Thúy Nguyen for THÚY Custom Clothier was interview on February 24th, 2018 at 12:00 pm by Kelly Reddy-Best in their store in San Francisco, CA. This interview was 2 hours and 18 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
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Oral History Transcript
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, Yeah.
NGUYEN: My name is Thúy and I’m of THÚY Custom Clothier. My full name is NGUYEN which is a Vietnamese name. It’s actually a very androgynous name, which I’m very proud of, and I’m glad my parents gave me this name. I think sounds THÚY Suits and THÚY Shirts make them really easy to remember. As far as my brand, I started it in high school, actually. I had a certain way of dressing which was very punk rock, Do-It-Yourself. I would shop at thrift stores and I’d find these really vintage type tee shirts and my friends would just be like, “Oh that’s such a THÚY shirt!” And then I was like, “Oh, that’s what I’ll do one day! I’m going to have THÚY shirts!”
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up and where have you lived outside of San Francisco, or the Bay Area?
NGUYEN: Sure! My parents were refugees from Vietnam and escaped the war. Basically, it was a situation where, as I’ve been told, my dad just ran home one day, and told my mom to grab what she can with her two hands, and we just had to get out. I was a baby still, and so I think she said that in one hand, she grabbed my brothers, I have three older brothers, and then, in the other hand, she grabbed me, and we left. We were lucky that we were able to get out safely. My father came from a very affluent family and he also worked as an official for… I don’t know. I think he described it as some sort of like, special CIA agent. So, I think it was like life and death for him and his brothers and sisters and his parents. My mom came from a poor family, more like what they labeled “farm/farmers.” She was the oldest in her family. She was sent away to Saigon to be trained as a seamstress, because her parents figured, “you’re the oldest and so you have to learn a trade skill so that you can help support the family.” So, my mom was sent away to Saigon, which is the big city in South Vietnam and that’s how my parents met. We were lucky to get out of Vietnam because of my dad’s family connections. Two of my aunts had married like, American soldier GI men who had, I don’t know, some high status. And we actually then, ended up in Puerto Rico. So, I have a lot of early childhood memories of growing up in Puerto Rico and, you know, my mom worked for Van Heusen. She was a seamstress there and I remember as a little kid walking there. It’s kind of hard to imagine a four-year-old walking from school to her mom’s workplace. I think it’s just like a different era where it felt safer then? I have some memories of just walking by myself as a little kid to my mom’s Van Heusen factory and going there–
REDDY-BEST: At four years old?
NGUYEN: Yeah! I started school early because my birthday is in September, so my parents put me in school early. Also, it was that we just came to a new place having nothing. My parents both had to work. We actually had this family from Puerto Rico who sponsored us to come over, because you have to get sponsored as refugees, and, for some reason, all of my dad’s siblings and his mom, also ended up in Puerto Rico. We also had to get sponsored or something, and so Betsy and her husband sponsored us. But yeah, my parents put me to school early. I think they put me in some sort of preschool because I just remember always being the smallest and always getting picked on because I was the smallest and, just always remembering that my classmates were always just way bigger than I was. Later in life I understood why, and it was like, “Oh my god, I think mom and dad put me to school way too early.” I think even sometimes now I see myself as that kid being who just kind of did it, like, I had some sort of like independence about me? So, when I used to walk to my mom’s Van Heusen factory and sit with her, or sometimes sit in the cafeteria and wait for her, or sometimes fall asleep in the lobby lounge, her coworkers were always like “aww,” because I was just like a little kid who would come and visit, and she’d just be there sewing. She was really good at what she did. She was so good that they gave her one of the sewing tables at the very front. [Laughs] Which I think, from what I recall, she said was kind of a big deal, you know? And everybody loved her. She just was such a very kind woman and also very social. I mean, I can see why my dad fell in love with her, she was just really stunning. Like the story he tells me is that he saw her randomly one day in the street and just followed her and then found out who her parents were and then asked his parents to talk to her parents to set something up. So that’s how you did it back in the day. But yeah, like I… And my dad was really handsome guy, like he’s, he’s really… And he’s such a– I mean I think I got my style from him. But I feel like I got my, I think my determination from her. Like I feel like I got a certain type of work ethic from my mom. You know?
REDDY-BEST: It’s interesting. My birthday is in October, and I went to school early too, so I was always the youngest. I think about that a lot because I feel like, I just do it. You just do it. I wonder if there’s like that connection between people who start earlier. You know, because you’re always smaller.
NGUYEN: It’s such a big difference, right?
REDDY-BEST: It’s such a big difference! I always think about like sports because I really excelled at some sports, and I always think to myself, “Geez, I wonder if I had been the right age and the right size,” because you develop over time.
NGUYEN: Oh my god, high school was so awkward. I always felt like I just…
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, I wasn’t driving, everybody else was driving.
NGUYEN: Of course, I was flat-chested, and I was like, “Oh my god!” I was the only one of most of my friends who drove, because, as soon as I turned 15 and a half I was like, “I’m getting my permit, so I can drive.” I had this little cut out picture of like [stutters] I don’t know if you know Auto Trader? It’s this black and white car sales catalog. So, I used to be in love with like, the Datsun 510 and so I would have this little cutout in my room. And one day I came home and I see this Toyota! It was an old, kind of like the same kind of car. It’s like the Toyota version of the Datsun 510, basically. It was a Toyota Corona sitting on the driveway, old and tan. I came home I was like “Oh.” And my dad, he’s such a good mechanic. What he used to do is he would buy these old cars, and he’d fix up the engine, and drive around for a while until he got like– my dad just, he just… had these certain hobbies that he would just be really obsessed with and then drop them and then he would move on to the next. So, he had this phase where he would buy these old cars, fix up the engine, ride it around for a while, and then uh. So, one day I come home and there’s this Toyota Corona sitting in the driveway, and I was like “Ah, man, what did dad buy this time?” Of course, we were really poor. So, I think for him to have these weird hobbies that my mom was like, “what are you doing with the family? We’ve got five kids to raise.” My little brother was born in Puerto Rico so he’s seven years younger than me. I’d say he’s a baby. [Laughs] Ha, just kidding. No, I love David, he’s my little brother. He’ll always be my little brother even though he’s like, “this tall.” He’s big, he’s as big as The Rock! But yeah, I go home, and dad’s like, “look! I got you a car! It was only $100!” I’m like, “Cool!” He fixed up the engine, so I was one of the very few amongst my friends who had a car, because I was just that independent spirit. For example, as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. At fifteen years old! As soon as I could get my driver’s permit, I went and got it, because, to me, it just meant my own freedom and I didn’t really rely too much on my family, really. I just always wanted to do things my way, you know? I had three other brothers and they were also into cars and, as soon as they could, they had jobs. At some point they all worked U-Haul, because that’s where my dad worked.
REDDY-BEST: The moving place?
NGUYEN: Yeah, isn’t that ironic? U-Haul, I’m a lesbian. [Laughs] When someone told me that joke I was like, “Haha, guess where my brothers and my dad worked.” My uncle Jerry was one of the American GI men that one of my aunts married and he was a manager at that U-Haul, so my dad worked there. Eventually we all moved to California from Puerto Rico. It was like one at a time. They all worked there, and saved and, I don’t know how boys do this, but they were able to always have money to buy things for their cars. All three of them had a Mustang, which were these old Mustangs that they all found and fixed up. They were growing up really poor yet they were able–like my brothers– were able to like do these things. Our like front yard in the neighborhood was like the ugliest yard. It was like one of those houses where it was like dry dirt lawn and then you got, like, all these old cars parked, you know? It’s just like that. And then here’s me with my little Toyota Corona, like. It’s like a beige, that color that you’re just like what? Now, I think back I’m like, “Aw, I love that car. Like, I miss it, you know? I’ve seen the new Fiat 500 in that color recently and I’m just like, [gasps] “it would be so perfect if that was the last car I owned was that color!” The first car and then the last car, but I think I’m straying. Where was I going with this?
REDDY-BEST: No, that’s okay! You were just talking about your background and where you grew up and stuff. It’s kind of a good transition into the next one, what is your educational background, what did you study?
NGUYEN: Sure. I mean I studied art, basically. I got into photography and then I went towards cinema, or was it vice versa? No, I think I started cinema first. Yeah. I went and studied cinema first, and then I got into photography because one of my cinema teachers, Tony Merritt– he’s an awesome teacher!– he suggested that everyone in the class take at least one black and white photo class to learn about composition and lighting. In black and white photography, you really learn a lot about lighting. I’m such a visual person and I think that’s why I gravitated towards photography, but he was our lighting instructor for cinema. He suggested, one year, that I take a black and white class and I became so fascinated in it. It was also just the ease of working by yourself, because you know, in cinema, you need a team. When you’re in college and you’re working all these jobs and trying to pay rent and you’re just like, “ugh, how do I make this film project that I need to have people to do.” It’s just hard because everyone’s got their thing going on and you can’t pay anyone, and film was expensive back then. So, with photography, I found that it was such an easier medium of art to work with. I found that was very solitary. You can just go out whenever and shoot, shoot, shoot. You can create even storyboards, which I did for one class. We had to create a storyline with just still images.
