When I was in Paris I had the opportunity to meet and interview Xuan-Thu Nguyen (pronounced Swan-Toe nuh-WEN), an extraordinary haute couture and prêt-à-porter designer whose approach to each isn't altogether different; when it comes to materials and execution she spares nothing to perfectly produce the design in her head, at times closing that typically wide divide between couture and ready to wear. Her mix of Old World skill and care with innovative techniques results in garments and accessories that are at once exquisitely crafted and fashion-forward.
The interview originally ran at Amelia's Magazine and here I'm able to say a bit more about Thu and her creations. During my visit to her boutique in the Marais I got to see first-hand her incredible couture colliers, or neckpieces, and her unique brand of detailing that ranges from the beautifully decorative and delicate to her ingenious modifications to functional elements like button holes on shirts and pocket placement on coats. (I'll have to show those in a follow-up post, there's just too much amazingness for one. And those are her shoes in my banner!)
What puts Thu over the top for me is just how committed she is to creating truly special garments with no compromise in their quality at any point in the process. In a world of fast fashion and cheap labour for inflated profit margins it's both a relief and a treat to meet a person who is wholly true to her craft.
I'll be attending her show at Paris Haute Couture week in July and I am excited to bits to see what she's created for the fall season, so to speak - read on to see how Thu doesn't really care for seasonal constraints like 'appropriate' fabrics and colours (I just adore her!):
I was born in Vietnam and grew up in Holland. When I was 10 years old I wanted to become a florist, but I always wanted to design, so I decided to go fashion design school. Upon graduating in 1999 I started my own label in Amsterdam before coming to Paris to open my boutique four years later, in 2005. I began showing my prêt-à-porter collections at Paris fashion week then added the haute couture, which I've been showing since July, 2008.
Can you take us through your creative process?
I design in my head, see the pattern and work out the adjustments before I begin putting anything together. In school I would do up the sketches after I'd made the garment! I have so many ideas, it can be difficult to focus on one thing and I have to separate my ideas and choose one direction. Sometimes the starting point is something as simple as a colour, a shape or a technique. My creations are a mixture of modern and geometric pleated shapes with fragile and delicate accents like handmade embroideries. I use natural fabrics like 100% cotton, silk or wool which give the garment even more of a delicate expression.
Do you work with a design team?
No, I design everything myself.
Where is your prêt-à-porter made?
Some pieces, like the accessories, are made here in Paris. I do the first few myself. The prêt-à-porter is made in Holland. My parents own a textile factory there and the numbers I need are small enough that I'm able to produce there.
Do you find that allows you to control the production?
Yes, I have some unique finishing processes that I've had to work hard to get right on the production side, but in the end I've gotten things made as I want them. I could have my clothes made in China, but for me, it's not about bigger profits.
With that kind of commitment to detail in your prêt-à-porter it seems you blur the lines a bit between that and your haute couture collection, would you agree with this?
You could say that. I will do some prêt-à-porter pieces like haute couture, like if I really want to use an expensive fabric or trim I will, or I might spend a lot of time to get the detail just right. Many of my pieces look very simple from the outside but have a lot of work on the inside. It's not about making a big show of it; these are likely things that just the wearer and I will know. (Ed. note: While browsing Thu’s Paris boutique I noticed some examples of this understated yet significant detailing: her placement of jacket side pockets, invisible button holes on shirts and the extensive finishing on the underside creates clean lines and gives the garment a polished simplicity. Truly chic.)
Your Fall/Winter 2009 collection is very light and summery; what was your thinking behind that?
I don't really follow the seasons; I design what I want to at that time. Also, many people live in places where they don't have winter or they need clothes for warm holidays, and I don't want to restrict myself to working in just wools and dark colours or be dictated by a season. And we could all use some brightening up during the winter!
What's next for Xuan-Thu Nguyen?
We're working on launching the brand in Asia for 2010...
What I've shown here are pieces from her F/W 2009 RTW collection (I'm coming home from Paris with that silver blue blazer, I fell for it from the photos and then happened to run into Thu on the metro and she was wearing it with one of her couture colliers in red and that sold it for me, it looked amazing. (Though I noticed she hadn't 'roughed up' the panels on the sleeves as they were styled in the photos. Will I??)
Watch for the follow-up post with photos and the story behind those colliers, plus looks from her spring 2009 Haute Couture collection - including the 'fox' stole made entirely of handmade flowers.