Rihanna, a billionaire singer, posed for Manolo Blahnik’s ad campaign. She also made a star of the Vietnamese designer who designed the white shirt she wore.
Nguyen Cong Tri has been creating chic eveningwear from Vietnamese-spun silk, organza, and taffeta for more than 20 years. However, his designs have not had much success outside of Vietnam. After Rihanna presented his Em Hoa collection, which was inspired by Vietnam’s flower sellers, many celebrities – including Beyonce and Naomi Campbell, Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry – started choosing his designs to wear at high-profile events.
“I’m so proud. He told AFP that designs by a Vietnamese designer were chosen by Hollywood stars and worn by them.” He spoke from his glamorous “Cong Tri” boutique in Ho Chi Minh City.
Some of his collections were created during flights over rice fields in his homeland. Another was inspired by all-women militias from the Vietnam War.
He believes that Vietnam has much more to offer fashion than its traditional role as a factory worker.
Tri has more than 150 employees and hopes his success will help guide a new generation. He stated that Vietnam will be able to claim its place on the global fashion map in the near future.
Strong women in Vietnam
Tri, one of eight siblings was born in Danang in 1978, three years after the end of the war with the USA. After studying industrial arts, he took up a job designing CD covers for Vietnamese artists.
However, he was drawn to the “resilience, strength” of Vietnam’s female soldiers. He had also heard stories about them at school. His first collection, “Green Leaves,” was created using a patchwork cloth technique. It took inspiration from the winter uniforms and hard green hats worn by the fighters.
He said that soldiers were “when they were at home, worked in the rice field, taking care their families,” They became militia women when they were on the battlefields. They were strong women.
Tri, who was dressed in white and a pair thick-rimmed, black glasses, said, “In all my collections… The characteristics that make strong Vietnamese women are always conveyed in my design or hidden in the material.”
Tri presented a collection of Lanh My A silk at Tokyo Fashion Week 2016. This durable fabric is made in one village in the Mekong delta. It takes a lot of skill and patience to make. Tri took two years to gather enough fabric to dye the fabric using the mac nua-coloured mac nua fruits.
These designs were inspired by the Ao Ba ba – a traditional attire worn by rice farmers – and his desire to incorporate his homeland into his clothes has earned him many fans beyond Vietnam.
Rihanna saw his flower girl collection and immediately ordered three. Two years later, he was the first Vietnamese designer to exhibit at New York Fashion Week.
From factory to fashion week
He spent years trying and wishing to attract the attention of international stars in an industry where half of the employees of color believe that a career as a fashion designer is not accessible to everyone.
The nation’s textile factories are in the news for their inability to meet orders from global clothing giants like Gap and Nike, but a group of talented young designers along with Tri are determined to reclaim the Made in Vietnam label.
Tran Hung, a designer also based in Ho Chi Minh City has displayed his designs at London Fashion Week while Tran Phuong M, a rising star, made her debut at New York Fashion Week in 2019.
Tri said, “Making our name in the global fashion industry is the result a long process and hard work.” He previously joked that 18 hours per day is all it takes to be successful abroad.
Some believe the industry has had a chance to change with virtual catwalks that allow designers from all parts of the globe to show their work. Tri however believes that Asian designers must continue to fight to rise to the top. He explained that there must be a way to get down each step of the path. It’s more than waiting for society to give us a chance.