REDDY-BEST: Where did you go to school?
NGUYEN: City College of San Francisco. First I went to Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, and then I fell in love and kind of did the U-Haul thing where I basically moved up here for my first girlfriend and been here ever since. I went to City College of San Francisco and I met so many awesome people through that program, and teachers, as well, who I will never, ever forget. Especially how they really shaped me more as an artist, you know. I think growing up in a family where I’m the only daughter who’s expected to… I think my mom was really hard on me. She basically wanted me to be like, a housewife, and, I just never saw myself as that. I just was always like, “No, I want to do this or this or this.” Also, growing up with boys was another challenge in and of itself, as the only girl. They got to do all kinds of stuff that I felt like my mom didn’t want me to do. She had these expectations of me coming home from school and helping her do chores. I mean, she had a hard life, too. She had to raise five kids and she actually started a business. She continued her sewing career. So, this is how I get into my business: my mom was actually a dressmaker and she was one of the best dressmakers of the Vietnamese ao dai [traditional long dress] in San Jose. I like to think of it that way. When we were growing up in the ‘80s she just had the foresight and also, as I was saying, she just had this will, to be like, “I have to do this. I’m going to do this.” She just started from home, and word of mouth spread and she was eventually known to be the person to go to make the ao dai. My parents are also very warm people, for example, if anybody comes to the door, they’re welcome. It was very much an open-door policy to anyone, and then my mom also had a business from home, so we had people coming over to our house all the time. You know, and I would, you know. [Stutters] I would hear the humming of the machine constantly. You know, it’d be like, you know, she’d be working like, I don’t know how she did it, I don’t know, really. Like, five kids– sometimes I’m like wait how many one, two, three– five kids, right. And she would still have time to make dinner and it was like, like Vietnamese dinner like you don’t just make one entree, you’re like, you got the fish, you got the meat, you got the chicken, you got the rice, you got the greens, you got the soup. So, it was like our table was always full of food, and in the morning she’d send us off to school. And having grown up in Puerto Rico and coming here, there’s certain dishes that I thought was one or the other and then I was like oh that’s actually Vietnamese or oh that’s Puerto Rican. So, we had that kind of also like, multicultural type of growing up. So, my mom started this business and word spread. We had all kinds of women coming over, and for Vietnamese weddings you have like two or three different wardrobe changes, basically. So, she would make these dresses and the client would come over, get measured, and they would actually bring the fabrics. They would find the fabrics that they wanted. So, my mom basically had the one shot to make it right. In one of my documentary film classes I did a documentary that just showed her doing her thing. I was like, “just do this…now do this…alright now…” And I only speak to my parents in Vietnamese. Like, we weren’t allowed to speak English at home, so when we first moved to California she like set this new rule where it was like, “alright, you’re all going to learn Vietnamese now,” and my brother and I were like, “what?” She was like, “you can speak Spanish at home, that’s fine, because that’s what you know, but no English at home.” She was like, “you’re going to be out in the world, school, and they’re all in English,” and, she was like, “you’re going to go to Saturday Catholic Conformation School.” My brothers and I were such little brats. We were awful. We were bad. We were, like, really bad, and it was a school that was taught by Vietnamese nuns and priests who actually used rulers to hit you! We were so bad, I feel awful for my mom. Everyone loved her, you know! Like she, she was just so involved in the Vietnamese community. She was so involved everybody knew who she was. Like her name, Cô Bich, everyone knows. We’d go to the supermarket, she’d stop to talk, and I’d be standing there, waiting. I think that’s where I learned my patience: waiting for my mom for like hours and hours of having to go everywhere with her. But, so yeah. She put us in this Saturday, Vietnamese Confirmation school, very Catholic. We grew up Catholic. But my brothers and I were such bad kids, we were so bad. But it was interesting because sometimes I would hear the nurses kind of talk and they’d be like “Oh, watch out those are Cô Bich’s kids.” And then we were so bad, but you know, I’m so glad that she did that and I wish that I was a better student because I feel like my Vietnamese is not great, could be better. And I’m glad that she had the determination in her to just be like I’m going to make sure that my children learn their language. And she did. Some of my cousins through my mom’s side of the family, and eventually we were able to get them over. And I grew up really close with my cousins on my mom’s side and we grew up with all traditions and our cultures and our foods and our family. Family dinners it’s not like me, you, mom, and dad, it was like me, mom, dad, cousins, aunt, uncle, friends, second cousins… We had these huge family dinners and have it all laid out on the floor. We’d have all these hot pots with the electric cords and kids running everywhere. I’m like, “My god we never started one fire!” Right. Nowadays you can’t do that! Everyone’s so careful now, right? But yeah, my cousins and I, we miss those days because we also know and are aware that even their children aren’t getting that, so, it’s like a thing with every generation. You lose a little more and more, it’s hard. I think it’s just difficult to keep your culture intact and teach that to the offspring because you’re also going against where you are, you know what I mean? I mean, I’m so glad that my mom gave us that experience. I feel like it really helped shape me for sure. You know, and my mom used to go to like anti-communist protests. She was out there, I’m telling you. She was pretty badass, but, you know, there’s a lot of ex-patriots– Vietnamese– who escaped the war, were very anti-communist. You know, like, a lot of awful things happened to folks who ended up being stuck who weren’t communist sympathizers. So, she would go to all of these like. They would find out if there was like some communist coming in and like she would go on protest and… I mean there would be a group of them protesting. Sometimes she would drag me and my brothers along and we’d be like, what is mom doing now?! We were like little kids standing in the protest line holding the old Vietnamese flag and just being like, “uh?” You know, not really understanding what it was about, but seeing how passionate she was, because that was home, that was her country and it was ripped apart by war. It’s a different country now. You know, I’ve been back and I know that there’s been a lot of changes and I want to keep going back. I’ve also been back to Puerto Rico twice and I feel lots of familiarities when I go there and also when I walk around the Latino neighborhoods. When I first moved to San Francisco we’d walk around the Mission a lot because it felt familiar, sounded familiar, some of the foods tasted familiar, you know? But I also kind of yearned for that: wishing I had known more about it, and wishing I had more experience there in the country I was born, the country that my parents are from. I think that all these things, obviously, have like shaped me to the person that I am. Having these two very different cultures, but a lot of times feeling like I don’t know where I belong. Obviously, I’m Vietnamese, but never feeling quite, like, Vietnamese because…. For example, when we went to that school, my brothers and I just felt like outsiders, because we really didn’t know our language and we didn’t have any memories of it and all the kids had just come from there so they remembered it, and they spoke Vietnamese really well. We felt like we just… you know? But it’s interesting, because I feel like also from my memories of being in Puerto Rico. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. I think it’s just the island mentality, it’s so laid back. You know, us being Vietnamese and Asian, to them, it felt like more of a friendly type of curiosity and fascination and, “we want to get to know these people,” interest, but coming here, to the States, I immediately felt like we were different. I immediately felt there was discrimination and like, “Oh, you’re different,” but in a bad way, “you’re not from here.” I felt like during that time Vietnamese refugees seen as dirty by a lot of people, and I felt that more when I was here, rather than when I was in Puerto Rico. I think that’s another reason why I have such fondness for like the people there. It’s just like, not feeling any type of– even my parents. We have a lot of friends there. I remember that you could leave the door unlocked, and nothing would happen. But here, it felt like a whole ‘nother kind of like…
NGUYEN: Have to be safe!
REDDY-BEST: Lock the door!
