An Everyday Dream: Inside Thủy Nguyễn’s Exhibition Celebrating Vietnamese Culture Through the Lens of Fashion  

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

Journey through an enchanting world of luxuriant garments, vivid colours and reimagined cultural references dreamed up by one of Vietnam’s most prominent fashion designers, presented at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. The show also marks the 10-year anniversary of her label Thủy Design House. 

 

TEXT: Quyen Hoang
IMAGES: Courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre

The term ‘contemporary Vietnamese fashion’ is often hard to define. Prone to debate within local enthusiasts and experts, it prompts questions of unresolved dualities: tradition vs. innovation, authenticity vs. counterfeits, craft vs. machine, artisans vs. factory workers, national pride vs. Western marketisation. Since the introduction of its economic reforms in 1986, Vietnam has found its native fashion industry in a relentless state of flux. Endearing tailor shops to which women used to bring their favourite rolls of fabrics bought in markets to make clothes are now a rare find; replaced by shops selling cheaper, imported garments from China. Meanwhile malls and department stores housing international brands keep the aspiring and the nouveau riche enthralled with their runway-fresh fashionable offerings—all strategically promoted on social media by an emerging cohort of local influencers.

Local designers have been fighting an uphill battle against this grain for originality, relevance and market success. Nevertheless, a few do find recognition—establishing themselves as household names within local and international fashion industries, opening flagship stores on the main streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). One such is Thủy Design House, founded by Thủy Nguyễn, whose decade-long career is now celebrated with an exhibition titled “An Everyday Dream” at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, in HCMC.

 

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

 

Born in 1981, Nguyễn graduated from the Vietnam University of Fine Arts in Hanoi, then obtained a PhD in Fine Arts from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kiev, Ukraine. It is well-told in many interviews that she started making clothes out of a personal pursuit, for herself to reflect her personality and sense of aesthetic. Though formally untrained in fashion design, Nguyễn’s artistic flair sees the artist find inspiration for her garment designs in a range of sources from formal studies in art theory to traditional Vietnamese folklore, architecture, performing arts and more—all of which are adeptly incorporated and interpreted in her signature use of intricate embroideries and beadings upon silk, brocade, organza, taffeta, and velvet. Since establishing Thủy Design House and opening her first store in 2011, Nguyễn’s fashion shows have proven to be unmissable events of spectacular visual treats. With every collection bearing intriguing thematic names that spell sweet lyrical cadence to native Vietnamese ears— such as Gió Mùa Về (Monsoon Arrival); Viên Mãn (Contentment); Tình Tang (Playful); Mộng Mị (Reverie); Lúng Liếng (Wicked Gestures); and Sợi Tơ Hồng (The Red Thread)—fashion enthusiasts are transported to dreamlike realms filled with extravagant colours and beaming ensembles floating through stage smoke and electro-folk music reigning over an articulated showcase.

Such ambience is perfectly recaptured in “An Everyday Dream.” Curated by Dolla S. Merrillees, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, “An Everyday Dream” showcases 60 designs exemplary of Nguyễn’s oeuvre, contextually categorised into seven segments. Worthy of note is that The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre was founded by Nguyễn in 2016. This 500-square-meter space was renovated from a warehouse in the heart of HCMC’s District 2 to regularly exhibit a diverse set of contemporary shows by emerging and established artists in and outside of Vietnam, along with hosting talks and workshops of interdisciplinary fields aimed to empower the local community.

 

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

 

Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are instantly presented with a trio of áo dài—Vietnam’s national costume of a long tunic worn over pants—one made of silk and chiffon from her 2017 collection Gió Mùa Về (Monsoon Arrival); another a black silk ensemble from Jil Sander’s womenswear FW19 collection (privately collected by Nguyễn); and third, a reproduction by Vũ Văn Giỏi of the robe worn by the Empress of the Nguyen Dynasty  (1802–83), constructed from crêpe and brocade with silk lining and coloured and gold thread embroidery. Fairly understated compared to the rest of the show, they serve as an introspective starting point on the journey of áo dài, from its historical origins as courtwear to its cemented status as a treasured icon symbolic of femininity among Vietnamese women. Attempts to alter or modernise áo dài have generally encountered mild to fierce critique from its fervid supporters. Despite initial resistance, over the years, many of these ideas have gained entrance into the garment lexicon. Wearers can choose from a multitude of fabrics, flaps can vary from knee-high to floor-length, collars demurely high or relaxed to boat neck, sleeves long or stopping short at elbows, and opting for jeans, culottes or skirts in lieu of the traditional loose pants.

