BAD BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS

WRITTEN BY
Max Migowski

PHOTOGRAPHY

Tra My Nguyen

Anyone can be a fashion designer! A claim nowhere near as true as in this Baudrillardian hyperreality of Instagram, TikTok and 2020. The sheer practice of making apparel appears to have become a fully democratized, common, cotton trade of visual innuendos—both intricate and insular.

Launching a brand today can mean no more than emblazoning a quintet of tie-dye T-shirts with an early 00s album cover typeface, only for it to eventually be lost in the matrix of an already oversaturated market. The same thing is to be said about sustaining an existent brand, apparently. To actually separate Fashun from clothes, it will take more than superficial aims at pattern making and colour scheming—or at least that’s what any traditionally trained designer is raised to believe. The key to a creatively profound interpretation of past, present, even future stimuli is the cultivation of research material. Among the many stepping stones of an artistic process, you will find research to be the very fundament of your endeavour, a basis of knowledge you turn and return to, that will continue to expand and sharpen its spotlight—from the start of your project until the moment you declare its completion. It’s the theoretical groundwork of writings, visions and objects that eventually blossom to become a well-rounded, three-dimensional prototype of a product.

 

28-year old Tra My Nguyen is a recent graduate of Universität der Künste Berlin’s MA in fashion design, and an avid conductor of said research. Though she has since resigned from defining her work as strictly fashion-focused, the interdisciplinary artist found herself in a professional conundrum on the back of copy cat conflicts and disenchanting realizations over how the real world pales in comparison to the greener grasses of utopia academia. In posts that, combined, received nearly 200.000 reactions of support, Tra My’s personal experience of research robbery was documented, in detail, by herself and the internet’s most notorious avengers of fashion fraudulence, @diet_prada.

 

A grand Maison—that shall remain nameless—not only took uncannily close inspiration from a then-student, but it did so by previously engaging with her under the guise of headhunting for new talent. An allusion to her Vietnamese heritage, Tra My’s thesis collection came in the shape of five dramatically draped sculptures of textile-covered motorcycles. In keeping with her interest in merging disparate entities, the Berlin-based designer worked cross-culturally and cross-materially, blindly supplied with samples sent by her aunt, to create surreal statues that depict both vivid childhood memories of pacing on scooters through urban Hanoi’s chaotic streets, and her newly awoken fascination for the vibrant femininity of there-living, female motorists.

 

“My mom will still reminds me today of how she sold hers to add to her savings, so we could come to Germany,” she says while recounting her social attachment to the vehicles. Having been a project she fought for, defended, and poured months of her life into developing, Tra My’s rocky road from then to now is a zeitgeisty example of philosophical predicaments on the value and vanity of hard efforts and high ethics, in an industry that tends to take these two for granted. Months have passed since the viral, soul-crushing incident occurred, but not without pressing questions over how this has affected her career, her motivation, and her methodology. Alongside a descriptive showcase of her subversive craft, Tra My Nguyen shares her thoughts on classist aesthetics, speculative ideation, and the ambiguous role of research in contemporary fashion design.

Please, elaborate more on the ideas and imagery that went into creating these special sculptures.

I knew I wanted to take to Vietnam for my Master’s assignment. There, my eye went straight to the female motorists, wearing these all-covering garments. They mummify themselves while driving, which I found so provoking that I wanted to find out more. On one hand, there is this aura of empowerment that protrudes from the outfit: mobile women, in the streets of big cities, very visible in these colourful cloaks. On the other hand, there is discriminatory notion embedded as well: they hide from sunlight, and thus from getting too tanned—a symptom of East Asian classism. The darker your skin, the lower you are on the societal scale. So there are both empowering and disempowering sides to this style, a clash of aesthetics and elitism. I wanted to deconstruct this duality. I took the garments, reassembled and wrapped them around motorbikes, to form wearable sculptures. They’re not so much a collection as they are a spontaneous step in between, which I then used to further explore how I could incorporate the human body. By adding a maximum of sculptural elements, I questioned the whole paradigm of clothing, tested how far I could go in conceptualizing a collection without using pen and paper, without thinking too much about the actual potential of wearability. I wanted an element of surprise to the process by moulding the pieces around the motorbikes and creating an instant, organic shape.

 

Whereas other people would illustrate a collection mockup, you basically did a three-dimensional sketch with actual fabrics and a scooter as the canvas. Most variables of this project you only discovered while in the making. You hadn’t ever dressed a motorbike before and you were working with fabric you’d only seen, never felt for its texture, elasticity or thickness. It’s definitely a risky, a very speculative approach that could have gone really well or really wrong.

Exactly. I enjoyed not knowing what it would look like in the end. I just let myself learn throughout the procedure, let spontaneity reign and left the material to itself. I didn’t sew at all, fixed the pieces together with silicone, and dyed some of the fabrics before putting them on the bikes. There was constant uncertainty over how the material would respond to the dye, what colour it would eventually take. It was an ongoing experiment, this spirit of giving the body and the material control over how I manipulated them, rather than blue-printing a plan. Speculation is important to my practice, and it’s always involved in the narrative as well. Everything here has a sci-fi quality to it, a fantasy of this blooming, futuristic, feminist motorcycle culture.