NGUYEN: Like, “what are those guys?” Like, “what are they saying to us?” Like, “why are they being mean?” You know, it was weird. But yeah, going back to my mom starting a business from home, so she became really well known for what she did. She became so well known to the point that she had wedding clients, and she had beauty contestant clients come over, and she had like calendar models. I remember her doing a photoshoot for a calendar with this photographer, and my little brother ended up being in the calendar because they’re like, “Oh, we need a little boy the other boy got sick, so okay… David!” My little brother, David was named after a hurricane passing through Puerto Rico, so it’s like, “Hurricane David,” or David. He’s the only one with an American name. But, she used to have all these beautiful women coming over and of course she would be like, “Hey, turn off the TV, our guests are here, so you have to make space for them.” So of course, me and my brothers sometimes we would just sit there and stare, because we were like, “wow, these beautiful women!” And I like to think of it as her fault for why I’m gay. Like, “well Mom, you had all these beautiful women coming over all the time! Like, what are you supposed to do, you know? I think that’s why I’m gay!” So, just growing up around that and she sometimes would have one room that was just for sewing. And she would have like– it just drove me nuts– this is why I think that I’m really particular about little things. So, there would be thread everywhere all over the house. It would just hang on you; you know what I mean? She would be covered in it. I’m like, “Mom!” The lint roller thing was like my favorite thing. And you know she didn’t buy those things, but sometimes I would be like can you just buy one please! But again, my mom was very, she was very smart with her money. My dad wasn’t. My dad was like. But my mom was the one who was like we have a family, we have to do this, you know, very tight. I mean. [Stammers] As I got older I understood why. You know? And, we weren’t spoiled, obviously. You know. If she ever bought ice cream, we were only allowed one scoop. So, you got five kids fighting over who got the biggest scoop of ice cream. And it was always vanilla. Oh god. Now and then she’d get Neapolitan because that was her favorite. but uh yeah. There would just be thread. I’m just looking at these little pieces of lint right now and I’m like, I’m trying to, I’m not going to pick them up but I’m like focusing on. But it came from that. From like the house just being covered with all kinds of thread. And then she, I remember there was one, we moved around more than a few, because we rented. And so, for our first house that we got that was probably the longest that we had stayed in one house. And she would have these plastics bags filled with fabric scraps. And it would just accumulate in the corner. It was like why are we saving these! I have no idea to this day why she would save these scraps of her client. Because it was like you only got enough for one dress. So that documentary I showed of her, was like super 8, black and white and then I did a separate audio recording on cassette tapes. I kind of like tried to synchronize it when I showed it in class. And there were some women in my class, who like after they saw it they just came up to me, they were like, one was like, she was like, really teary-eyed. She was like oh my god that just reminded me of home, like made me miss my– she was also Asian. She was an immigrant, so I think it really hit her close. And then another woman was like, “I can’t believe your mom doesn’t use patterns.” And I was like “Patterns? What’s that?” She was like, “That’s what you cut first!” Eventually, later on, I took some sewing classes, and took a pattern-making class and I was just like, “Holy shit!” [stammers]. When I shot that documentary and when, it took someone to point out my mom’s craft for me to get it. It hit me that day, to recognize how skilled she was! I was just like, “Oh my gosh.” For example, she would mark out the measurement and just cut into it, and it was the one piece, so it had to be perfect. She would just be sewing. Sometimes she would have these deadlines and she would sew late into the night. You could hear the humming of her machine, morning and night, and sometimes you’re abruptly awakened by it in the morning. Of course, you’re a kid so you’re a little brat and you’re grouchy, but this is what she did. And she was able to get us off to school, have us have breakfast. My mom used to give us a ????., and then send us off to school. I’m like, “Little kids drinking coffee? My mom used to give us coffee? No wonder I’m short,” because of how they say that caffeine stunts your growth? [gestures] My little brother is this tall. Supposedly her father was really– I have some tall cousins and stuff.
REDDY-BEST: So, it sounds like your mom had a pretty big impact on you.
NGUYEN: She did. I didn’t think I would be doing this back then. I was just really into the arts, especially, cinema. In high school, I remember a friend of mine had an older sister who was very artsy and they would take me to these art house films and that was my introduction to that kind of cinema and seeing all these foreign films. I was really drawn to it. I’m a very visual person and I think also being the type of kid where you’re in your own head all the time, basically daydreaming all the time, you know? Also, I was growing up in this beautiful little island where, as a kid, I felt such freedom. Every day I was outside playing, and my dad would take us to the beach. You know, it was just that kind of childhood. We would go on these drives and I would always just stare out the window, and just imagine things, and I think that being a kid is that it is always in your head. I think that’s what led me to be more into arts. I think I got into it because I felt like there was a need for it, and also, because I was small size person and identified as butch. I’ve always been a tomboy, and I’ve always wanted to wear my brothers’ clothes, and as soon as I could, I started kind of stealing some of my dad’s clothes. I still have a pair of his slacks and vests, and I don’t know what he did with the jacket, but I wish he still had it. I would go thrift shopping to buy clothes for myself and I would learn how to alter them so they would fit me better. I also have this sense, from growing up with a father who’s always dressed up. He would always be so sharply dressed, and we would sometimes be like, “Dad, where are you going?” “I’m going to go buy milk.” He was such a good-looking guy. And my mom, made all her outfits and so I think that even from a young age, I was very aware of fit and style. I used to shop for my little brother, who is seven years younger than me. I say that my little brother is my first model, because of my responsibilities was to help raise him, to take care of him, basically. So, as soon as he started school, I would get his little outfits out, and put them out for him. I would be like, “Tomorrow you’re going to wear this!” And of course, he’s the little kid being like, “No I don’t want to wear that!” “No, you have to!” I remember going thrift shopping and I would be like “[gasps] this would look so good on David!” I was just shopping for myself really, but for him, because it was that he’s my little, and I’m going to dress him up.
REDDY-BEST: So, can you tell me which term you use to describe your gender identity?
NGUYEN: Okay, yeah. So, I identify as butch, I identify as queer. I feel I’ve always been more comfortable with the word queer because queer is so all-encompassing, and it’s so many things and that’s what I feel like. I feel like my identity is not one or the other, obviously it’s not black and white, but it’s just like there are so many things that make me who I am, from like just early childhood experiences to coming to terms with my sexuality, at 21 years old. Really, I was a late bloomer, but I also always feeling like a tomboy, and growing up with four brothers is like, “I know how to relate to, to, to boys.” So, it doesn’t feel like I was more masculine because of that, growing up. I’ve always felt really awkward around like women who are especially very feminine. Although I love to date feminine women, but growing up, I just didn’t know how to be around them, and again, that goes back to starting school way too soon, and knowing anything about popular culture, or the fashion trends, or hair or makeup. I was always just a tomboy just because we were poor, and also, I think because I had hand me downs, or my mom would take us to Thrift Town. I didn’t really get a real sense of fashion, until I realized my mom would always want to make me clothes, and then she asked, “How do you want to make it? And then I was like, “Oh cool! So, if you make me a shirt, I want it like this.” She says, “Okay, I’ll make you a shirt like that, but it has to be the fabric I pick.” [Laughs] I have all these funky little outfits, oh my God. Ugh, my freshman year, you should’ve seen the outfits that my mom made. They were almost like pantsuits, because they would be these matching top and bottoms with the same fabric, and it’d be like a pastel lavender or this yellow. It was just really bizarre colors that kids in high school didn’t really wear, but I would be like, “Cool, okay.”
REDDY-BEST: Which gender pronouns do you use?
NGUYEN: I use she. I mean, I use she. I think I mean, there was a short while when, I used they because everyone started using it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m kind of both,” but then the more I thought about it, I was like, “Actually, I like that I’m a woman who’s queer, or who’s butch who looks this way, and I feel like one of my jobs in this world is to challenge people’s perspective of what man is; what woman is; what a she looks like; or what a he looks like.” The the other day I was at the store in LA, and this guy was like, “Oh sir, do you need any help?” I’m like, “Oh, no thanks.” Of course, he probably knew he said the wrong one, but I didn’t mind it. I don’t mind it, because I feel like, “Oh good, I challenged you and what you thought I was, and then you realized that I wasn’t who you thought I was.” I think that do that in our society helps broaden people’s perceptions. So, I definitely, am like, “Yeah I go by she. I’m butch. I’m queer.” I feel like queer’s a positive. I feel like she’s a positive. I feel like being a butch woman is a positive for me. I also don’t mind if somebody identifies me as a he or they.
REDDY-BEST: How did the idea for the company come about? It seems like your childhood life with your mom shaped it.
