot going on in my head. I tried to organise [the thoughts]." 

XUAN
 

"I had a lot of ruffles. They are for me, in perfect balance, but unbalanced because you had a stroke going out this way, and you had different sizes of ruffles. I tried to put these unorganised feelings in this balance... It's for me, a sort of perfection." 

Haute Couture aside, Nguyen does pret-a-porter collections too. From a designer's perspective, there is no difference between both. "For me I just design. Couture is about tradition, about finishing, about the handwork, which I do in pret-a-porter as well." 

Back to the pret-a-porter versus couture divide that exists between her and her parents, Nguyen doesn't think fast fashion or mass production poses a threat the age-old institution of couture. She's positive that she's moving in the right direction, and that couture will see a revival soon. 

"It's [getting] more attention. I think I get fast fashion. Maybe it's on a high point at the moment. But there's a [cycle] in everything in fashion. When it's at a high peak, it will go the other direction. Now it's at its high peak. It's going back to quality, tradition. So people are getting more, I think, aware of that. There should be something else other than buy, buy, buy." Nguyen considers, "It's going back to Haute Couture."