 

However, the inspiration you drew from isn’t rooted in subculture, even though it does evoke certain symbols of that in its composition: the helmets, the mystery, the big, bright flower patterns, the speed of the bikes. It all feels somehow intentional and avant-garde. Though it’s everything but “anti”, quite the opposite actually. They’re obeying a hierarchy, complicit to a classist problem rather than being a force against it, correct? Were you more intrigued by the garment itself or by what it represented?

No, we’re not looking at a specific collective, trendy movement or consumer tribe. First and foremost, it’s a very universal, functional piece of clothing, not a fashion statement that was birthed or nurtured within a community. It was made for protection and convenience, a response to cultural standards, for the streets by the streets—everything else is secondary and preferential. The prints of the capes are reminiscent of those on pyjamas or other mass-produced, cheaply made utility clothes. Their aesthetics are made to appeal to women specifically. And it somehow works; they’re functional and very gendered. Made to highlight femininity and play by the rules of patriarchy. Something that in Vietnam – and many other countries, too – is commonplace. Women are expected to decorate themselves more aggressively when it comes to fashion and beauty, to accessorize their bodies and faces to mimic or mirror social standing.

Intriguing, yes, but it was not my intention to scrutinize this, to say this is right or wrong. I viewed it and respected it in the context it was offered to me, and I tolerate its practicality against sun and smog. I mean, today, the look seems more timely than ever, mask and everything. From what I could tell, the women felt empowered in their use of these garments, and it’s not mine to judge the reason behind it.

These overcoats deliberately catch the eye, but then also offer this enigma of not knowing who is cloaked beneath them. It is, as you said, futuristic, this dyad of wanting to stand out versus hiding behind a flashy exterior. Yet again it’s so contemporary, too, as in it being protective gear without forfeiting fashion’s expressionism. So, again, there’s this essence of fluidity. It’s a shapeshifting piece of function-wear, and you adapted this characteristic into how you wielded the material. Its existence is just as specific as it is vague, just like the sculptures you created with it. How did you investigate such an ambivalent artefact?

Learning more about it, it was really important for me to thoroughly assess Vietnamese society’s evolution from pre-war to capitalism. Within twenty years, so much has changed, and the drastic increase in motorized vehicles and all the merchandise surrounding it is a result of this, too. I was careful when touching this subject. I may have been born in Vietnam, but I was very detached from both the country itself and its culture, having left so young. I didn’t want to just superficially pick from it and offer an otherwise vapid adaption, but show respect for and an interest in reconnecting with my ancestry. And it was also a matter of creating better art, of course. The deeper the research, the better the understanding and the better the result.

 

Research is of such grave importance, for any creative pursuit, particularly when working across cultures. You don’t want to overstep boundaries between admiration and exploitation. This sensibility towards your examined subject, is this a remainder of educational habits instilled in you, or is this something you would generally say is an intuitive measure of advancing an idea as an artist?

I don’t believe everything has to be foreshadowed by tonnes of research, I think that tackling something more impulsively and just winging it can be a very beneficial way of working. I think too much premeditation can leave you stuck in a sea of too much data you can’t streamline into something more precise. You’ll start to overthink, you become almost paralyzed and don’t know how and where to channel it. Depending on what you’re working with and why, you’ll find that the way you proceed with your research and the chronology of it, from inspiration to product, can differ, or happen side by side, as long as there is a dialogue in action. This project was very personal, a very niche topic. I often felt I had to prove why I wanted to do it the way I did. But it was that insecurity, too, that sparked motivation in me to better articulate my intentions. It ignites passion, but it’s also difficult and sad when you know you have something good on your hands, but you’re failing to convey that importance to those who aren’t that deep into the rabbit hole. In that way, research can be very pressuring, and I think a lot of artists would agree.

 

Sometimes it’s easier to see through something if you keep an objective distance to it, it can be more productive than a project you become so passionate that you’re eventually too afraid to touch it. What kept you motivated to stick to it, despite reservations from others and yourself when it came to affirming your efforts? What helped ground you before getting carried away by doubts?

Down to my core, I knew this was the right theme to go with. It was a gut feeling and that’s important to remind yourself of all the way down the road. I had lots of support from friends, but you become very attuned to negative comments or flaws that distract from all that’s good. There’s a fine line between acknowledging criticism, wherever it may come from, versus over-emphasizing its weight against how you rate the product yourself. The concept of having to prove something’s worth like that is very institutional when there are hierarchies in place. So you have to choose the right people to discuss and evaluate your work.

You’ve witnessed first hand how “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. A high-regarded company, one you personally admired, became an adversary and stole your work. What did that do to you as an independent designer?