NGUYEN: Yeah, it definitely shaped it. Well, with suiting, it was more because it’s something that I liked. I think in my twenties when I was with my first girlfriend, we loved to dress up and she had this very 1930s-type aesthetic, and she introduced me to like a nice knit, all of those. I felt like we had this very matching type of aesthetics as far as our dress. We just loved going out and dressing up. We’d dress up, go out, and I think over the years, every time I went shopping for a suit it was just always hard for me to find something that fit. Again, because I’m like 5’4″, it’s hard to find men’s clothes that fit someone who’s as short as me. I found a few suits that kind of were close and I went to some vintage shops and would found some. We also went to the Men’s Warehouse and they got me a little boy’s suit, and I’ve obviously outgrown boy’s sizes now, because I’ve kind of gained a little more weight, because I was really skinny back in my twenties. I think also with the Internet, it was easier for me to find tailors that I can work with. I did some research and I met a master tailor from Bangkok, and we talked and he was like, “okay if you want to do this, this is how we can make it work.” I tried them out for like three months and I really loved the communication with them, I loved that they were open about saying like, “our women actually work in high positions, too, they’re not just the seamstresses.” I love that they’re a workshop and not a factory. Thailand has very good labor law practices, and they were really, right off the bat, when I said I work with mostly queer LGBT community and they didn’t even flinch. I have since then met Mr. ????, who’s one of their reps. twice in the last year, and I want to go and visit everyone. My second meeting with Mr. ???? was that we just sat down and he was like, “Alright, how do we make you successful,” he’s like, “because you have this really small niche, you’re working with the LGBT community and do gay weddings.” He’s like, “how do we…” And just that kind of enthusiasm I think it comes also from my relationship, over the years, of always being very professional, always being very grateful, always saying thank you, and I think those are some of the things I learned from my parents, too. Especially that you make a certain personal connection with people, like my mom did with her business. She welcomed people over to the house, all of the time. So, part of my business is having that kind of service, like building relationships with people, like that kind of relationship that I built with my tailors, you know, we have such a great working relationship now. That also has to do with the fact that Thailand has very good LGBT laws, and also an openness to the LGBTQ community. I wanted to do custom suiting because it was something that I’ve always loved. I’ve always loved wearing a nice suit, and I felt that it was just kind of like “Oh, mom did dresses and now I’m going to do suits! So, it’s perfect!” One of these days I eventually want to get to where I could do the Vietnamese style ???? but there’s so many people doing that right now, but I would like to incorporate that with Custom Clothier. I think that’s it.
REDDY-BEST: So, when did your company officially become a business, and then, when did the first thought in your mind come in relation to creating a company?
NGUYEN: So, let’s see. I startedTHÚYCustom Clothier, and the date is very specific, it’s October 2013. I remember October because it’s my nephew’s, Aiden, birthday, my brother David’s youngest son. And the name, finding a name is tricky, you know what I mean? For a brand or something that’s going to stick, and also something that later on are always going to still feel good about. I went through a lot of different ideas, you know, and then I decided to go withTHÚYCustom Clothier because, again, that’s aTHÚYsuit. I know that, to a lot of people in this country, especially, it’s a foreign name, obviously, and a lot of people still struggle with the pronunciation, to the point where they don’t even say it! [Laughs] We live in a very diverse country, actually. Well, some areas are more diverse than others, but, I was like, “people are just going to have to learn how to say my name.” Luckily, in the Bay Area, it’s been a little easier. Also, the reason why I went with my name was because of my mom’s business [laughs]. So, one day I was like, “Mom, you need business cards, like, how are you…?” And of course, whenever I’m retelling stories, I’m speaking to my mom in Vietnamese. So, there are some translations where it actually might be funnier if I were to speak it in Vietnamese. It was when business cards were starting to be a thing, and one day I came home from school and my mom was like “Thúy guess what, I have business cards!” I’m like, “Alright, good job mom! Let me see” and she gives me a card and it’s like “Cô Bich” her name, with her phone number. I’m like “Awesome mom!” I’m like, “That’s your name.” She’s like, “Yeah, my business card.” So, that was her branding. Like I said earlier, everybody knew her. They’d just be like “Cô Bich.” Cô is the salutation like, “Mrs., madam, auntie,” and Bich is her first name, B-i-c-h, and she kept her maiden name, so she’s a Tran. My father’s a Nguyen. [Laughs]. Trans and Nguyens.
REDDY-BEST: It seems that, again, your mom has had a significant influence. You know, she was a dress maker and l her business card…
NGUYEN: Her business card! It just was wild.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, and I think there is real resistance, you know only based on my own anecdotal experience, so to stay true to that, and to stay true to your name and keep it in the brand name, because for a brand, the name is such an important part.
NGUYEN: Yeah, and I that’s why I went with THÚY Custom Clothier. Eventually I might just cut out Custom Clothier and just be Thúy. And that has nothing to do with ego or having a big head, but it’s just like, “this is the name my parents gave me, and it’s a very androgynous name.” To me, THÚY in of itself is both a he/she and a they. It’s such an androgynous name. And you know, I have an accent on the “U” that reminds me of a needle and so that’s my mom’s needle stabbing at me! Because I can’t do anything right. She was hard, but I love her, she loves me. She says I’m her favorite son. Take that brothers! My mom actually, later on, when I left home, and it wasn’t that dramatic like, “Oh I left home,” —-well it kind of was—but when I left she started being nicer. You know, more loving, and showing more love, and also just appreciating my looks more, being like “Oh I like this. I like your hair short. I like that shirt you’re wearing.” My dad would be the one who was like, “Oh you should grow out your hair.” My dad was still a little resistant because I’m his only daughter, but with my mom was it just became more and more acceptance. You know? Which was just like, “wow.”
REDDY-BEST: Was that recent? Oh, that was when you moved out.
NGUYEN: I was in my twenties when I left. My mom and I had a very… really hard relationship. I think it’s because I was so resistant to being the Vietnamese daughter that she was trying so hard to make me into, but I think that kind of helped give me the tools to go on out my own. Even from an early age, like, as I was taking care of my little brother, I remember that I always knew that I was going to be okay, that I didn’t really need anyone.
REDDY-BEST: Did the idea of what she would think of being a Vietnamese daughter, have a lot to do with femininity and, appearances? Such as an appearance of a feminine appearing daughter? Or her idea of that? Do you think there was a large tie to that, or do you think it’s just overall characteristics, like roles in the family and so forth?
NGUYEN: Yeah, I think it’s all of that. It’s also that she was the oldest daughter, and, of course, like I said, she was beautiful. You know, so she’s got this ugly daughter, you know? I’m the ugly duckling and she’s the beautiful princess, you know? I think that was probably a little hard for her, too. I think for most mothers it’s hard to not see their daughters mirror them, and I can only speak for those who are culturally Vietnamese, but it was very hard for her to not have a daughter who was the complete spitting image of her. It was like that she was always the best-looking daughter, and obviously very charming, and having lots of admirers, and then suddenly you have this ugly duckling kind of a daughter who’s just so stubborn, and then would just wander off. My parents are like, “You would just, as a kid, always wander off! You’d just be like…” And again, that’s what I was saying, that I was always in my head. I think that was hard and I think for a really long time she was like, “you have to learn how to do these things so that when you get married you can take care of your…” and I’m like, “I’m not marrying someone to take care of them! If I marry someone, it’s because I love them, or because I can take care of myself, and I think even in her trying to instill these roles in me, it kind of backfired, because then I just learned how to do things a lot on my own, you know? I kind of became really independent early on and I also think that, again, genetically, I must’ve gotten a lot of her strong will. When she started accepting the way that I looked…and it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t like I didn’t really beg for it, I just did it. It was just this is how I dress, this is how I like to dress, and this is how, and at one time in my life I had blue hair… and the only thing she didn’t like about that phase was that I had to bleach it first and she hated that because she said that every time we would go to the supermarket, people thought that she had a white husband, and that did not sit well with her, but she would say it in these funny ways where my brother would be like, “Oh my god mom her hair is blue!” It’s like, “oh, it’s better than blonde.” So that’s just what they would be like, so whatever I did it was also like… my mom was like, [sigh] “what can I do?” It was also, I think, up to my teen years, I remember lots of screaming and yelling between me and my mom, and when I left at 21 it just felt like we learned how to love each other. We learned how to see each other, really, and I think, even to this day, I sometimes think she’s like, “when are you moving back home” I’m like, “Mom, like…”
REDDY-BEST: Are they still in San Jose?
NGUYEN: Yeah, they live in San Jose. My mom had a stroke in 1999 that left her forever disabled so she had to stop working, she couldn’t do anything anymore. I did this photo project on her recovery which kind of helped me through that process. I don’t know if other families of stroke survivors feel this way, but it’s a kind of a grieving process because if the person doesn’t fully recover it’s a loss. It’s like this huge loss, and she was such a matriarch. I think it was really hard, especially then, for my brothers and I to accept it. I think, to this day, honestly, it still kind of is for us.
REDDY-BEST: It’s interesting how art can really help people heal in so many ways.
NGUYEN: Yeah. Yeah, at the time I didn’t know how to deal with it, and it probably felt weird to be there with my camera snapping photos at her in the hospital room, but I look back at these photos and there’s still a kind of pride that you see in her, but it’s also that I think you see through the images in how I’m dealing with it. But yeah.
REDDY-BEST: So, can you tell me about the business model? How does it work? For example, how does it work if I want to get a shirt, or if I want to get a suit?