Earlier in her career, Nguyễn had her brush with detractors by presenting a strapless design of áo dài in 2015. Deemed exceedingly provocative, it was part of the Brocade Áo Dài collection which debuted on Vietnam Culture Day, an event organised by the Vietnamese Embassy in Rome to showcase and promote Vietnamese fashion, food, and art. In “An Everyday Dream,” the piece is displayed alongside six other designs on a raised V-shaped platform in a separate corner that is decorated with LED-lit stylised flowers made of straw. From this vantage point, one can take in the creative strokes that Nguyễn has imbued onto the canvas of áo dài such as organza cape and ruffle sleeves, pleated silk pants, and beading on satin with goose leathers—head-to-toe embroideries of cultural iconography.

 

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

 

Elements of mise-en-scène recur throughout the next sections which separate Nguyễn’s body of work into dissectable themes. In ‘Nature & Symbolism,’ a duo of satin frocks are set side by side against a glittering sequin backdrop that extends onto the floor towards the viewers. They come from her 2019 Mỵ Châu collection, which was largely inspired by the Vietnamese legend of a princess who dies at the hands of her father for inadvertently betraying their location to the enemy while fleeing the kingdom by leaving a trail of goose feathers. As ever, Nguyễn’s stunning needlework takes centre stage, artfully adorning digitally printed patterns of resplendent colours. Their regal-evoking effect is further enhanced by customised headpieces inspired by Vietnamese folk opera cải lương. Nearby, her many attempts for story-telling on fabric are illustrated: traditional Đông Hồ woodcut prints, handcrafted motifs of the dragon and phoenix; paintings by 20th century Vietnamese masters such as Lê Phổ, Mai Trung Thứ, and Trần Văn Cẩn. Other pieces scattered throughout this chapter meanwhile reveal her fascination with symbolic imageries of animals in Vietnamese culture, such as the carp, representing strength and perseverance, and the peacock for wealth and luxury.

In a separate room, ‘Pattern & Shape’ and ‘Wrapped in Colour’ direct our focus to more of Nguyễn’s geometric constructions, flowery layers, and reinterpretation of traditional garments. The highlight is a series of áo dài featuring prints directly modelled after tiles and mosaic patterns found in modern and colonial buildings in HCMC. Originally part of The Tailor collection, developed in conjunction with her work as costume designer for the 2017 locally-produced film Cô Ba Sài Gòn, each garment is set against rolls of satin corresponding to their respective prints that are hung on wooden beams, accompanied by a vintage weaving loom. Elsewhere, viewers can appreciate her embellished iterations of áo yếm (halter top), which was the common attire for Vietnamese peasant women throughout centuries, now handsomely updated with the use of vibrantly embroidered brocade, organza and silk.

A truly revelatory surprise awaits on the space’s upper floor, where a small cubic room displays four black-and-white iterations of áo dài. Titled ‘Light & Shadow,’ this chapter spurs examination on the connotative, perceived qualities associated with the two colours in cultural norms—a white áo dài, for example, can represent schoolgirl purity and innocence, while the same colour symbolises grief and mourning in Vietnamese funeral processions. It’s hard to deny the level of artistry that Nguyễn has invested in these garments. Upon the glistening taffeta and silk are marvelous works of padded embroideries in the shapes of the lotus (widely considered as the national flower) and the phoenix. The adjacent room,  ‘Architecture of Memory,’ brings together digital prints inspired by paintings and photographs of iconic Vietnamese architectural structures juxtaposed against descaled street lamps interwoven with electricity lines—a common sight on the streets across Vietnam.

 

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream, installation view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021. Photo taken by Tcnphotos. Images courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

 

The finale of the exhibition is a reconstruction of Nguyễn’s real-life studio. A myriad of objects and memorabilia collected throughout her life that have been informing her creative practice are arranged for display. From the áo dài of her high school days, her own paintings, vintage stamp collection, Indochina postcards, artisanal accessories, traditional ceramics, water-puppet figurines, books and magazines, to prints of her children’s handwritten letters and drawings dedicated to their mother, this room might as well be the most revealing window into Nguyễn’s soul, her process and her energy.

“An Everyday Dream” reflects the universal power of fashion to provide a space for escapism through colours, beauty and fantasy. In that respect, the show is a unique opportunity to experience Nguyễn’s creations first hand. At the same time, one is compelled to recognise that this seemingly dreamlike world of Nguyễn’s is in fact her reality. And that, the quest for Vietnam to find its own voice and identity in the so-called scene of ‘contemporary fashion’ need not rely on chasing after globally homogeneous systems that flatten national cultures into one digestible sameness, but instead, dive deep into the country’s inherent cultural treasure trove still waiting to be awakened and transformed.

 

Thủy Nguyễn: An Everyday Dream
7 November 2020 – 6 February 2021
The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City

 

 

 
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