When you study fashion and go out into the real world, you’ll learn that you’ve had an idealistic way of imagining the business. At the time, it wasn’t unknown to me that these things happen. The more shocking thing was that it could happen to me, too. You will see, hear, talk about and condemn it, but it doesn’t fully unfold within you until it actually strikes you. I felt attacked. I struggled with and invested in this project. And then to see this photo of my work on a random social media post—it’s like someone had torn a limb off of me, it was a full-body experience. Once I had settled down, I realized I shouldn’t have been that surprised.

 

You’d think they are familiar with the blood, sweat and tears. This was not coming from a place that can’t comprehend the depths of this process, but from people who should know, this was not something you came up with at an afternoon sitting but took months of your life. How did you not let that discourage you?

Before this incident, I’d already moved away from classic high fashion and was open to possibilities of concentrating on my own projects and working with other artists, in and outside of fashion. I made my peace with taking other paths, exhausted by the corruptness of the system. In my studies, I was always encouraged, maybe even misled, that I could do anything. You are shielded of certain realities and suddenly become aware of how little of a tool you are for this gigantic machine. But I don’t resent whoever’s at fault for this. I try to empathize with them, because I can imagine the type of pressure they’re under, having to produce content over content. Who to blame? Of course, it was wrong and that shouldn’t be forgotten, but it’s the system’s fault and how it forces people to even go there in the first place.

 

It’s very noble of you to have that sense of compassion—one you can probably only have if you’ve looked behind the pretty curtain, exposed its immense demands and velocity. It really asks the question of what process and research even mean anymore. When you hear these stories, when you see what’s rolled out, you can’t help but wonder “what’s all this for?”. To really elevate fashion and view it as an art form rather than just hype. You need time to sink your teeth in, but how if the resource of time is so sparse?

It’s hard to penetrate the system; the countless unpaid internships, the constant struggle to sustain an income. It’s draining and unfair. I remained cautious and sceptical after seeing the downsides of corporate fashion. I had to let go because for one, doing so made me happy, and for another, I needed to regain freedom in my work. It’s a privilege to decide against what you’ve been bred to chase after. And I don’t know if I would’ve been so vocal about my experience if I had, at the time, not yet removed myself from traditional career aspirations.

 

Did you not fear retributions for trying to hold them accountable? Presumably, there are people who’ve had similar experiences but didn’t make them public, because they feared to be shunned—just like in other domains, where power dynamics frighten victims into staying silent. They’re scared that irritating the gatekeeper will hinder them from passing through the gate. In your case, was this less of a hindrance?

I can’t say it was that calculated of a reaction. I was so mad, my pride took over and I just had to let it all out. It wasn’t like “I don’t care what happens next”—I felt the consequences of my post, and they were overwhelming, good and bad. I trusted my intuition and my moral compass. I couldn’t sit in silence. I did care, and I do care, but I was also fed up with this behaviour. It was hard and came with lots of emotional distress and anxiety, I can absolutely relate to everyone who’d rather not.

After all, fashion is a self-referencing cycle of (meta-)physical codes. Reappearances of trends, colours, shapes, themes are within the nature of this medium. Is novelty dead? Where do you stand in this debate, especially now that you’ve found yourself in its crossfire?

The discussion about fashion and imitation needs to be rewired to acknowledge the power structures. Before reconfiguring this imbalance in how profits are made, with what and by whom, there’s no change in sight. There are so many great, neglected talents, and these companies have the financial capacities to involve them. They’re muting these voices when, instead, they could be amplifying them. And this can be traced right back to things like inclusivity and diversity within the industry, and conversations on who even gets to attend fashion school and why. It’s a head-to-toe operation.

 

What do you think must happen in response or to solve these discrepancies?

One way to go would be meaningful collaborations. And by that, I don’t mean big brands collaborating with other big brands, but more exchange between smaller creatives and heavy houses. More interaction and intersection. Fewer collections and more time for apt research would decrease this obsessive need to copy and collect and manufacture. COVID-19 has forced many businesses to rethink what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and how to change. So many sympathized with me, shared their stories, and are now defying the industry, questioning its priorities and its necessity. I do sense there is a higher interest in more sustainable, interdisciplinary work, re-contextualizing and re-formatting the known. Designers have to be manifold like that anyways, so it only makes sense to further venture into what fashion can be when we detach from the norm.

I guess all that, again, circles back to reclaiming time, liberty, energy for sincere work, to feeding a determination towards what it is you have to say, how you want to so say it and why you want to say it through the medium of fashion, without resorting to theft or platitudes.

It’s about having something to express, something to propose or make a statement on. This is what makes it a fruitful process and successful project. This pandemic will allow many designers to view their work in another light, and re-implement their clothes and how they present them into the realities of our life, and not just continue with these empty social media commodities. That can very well happen through plunging into history and textbook, but it doesn’t have to, as long as there is personal, genuine care for it. And that’s what research is. It’s not about reading hundreds of articles and essays and printing thousands of pictures. Research is taking time, reflecting, fine-tuning the purpose of your creation and making an impact on someone or something. It’s about carving out that singular space.