NGUYEN: You’d want to get a suit. So, the process, sure. So, I have a website, which I created, because everything I do, I do on my own. I didn’t have any capital to start this business. I didn’t do any kind of fundraiser, I was like, “I’m going to do it how mom did it.” She started from nothing, and basically, it was like that for me, and then, one day I was lying in bed and I was like, “You know, mom and dad started with nothing twice over, I have no excuse not to give myself a chance to try this.” So, people will book an appointment with me, and I do private consultations, and this is where I meet most of my clients. I also started doing pop up locations, like, I’m doing a pop up tomorrow at Strapping., and I also try to branch out in Los Angeles.
REDDY-BEST: Is that why you were in L.A.?
NGUYEN: Yeah, yeah. I had four clients there.
REDDY-BEST: Where do you meet them, when you go there?
NGUYEN: Uh, it varies. Sometimes I meet them at their home, or where I’m staying. One client, I met them at their hotel room because they were there for a conference. Sometimes it can be a little scary if you don’t really absolutely know them, so what I do is tell my little brother like, “Hey, can you call me in an hour?” Or like, “this is where I’m going to be at.” If I’m doing some traveling, I feel like a traveling salesman, basically, where I’m lugging all my stuff a lot. Like, if I’m going to LA, I’m lugging all my stuff and I’m meeting people wherever, you know?
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, and you have to go into spaces. So you might meet clients in your Airbnb or the place you can rent?
NGUYEN: Yeah, I mean, I wish there was another way. I mean, I know there’s a We Work, where it’s more public.
REDDY-BEST: Right, like shared workspaces.
NGUYEN: Yeah, yeah, it’s a shared workspace and they have them here. I think it might be a California thing, I don’t know.
REDDY-BEST: So, yeah, so you go to LA, and your model is that you do individual consolations, and it could be in different spaces.
NGUYEN: Yeah, so in San Francisco, this is where I meet my clients. I stopped going to people in the Bay Area, and I kind of started to urge people to come meet me here, rather than me going there, because it just also felt like really time consuming for me overall, and also I have to lug everything. I find that it’s also very distracting when people are in their homes, which makes the consultation go on longer. So, what I do is I set up a consolation, for a custom suit to be sewn, I do close to three hours for a consult. Sometimes it goes a little longer and other times it goes right at that length. What I’ve also started doing recently was that a friend suggested — actually by my friend who owned a clinic, she’s one of my close friends and I actually used to work at this clinic, and now there are three locations, so she’s a smart business person, and she suggested that I do phone consults, like a complementary phone consult up to fifteen minutes so you kind of get an idea first before you meet them. And I’m like, “Oh my god, that would save me so much time, because there have been some consultations where at the end of it people are still unsure and I just spent three hours on them! Sometimes I do take a deposit. So, during the consultations, you know, they’re welcome to come and bring a friend, or friends, as many as can fit in here. So, I sit there, and they sit here, and it’s funny, because this room is called the therapy room, and it feels like that, too. So, I feel like my consultations, are very personal. I feel that a lot of my clients that I work with have certain body issues and have certain experiences with going shopping that really make them uncomfortable. I feel like the space already sets the mood. It’s very calming, we sit down, there’s not a lot of stuff. I’m not like trying to do a sales pitch. I’m more like, “I sit down.” I’m like, “Oh, what is the event for?” Then we look at all the fabrics, and then they choose some and then we go through a process of elimination until they pick their favorite one. There are fabrics for linings that they can pick from, too. When it’s still daylight out, we will walk out with the fabrics, so that they can also get a sense of the colors in daylight, and I have some more lights that actually sit up here for just kind of browsing through the fabrics. So, we pick out the fabrics and then I take their full measurements. There’s a room over here that has a ceiling-to-floor mirror and we do take their full measurements. I feel that my measuring techniques are, just because also I do a lot of back and forth talk with my tailors and I always make sure that my tailors are good. When I met Mr. ????, he’s like, “You know, you’re the only one who works with us who is so passionate about what they do, and we want to help you because I see that in you.” And I was like, “Why wouldn’t anyone be excited about this?” And he’s like, “You’d be surprised how many people aren’t.” And I’m like, “But that is why you choose to do this!” So, for me, it’s not just about a piece of clothing, it’s about, how do I connect with this person and how do I make them feel comfortable through the process? A lot of times I’m working on outfits for a wedding, a very special event, and I have the one shot to make this right, and to make them feel like a star for their wedding or their event.I want them to feel comfortable. I want them not to not have to think like, “Oh, do I look stupid?” Or like, “Oh, does this look weird on me?” I think, as a butch person, going through life, finding comfort, even in my own body, even wearing certain clothes, I know exactly what that’s like. I know what it’s like to go to a family wedding and just be like, “Does this look right on me?” I get a lot of these clients who go through that, so it does feel like therapy. I feel like I do get, again, like when I’m doing a consultation, and they’re sharing stories with me, they’re sharing personal parts of themselves with me, and I get to be some small part in their wedding. Like, they’re wearing something that I, well, I didn’t literally make, but it’s like I had made something for them. I had created this outfit for them. Even after a consultation, when people leave here, and they are just all smiles. A lot of times my clients will be like, “Gosh that was fun, that was painless, or that was, you know…I didn’t expect for it to be so easy.” So, after I take their measurements, we talk about style, and, again, I don’t have a lot of stuff. I show them photos or I ask them first, and then I show them photos, but that’s because I don’t want them to have any preset ideas. I want them to really think about it.
REDDY-BEST: So, you’re not showing them line drawings? Or, you might?
NGUYEN: I show them some samples of things that have already been made, that are on my Instagram, and with suiting, you can only go so far with the design, right? So, again, it’s kind of easy in this way, because it’s like there’s only three kinds of lapels…
REDDY-BEST: Or, which kind of notch do you want.
NGUYEN: Or, the sleeve. Right, right, exactly! So, we go through the different styling details of the suit, and overall, most people have a pretty good idea of what they want. And some people don’t! Some people are like, “I had no idea that there are three kinds of lapels!” It gets overwhelming for them, and so I walk them through that. Even just looking at all the fabric books can get a little overwhelming, so I also try to walk them through it, talk them through it, and help them sort it out. I think, with doing the complementary phone consultation, it’ll help me, because usually I ask people when we’re emailing like, “Oh what colors are you thinking? What textures? So you have any samples of photos you can send me?” So, doing it that way will also help me make the consultation that much simpler, you know? And after, we just talk about the style and all that. I’ve had clients come in with like drawings and stuff, and I’ve done some loose drawings for people, too, with very specific styling requests, but I don’t do full on illustrations. I think, with suiting, it’s all going to be pretty similar, but I’m also trying to branch out. I recently had this shirt that my mom made, that she actually made for my older brother when he was little. I remember I used to wear it when I was in my twenties because it fit me then, but it was like a cross between the Filipino barong and the Caribbean guayabera. So, it’s like she made this hybrid of a tropical shirt. [Laughs] I was like, “Mom, we’re not Filipino?” I’m not sure where she got the barong idea, or why she incorporated it. So, I took a bunch of photos of it and I was like, “I want this shirt.” This is going to be a good spring/summer shirt to push. I want that specific style replicated for my clients. It’s stuff like that where I’ll… like, I feel like more of a stylist than I feel like a designer. I’m not actually designing new pieces, right? Eventually I want to get into that, when I get more capital, and when I get my name up. Right now, the focus is more on growing my clientele, growing my name, and tightening up some things. I’m doing this on my own, and I just want to make sure I can do it before I like branch out… I just don’t want to go into debt. I don’t want to.
REDDY-BEST: Is there anyone else who works with you? Or it’s just you?
NGUYEN: It’s just me.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, you’re doing it all.
NGUYEN: Yeah, I’m like the lone traveling salesman. I kind of want to do a drawing of like a shadowy figure with like a case going through a light tunnel, you know what I mean? That could be my next art work. I did a little single lined sketch that I’m going to use as a logo. I’ll email that to you. I had it printed on the bag. But yeah, so then, I let my clients know that, “There’s some things that we talked about today, so you might go home tonight and think, ‘Oh, actually, I want this this way,” and so I give them some time to think about it. I give them one or two days to think about it, but, a lot of times, they’ll be like, “Nope, I’m ready let’s do it.” Then I submit my measurements and the styling of the suit and what kind of a profile they want. [Stammers] It’s about working with a lot of female bodies that are curvy, but masculine presenting, so that my tailors know that even those measurements submitted are from a female body, we want to make the suit into a more masculine profile, and they do that for me. They’re like “Oh, okay, “ because in the beginning, it was like, “these measurements seem kind of…huh? Oh! Because it’s a women’s body, but we’re doing…” And so, with that, they’ve also figured how to work with me and my clients. Then, the turnaround time for that is about six to eight weeks, although it’s sometimes sooner. I think it’s because my tailors really like me, and I’m like, “Thank you!”
