Using Fashion to Become Who You Want to Be: The Transformative Power of Nhu Duong

We speak to Berlin fashion designer supreme Nhu Duong about using fashion as a tool to blend in, stand out, and express your most authentic self.

The lookbook for Nhu Duong’s SS18 collection features a photograph of a marathon, the runners caught between the shoulders of a young couple. The image is striking in its distinction from the rest of the lookbook. Aside from one blurred shot of leaves in a courtyard, every other image showcases the collection on two female models, their hair slicked back and faces painted ghostly white. When we sat down in her studio-cum-budding retail space in West Berlin, Duong told me the shot was captured spontaneously as the marathon passed by the location of the shoot. The photo’s inclusion is a fitting visual symbol for Duong’s ethos and design — both have a chameleonic quality about them, drawing from the surroundings, shape shifting based on their context. Nhu Duong doesn’t design clothes to appease a certain scene or style; she designs clothes that help each wearer inch a little closer to the person they want to be.

The marathon photo also takes on added significance when you consider Duong’s work often explores the importance and purpose of uniforms, and different codes of dress. The contrast between the runner’s uniforms and the leisurely style of the couple serves as a perfect visual metaphor for Duong’s interest in blurring binaries. We spoke to Duong about the binaries she blurs both in her collections and her career; professionalism/rebellion, work/leisure and fashion/art.

What I find particularly fascinating about your work is that the themes and concepts are quite tangible; rather than, say, “nature” or “politics”, it’s about the actual performance and transformation clothes bring about, and breaking conventional codes of dress. Tell us about how these ideas figured into your most recent collection.

I think, for me, putting on clothes is always performative and transformative. Since I was a kid, I kind of realized that fashion is a way to stand out and fit in at once.  I moved to Sweden when I was very young — that was a big culture difference, and I started to experiment with fashion. Playing with style was a way for me to try on different roles.

The last collection was more of an animalistic interpretation of that thought; working with this idea of metamorphosis, and cocooning, and transformation.

In terms of what you were saying when you moved to Sweden, were you using clothes to fit in or to stand out?

Both. I like playing with those codes. When you move to a new country as a child, it’s natural that you try to adjust to your new surroundings, and to a certain degree reinvent yourself. For me fashion is very direct expression of that: taking things you may know from one cultural context and putting them in another.

The theme of disrupting codes of dress carries through into the lookbook of your most recent collection — there are intriguing elements like a photo of a marathon race. The blotchy white face paint also disrupts codes of conventional beauty – would you like to talk about the motives or stories behind these, and any other curio in the collection?

Essentially I think it is about the juxtaposition of opposites creating a contrast and blurring binaries such as as human and nonhuman, night and day, black and white, male and female. And I was imagining some sort of night creature, you know. Night creatures at the beach, wearing sunscreen.

Your “Work” collection also focused heavily on breaking codes – namely, what’s appropriate and what’s not. Was the collection a straight rebellion against appropriateness, or is the relationship more complicated than that?

That collection was inspired by work, office and hobby uniforms, and I was exploring the function of the dimensional clothing. There’s like a Kung-Fu outfit, and obviously Kung-Fu is something that has a strict uniform, and you look very disciplined — but we turned it into a pyjama. So, I’m wearing it in a more relaxed and lazy way. It was about blurring the ideas of work and leisure. On top of that it was also a play with the notion of to work it, and posing in front of the camera.

In terms of conventional professionalism, your own career has also broken some codes. You’ve shown at fashion weeks, but you’ve also shown at Biennials — what’s the motivation there? What are the advantages/disadvantages of showing outside of fashion week?

I haven’t been that strategic about it, I’m just trying to follow my own narrative. I come from Sweden; Sweden has a very strong fashion industry, but a small scene. So when I graduated, I just wanted to be independent and challenge my own creative process by experimenting with different ways of producing fashion. Fashion is changing a lot, and so you have to experiment with new ways of both making and showing clothes. For me collaboration with other people and new contexts — ranging from art and music to architecture and business  — allowed me to open up my process. It is fascinating to see how the context can change the perception of your work.

You recently shared an incredible video from this DIS collaborative show you participated in, which has a totally different energy to your solo shows. How was it to see your clothes interpreted like that?

I loved that. This is actually what I enjoy the most, just to see my clothes in another context, how people wear them. I don’t have a fixed idea how I want to people to wear my clothes.

What drew you to Berlin in the first place?

I was attracted to the diversity the cultural scene here. I am constantly in contact with other practices like dance, art, music or theatre. So there is a natural exchange of ideas and sensibilities, which often leads to some kind of cross-over or collaboration. It is this kind of excess that inspires me about Berlin.

What can we do as individuals to start breaking codes of appropriateness, flattery, acceptability, etc. when we dress? How do we access what you’ve described as the “self we can be”?

I think again it’s about this idea of transformation and seeing fashion as performative. So it’s more about who you can become, you know, rather than what you are.

I understand one of your latest projects is a retail space — how is that going? What’s your vision for the space?

Space 31 is a retail space in Berlin near Potsdamer Strasse which stages curated, thematic exhibitions, events and collaborations that blur the boundary between fashion, art, music and retail. It’s going to be connected to an online platform, and I’m thinking also to take this to, for example, Stockholm, because I feel like there would be a big interest for that, there as well. Sweden is very small, but you know, the kids are amazing. I also think it’s important to put them in a more international context. Inviting international people to collaborate there as well.

Can you tell us anything about the new collection you’re working on?

I think it’s going to be similar topics to this collection; often there is a natural and fluid progression of themes from one collection to the other. I’m kind of reimagining how to present collections; I want to do more customer-oriented events instead of a traditional fashion show.

Aside from the new collection, I also just made costumes for the theater play “Health and Safety” at Grüner Salon at Volksbühne, written and directed by Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel. It runs until 3rd of March.

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