REDDY-BEST: Are your tailors here?
NGUYEN: They’re in Bangkok.
NGUYEN: Yeah, so I work with Bangkok tailors.
REDDY-BEST: I was pretty sure that was the case.
NGUYEN: I don’t think I’ve come across any good American tailors, unfortunately. If I were to use American tailors the price would be really high, too, and it’s not like I’m paying them poorly, but also, I pay for the materials, and I pay for what they ask for, and so I feel like I’m contributing to another small business. I also feel like they really like working with me. I feel like they believe in me, and they believe in my brand and they’re very supportive of my clients, and that all feels so good. It’s not like I’m just buying from someone I’m never going to meet, but I’m actually working with people that I have met. I’ve met a couple of my tailors and I know that when I am able to go to Thailand I’m going! One of my dreams is to go there and work there for three months or something and just hang out with them, being like, “Yeah!” I just appreciate them so much, and I think that I also have a lot of appreciation for the people who contact me, I feel like you chose me. This is great. So then, during the first fitting is when they get to try on their outfits and I swear, I get really nervous.
REDDY-BEST: Because fitting’s are tough, you know.
NGUYEN: Sometimes I have panic attacks and anxiety the night before because I’m like, “What if it doesn’t fit? What if something is off?” And then the fitting happens and they’re just like, “I love it!” And, to me, that makes it all worthwhile. What makes it worth it is when I see my clients feeling just so happy. I mean, when you see them, even just their posture… and that’s another thing about why I feel this is really therapeutic is because it boosts people’s confidence. They put on the suit and they are standing taller, they’re straighter, and their whole face lights up, and when I see that I have such a moment of complete joy and also, such a moment of pride, because I feel like they’re my kids. I’m like, “Aw you look so good!” A lot of times I find myself, my jaw is just like [grins widely], “Oh my God! You look so good!” And I’m not saying that because I helped, but it was just like, “You look good!” It makes me feel like, “Oh my gosh, you’re going to be up there on your wedding day and all these people are going to look at you and you’re just going to shine,” you know? And that, to me, is what I love about what I do. It’s that part. It’s the part where I see my clients putting on their outfits, and just seeing that joy. A lot of my clients have become my friends, you know, and it’s really sweet. Then, I feel like there comes some sort of responsibility around that, too, that responsibility of not letting them down in any way. I think that that’s one of the things about becoming a brand is that you suddenly become really responsible for how other people might perceive you. I think I tend to be a really private person and I feel like this has kind of pushed me to kind of a private place where…. [stutters] It’s kind of a lot. When I do consultations, in a lot of ways, I feel like I need a really long recovery time. For example, if I’m doing two or three consultations back to back, I go home, and I have to sit in silence. I need to sit in silence, in a very dim light, with complete quiet, and I just need that recovery time because sometimes, it can be a lot. When you’re sharing a lot of stories and then, I feel responsible for how they’re going to feel when they put on their THÚY suit, you know?
REDDY-BEST: Is your business mainly comprised of folks buying for weddings or is it something else?
NGUYEN: I feel like it’s growing. I feel like it’s definitely growing. I think whenever I go to LA, it feels like a whole different industry down there. Up here, I feel like most of my clients are coming to me for weddings, but then, I also have clients who just want a nice work suit or a nice “I’m going to a wedding suit,” you know what I mean? A fun suit, you know, a going out suit. I’m getting more and more women coming to me who want suits, and not necessarily a masculine suit, but just want a custom, well made suit.
REDDY-BEST: Women, in the sense that they’re straight women?
NGUYEN: Oh cis, like cisgender women. I’m getting a mixture of queer women who are more feminine representing, and then also cisgender, straight women who are working professionals who want a badass suit. I think doing fashion shows has kind of helped to get my name out there.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk a little bit about what shows you’ve done?
NGUYEN: Oh, sure. Yes. So, my first fashion show was produced by Kearny Street Workshop, and they’re an Asian-American nonprofit that have been around as long as I’ve been around. They’ve been around for over four years, and they’re still going strong. So, they produced this event. It used to be every other year, but it was called “Celebrate Your Body.” I got an email from them one day saying “Hey, we’ve heard of you, we would like you to apply to do this fashion show.” And I’d just started. I had just started my business, so I was just like, “Oh my god,” because [stammers] even as an artist there’s always doubt. In everything you do, there’s so much doubt, right? And also, lately what a lot of people have been talking about, the imposter syndrome, of like, “Oh my gosh, who do I think I am?” I think I had that when I was an artist and showing my work in cafes and galleries. It was just the doubt of like, “who am I to do this?” But anyways, I get accepted to be in the fashion show, and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I barely have anything,” and “Oh! I have the suits that I have in my size, and some shirts, “ so I just put something together and it was the smallest, little group for my first fashion show. I’m very thankful for Kearny Street Workshop, because they gave me that push that I also needed as an artist and a designer, as a stylist, and also feeling more like, “Owning this. Owning THÚY Custom Clothier. This is your brand, this is what you have to do, and you’re going to put on a show.” I’m grateful for Celebrating Your Body is that during the model auditions, and that all the models were very feminine, and they asked me, “What kind of models do you need?” and I was like, “Oh, I do suiting, so I need really masculine-presenting, androgynous models.” So, they did a call out for a model audition, and everyone’s volunteering, you know, so it’s like everything is just for like the people doing it because they want an fun experience and to support Kearny Street and “Celebrate Your Body.” So, I had model auditions and I had my fellow designers, who are part of the show, and we’re all sitting on the side of the table, and we’re all looking at these models, and I kept thinking to myself, “Gosh, they’re all so feminine, there’s not one model here that could even pass for androgynous.” I was like, “I don’t want to dress a feminine woman. I don’t want to dress her in drag. I don’t want this to be a drag show, and, for me, I want my suits to really come through.” I kept thinking, “Okay, don’t let this be a block.” This is all in my head during the model auditions. I’m just thinking and thinking, and I’m like, “Alright, just take this as a challenge. You’re going to have to create a feminine suit. You’re going to pick one of these models and you’re going to create something feminine in a suit, and she has to feel really sexy in it and she has to feel really good in it.” So that was my challenge to myself, and so I chose the model because I really loved her energy, and her charisma. I decided to create this outfit that was feminine, and I dressed it up, and kind of styled it to be really feminine. It was so out of my box. It was completely out of anything, you know what I mean? As I told you, I grew up tomboyish, with four brothers. My mom was probably the biggest feminine representation in my life, and I was just like, “We’re going to do this short suit, and we’re going to have her wear these leather knee-high boots and I’m going to drape her with these belts, and I went shopping looking for things, because I was going to have her in this belt and this blouse that was really feminine blouse. The day it came for us to dress our models, I dressed Lauren and all the models were just like, “Oh my God,” and that was a game changer for me in creating. I was like, “Oh, I need to think outside of my butch box. I need to think of how I would dress a woman who really embraces her feminine side and who wants to still have that femininity show through a suit.” Luckily, later on I met some androgynous models who were able to model for me, including one of my cisgender straight guy clients who decided to model for me in one of his suits. I was like, “Yes!” You know, I did Queer Fashion Week.
REDDY-BEST: The one in Oakland or in Brooklyn?
NGUYEN: Yeah, in Oakland. So, I did Queer Fashion Week two years in a row and I also did this fashion show called ????, which was like kind of a more independently produced fashion show. I feel like that was, artistically, one of my favorite shows that I put together, and then Queer Fashion Week. I did Super Butch in Toronto. So, with every show I felt like it’s an expression of your creativity. Seeing and watching fashion shows from these well-known designers on YouTube, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, everything is so well thought out,” such as the music, how you make a body of work cohesive, and how to have a theme. I feel like I try to do that with every show that I’ve done: I try to create a theme that would be cohesive but would also show the individual aspect of the model, because I also wanted to make sure the style wasn’t lost on the individual person. I wanted to integrate the person’s unique identity and also in how I would style them and then kind of, you know, and I feel like I did that, especially with the last queer fashion week show I did. Also, I think the shows kind of grew, like my line, like the people and the numbers and the diversity, and showcasing like I feel like showcasing a spectrum of bodies, really. You know, and expression, and gender identity, and sexual identity. And I think that really helped with how people see my brand, you know, and the kinds of clients I get are really varied. I feel like what I do, is a kind of community work, and, even though it’s like clothing, I feel like fashion is very revolutionary. For example, if you think about our history and different countries, and eras, and time periods, you see a certain style of dress, right? And it signifies what the time period it is. Now, with like, I think with all the queer designers that you’ve been interviewing, I think we’re doing fashion for us. And I think that’s, you know like people ask me well what’s the difference between what you call yourself as queer designer versus other designers who are also queer but. And it’s like well the difference it’s like there’s this new wave, there’s this new movement of queer designers who are designing specifically for the LGBTQ community. Who are designing specifically for queer folks, for people who are gender nonconforming, for people who are, you know, she’s, he’s, they’s, for people who are, us! Why I started doing this was because I love suits. I want to wear a suit that fits me, I want to eventually have a wardrobe that is just all clothes that I styled for myself or have a wardrobe full of clothes all created by all the designers that I know out there. I’m slowly building up my wardrobe, for example, I have a couple of pairs of Nik [Kacy]’s shoes, I have some ???? clothing, I have a Kirrin Finch shirt, and I have few shirts from Strapping. I have Play Out underwear and Outplay Swimwear. The first Queer Fashion Week I went to, was when I met all of these different designers.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, because Outplay has done a show there, I think…
NGUYEN: Outplay did a show there, ???? did a show there. Nik, met through his Kickstarter. I think somebody mentioned it and I was like, “What? Someone’s making shoes?” And then I found his Kickstarter, and he and I corresponded through email and then we had an event together, and that’s when I first met him, and he and I immediately connected. We’re like brothers, you know? But yeah, that first Queer Fashion Week was when I met all these amazing designers, and again, the thing about these fashion shows was that. I met all these designers and I met all these models, and all these queer folks who just came out, and flew out from all over the country to participate in this event. I felt like it was a historic moment in queer fashion. It was like, “This is so fucking queer!” I feel like the Bay Area is so queer, and it’s true essence, you know, when you see Queer Fashion Week, you’re just like, “Oh man, yeah, that’s so queer!” It was just the whole spectrum of it, and so yeah, that’s where I met Outplay. I used to be a runner, I did a few marathons, half marathons, not full! I’m like thirteen miles I’m like you keep going, I’m done! You know, like you’re crazy. I’m like I did thirteen miles, I’m done, I’m good. but yeah. One year I did four half-marathons in like six months, and I think I blew out, I feel like I overdid it.
REDDY-BEST: Four in six months, that’s a lot!
NGUYEN: Yeah, it was too much. I was like, “I’m running all the time. I’m just running, I’m just running,” but that’s weird because I feel like that’s the little obsession that I get into and I feel that I might’ve picked that up from my dad. I used to actually run cross country in junior high, and I did sports in high school. I don’t know what happened to me in high school that’s when I met my very first Vietnamese punk rock friend and she was a bad influence. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding… but anyways, then I started swimming and so of course, I’m always struggling with finding the right swimwear and then saw Outplay and I was just like… But I have their top, and it’s awesome. But yeah, Queer Fashion Week was… man! Such a moment! Such a moment that I feel just truly grateful for that just like Miz Chris having, there was Miz Chris and Fallon who organized it and made it happen. It was amazing, I met sooo many people and was just like introduced to this world that oh my god there’s so many of us trying to do this thing! And we’re up against this giant fashion industry that is like…
REDDY-BEST: A freight train.
NGUYEN: Right! It is just so like. You know, and I remember in high school I loved looking at Bizarre, that was one of my, you know, you’re also limited back then of what fashion is out there. I was actually drawn to Bizarre because I felt like their fashion was more, to me, felt more edgier, or the fashions I saw in the magazine felt edgier. And of course I would secretly fantasize about doing runways. You know like, I really didn’t talk about this back then but I, yeah queer fashion, like celebrate your body, like fashion shows. And I’m like I would never in a million years would have thought back then, like in my childhood, that I would be walking a fashion runway. Celebrate Your Body and I feel like Queer Fashion Week gave that to us. Gave us that stage to do that.
REDDY-BEST: Was that, that first Queer Fashion in Oakland, do you remember what year that was?
NGUYEN: That was at American Steel Studios. So, last year we didn’t do a show. I think it was 2015 or ‘14? I feel like one year I did like four shows in one year and it was exhausting, but it was thrilling, and then, at the end of 2016, I was like, “I have to take a break, because it’s also really expensive.” It’s really expensive and I just also needed to recover. I feel that my recovery time is really important to me. I like to have a lot of down time, you know, just shut down for a bit. I know Dapper Q’s having a show coming up and I’m hoping to get into that, but I have to submit an application and it’s due soon, but I know that will be awesome showing in New York.
REDDY-BEST: What are you most proud of, so far?
NGUYEN: From just my business part, I would have to say that it is challenging myself to think differently, and to create something that was feminine but that was also… I call it the “Lauren Suit.” I named it after her because it was a moment where I felt uncomfortable, but I was able to create something that looked really stunning on someone that was very feminine and people were stunned by it. Other feminine women saw her outfit and were like, “Oh my god, I want that,” and to me that feels good because I think, as an artist, you kind of have to constantly be challenged and you have to evolve and you have to grow. Who knows what THÚY Custom Clothier will look like in five years, you know? I think also, as a Libra [laughs], that I thrive on that constant change. I feel like I need it as an artist like I need to just grow or evolve or, you know, get out of town for a while. To me, it’s very fitting for me to do this traveling sales butch-type business, because I need to just be constantly moving. I think that’s another reason why I decided that I didn’t want to have a storefront, because, again, I like the freedom to just go anywhere and I feel like I’m able to reach more people by doing this like that. The long drives to LA is the time when I can kind of just sit with my thoughts. When I used to prepare for fashion shows, I would listen to the songs that I wanted for the show. I try to use music from people that I know, but it hasn’t always worked out that way. There are sometimes songs that I find very compelling and I’ll listen to it over and over and over, and then I’ll start visualizing, “How you want things to look?” I think I am most proud of just giving myself a chance to do it, and then, just doing it, basically, which is what it comes down to, right? It’s just like anything else, it is all about how you just have to do it, you know?
REDDY-BEST: So, you do suits, but do you offer anything else, such as shirts or vests?
NGUYEN: Yeah, I offer anything that has to do with suiting: shirts, vests, pants, shorts, jackets, coats… anything really. I’m pushing for a casual shirt. I’m also kind of a very outdoors-type person and I love going out to the woods a lot and being out in nature. If I could every weekend I would go, and you know, you see the city persona, and then you also see the outdoors persona. I have this one flannel shirt that I found in a thrift store that I absolutely love, and I would sew on a leather elbow patch, but I only stitch it on one arm, because I’m left handed. I would do these random things with the stitching and needle, patchwork, and it would just be really subtle, but it would be like something that is like, “Oh, that’s mine.” I want to create a line of like shirt jackets that are kind of like that, because I always find myself throwing on that one flannel shirt, and I’m like, “Oh, I wish this was a THÚY shirt,” and I was like, “Oh, I could create this. I can recreate this, and it made in a wool or a suit material,” so that it’s kind of dressy, but at the same time it’s also casual, because you just throw it on and you’re just like… I forgot what you asked.
REDDY-BEST: Oh, just about what people can get from you. For example, if I were to come in for a consultation…
NGUYEN: Oh yeah. You can get basically anything. For example, I had this one client where we did two consultations and I did some drawings. She wanted a short jacket, just to have a certain type of really rectangular closure with no collar, very like open necked, and short, because of her shape. Then, she wanted to have a certain dress replicated that she had. She had this one dress that she absolutely loved, and it didn’t work out. She decided that she wasn’t quite ready to go forward with it, but I would love to also work with specific designs that people might want, and I leave that open to people, too. I get really excited when I’m able to work on a project where it’s like so individualized. I mean, custom suiting is already individualized, but to get something where someone really knows what they want as far as the different types of details is exciting.
REDDY-BEST: Can you talk about your price range? Or what something might cost, on average?
NGUYEN: Yeah. So, for a two-piece, single breasted suit I start it at $600 – $650, which is really cheap for a custom suit with a three-hour consolation, and a fitting. A lot of my friends were like, “You need to price your things higher. Think about your time.” Even my tailors are like, “What are you pricing your stuff at?” They’re like, “You should price them higher, this is also your time. Yeah, maybe they can order directly from us, but you’re actually more of the expert and you’re helping them. You’re taking their measurements and most people don’t know how to do that.” I think it’s just, after all the years, I really feel like I’ve gotten that down. I’ll think about it, I actually will obsess about it. I shouldn’t say “obsess,” but we’ll be thinking about someone’s measurement I just took, just to be sure. I will be like, “Okay, then I should at least make sure that they make an allowance for this much, because their body is this way, and if they bend this way then it’s going to…” There are all these things I think about before I finally submit everything to my tailor. I think everything out. I do the little calculations, and additions or anything, and I make notes of the allowances. Now, my prices for a two piece, single breasted, is like starts at $1100 and it goes up depending on fabrics, but again, it doesn’t go up that much. It comes down to how to finesse, that kind of education for your clients, and also for people in general, because I also like support my fellow designers and I also know what their products cost. It’s also like, would I go to your job and be like, “Hey, can you do that for five dollars an hour, instead of what you get paid?” So, it’s like that. I feel that, for my pricing, for most custom clothiers out there that do this, is actually kind of on the low end. I feel like it’s on the lower end, but I also feel like once people come and see me they’re also like, “Oh I’m so glad we came to you instead.” Or I’ll have people who come from a different place, who didn’t like their experience and they’re like, “Ugh that was so nice.”
REDDY-BEST: Who do you view as like your major competitor?
NGUYEN: My major competitors? Obviously, Sharp Suiting. I mean, Leann and I know each other, so I would say we’re friends, and I think he’s been doing it for longer than I have, and he actually has a very strong business sense too, and a lot of experience. I believe that he went to business school, and I’m like, “I studied art at community college.” So, I basically feel like I’m kind of the underdog of all of this. There’s been Bindle & Keep in New York and they recently opened up a shop in LA and they had that HBO special, that was a huge amount of marketing for them. There’s Kipper Clothiers, who’s in Hayes Valley.
REDDY-BEST: In regard to feedback, have folks inside the community and outside the community, provided any feedback, either positive or negative?
NGUYEN: Oh, okay. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people. I think it’s just that I feel that I’m a very open person and that I have a very, like I feel like people always feel at ease around me, once we sit down. Especially when there’s a couple they’re like, “eh, you know,” and it’s really sweet. I feel like people trust me. There’s a lot of things that I keep discreet with my clients and stuff, unless they send me photo and are like, “Okay, I can share these, but otherwise, I don’t. I’ve also done some work that was more of a love really than anything else. I’ve worked with families. In the early days, when I first started, I got this sweet email from this woman saying, “I have a gender-neutral child, and they want to go prom, and we also want to get them a suit for their sister’s wedding.” Just to hear a mom be so genuinely supportive of their child, and that she went out of her way to find something for their child, I was like, “Oh, anything I can do to help!”
REDDY-BEST: Were they in the Bay Area?
NGUYEN: Yeah. Yeah, so I went to their home and there was an event, I think it was prom, that was coming up soon, and I was like, “I don’t think I have time to have something made for prom,” but I was like, [stammers] “How tall is your child? What are their measurements?” I was like, “I have some suits that, if one fits them, they can borrow it for prom.” I brought, I think, three suits, and I met the family and the teen was really excited about the suit and they went and tried them all on. The sister and the mom were seeing which one we liked the best, and, you know, they fit really well! So, I loaned them a suit for prom, and was just like, “Just give it back clean.” That was my only thing. The mom was so lovely ,and she wrote me a really good review on Yelp. I think because of that one, another mom reached out to me, and later on, a single mom who lived in LA and she was on a tight budget. I was like, “You know what? I’ll drive down there, and I will help you. It’s just the story. You know? Stories like that where you’re just like, “I want to do this!” I’m not making anything off of it but it’s being a part of such a big event in someone’s life. Your teen years are such awkward years, and then, to work with these two families who are like, “I want my queer child to have something that they’re going to feel really good in.” Then the woman in Los Angeles that I met, so I met them, and the daughter comes out and she’s just the bubbliest, you know, kind of masculine-presenting, big, you know? And the father wanted to come and see how the process was, and he was bragging. He’s like “Oh, I just came from Thailand and I bought myself a couple of suits and they’re only blah-blah-blah there!” I’m thinking like, “Yeah, you could’ve flown your daughter there and had her suit made for her!” But I didn’t say that. I was just like, “okay, so.” He was funny because he was kind of like giving me a little bit of a hard time, and the mom was so sweet. She was so sweet, and the daughter, just super sweet. So, I had this outfit made and it was like this prom tuxedo and we did some. I was showing them. I was like, “Oh, I have this jacket that has a contrasting sleeve and it matches my pants,” and the daughter was like “Oh, I want that! Yeah, yeah let’s do that!” So, I had this amazing tuxedo made and it came in time for prom. The mom texted me and she was like, “You should’ve seen the dad’s face,” and I was like, “I wish I was there to see the dad’s face!” Because that would’ve made my day, but they sent me all these cute photos of the daughter at prom, with the tuxedo outfit. I almost had her model for me at queer fashion week, but she had just got accepted to the University of Hayward and that weekend they had an intense school schedule. When I asked them I was like, “Hey, I’m going to do queer fashion week, would you like to walk?” They got so excited, and I was like, “Oh my god, it would be such a dream to see you walk for me!” It didn’t work out and I was bummed by it, but I’m hoping that maybe, one of these days, that she’ll still be able to walk for me. I’ve had, honestly, one person from Toronto whom I had to give a discount because there was nothing I could say or do that would make them happy. I felt that that was more about their issues than it was about the suit, because I haven’t had anyone who have had such problems with their suit. I think it was more about how they felt about their body and how their partner may have made them feel even less comfortable, because I felt a lot of animosity from them. It was unfortunate because I had other clients from there who were like, “I love my suit. It’s perfect, it’s fine, it’s good to go! “
REDDY-BEST: What about on social media, has there been negative feedback on there?
NGUYEN: No! I’ve been so lucky that no one has said anything. No one has said anything, which, to me, it’s like, “Well,” because I’m very queer on my social media and I haven’t gotten anyone who was like hostile or anything. I haven’t had any kind of weird interaction with strangers calling me or writing me emails about my line. I think that being in the Bay Area has a lot to say about that. Sometimes I wonder, “Gosh, what if I was in a different city, where it wasn’t as progressive?”
REDDY-BEST: So, you have clients in Toronto, but do you have any other clients out in the Midwest? Or anywhere else?
NGUYEN: I have a client in Atlanta, who I met through NiK, who was out here in LA and that is how we were able to do a consult. She wants to me to go up to Atlanta. I eventually want to get a trailer and drive around the country and just meet with people and do consultations on the road. I think that most of my clients are in California. For example, I have Sacramento clients, LA clients, SF Bay Area… Oh, I have someone from Dallas who flew out here. I’m excited about her outfit, because it’s a big wedding so I’m like [gasps]. And then I have some other big clients who I’m like really, I can’t wait for them to get their stuff. I have this cisgender, straight guy who I met through my friends who I ???? They’re a couple that I stay with when I’m in LA. Sherry works for like TV film industry and her partner, Eve, we call her Dr. Gay, because she also does queer studies. She’s coming for a conference in San Francisco at the end of March, but she has a PhD and she does queer, cultural, women’s studies mostly, queer studies, but she also does a lot of talks, too. They introduced me to this close friend of theirs, and he’s this genius guy who used to work for ???? and Space X and now works for this company called ???? that has recently been Richard ???? recently acculated part of the company so it’s now ???? So, he recently ordered a suit and I’m thinking, “Man, this guy, who travels the world meeting princes and working with like Richard ???? and ???? is going to be wearing my suit.” I also worked with an up-and-coming filmmaker ???? and she had an event that was hosted by Oprah. So I felt like, “Oh my god!” I had this jacket made and, this is an example of how much my tailors love me: they made her jacket in like eight days. I was like, “She has this special event to go to, because she’s been doing a lot of directing for the Own Networks ???? and she this really important event to go to.” I was like, “I will make it happen!” I like to think that Oprah touched a THÚY jacket [laughs].
REDDY-BEST: Is there anything that I didn’t ask or that we didn’t talk about that would be important for me to know about your background or about the history the brand that didn’t necessarily come up at this point?
NGUYEN: Yeah. Ok. Oh. I can’t think of anything right now. No, I feel like I’ve been talking a lot. I mean I hope that you’ve got enough. I feel like my brand, actually, I know that my brand is going to most likely evolve in the next five years. I would like to actually create a line of clothing that is reflective of my style, too. I feel like the whole point of me also doing this was because I’ve always felt like I’ve had a different sort of style that that I felt like I always just kind of put together. But yeah, I’m hoping for that, and I also want to settle down and have a shop where I can carry like the luxurious items of my fellow designers. That is a dream. I feel like, right now, I’m living my life month to month, really. I’m just not sure where things are going to be next month. Like, this month was great and I went to LA, and that was great but anything can happen in a year and I don’t think I’ll ever quit this. I’ve told this to some of my fellow friends. We were having a conversation and I was like, “To me, quitting is not an option. This is basically what I have chosen to do with my life and I just want to keep going with it. “ I feel that I also have a very carefree outlook on my business, as I do on my life and I think that is what my brand will be, but next year could be different, right?