BERLIN DESIGNER NHU DUONG ON THE METAMORPHOSIS OF FASHION
The SS18 collection of Nhu Duong explores the idea of metamorphosis – changing one’s body, becoming someone else or even nonhuman. Becoming inhabited and worn by night creatures of all shapes and colours, the collection evokes a sense of animalism. Draped and crinkled fabrics, experimental knits, adjustable parts and drawstrings allow the garments to transform from skin-tight into voluminous shapes and cocoon-like silhouettes. Allowing not only for movement, but also a multitude of body types and uses, the pieces merge the feeling of leisure wear with the elegance of evening wear. Natural materials, DIY knitting, hand-dyed and painted fabrics are juxtaposed with crushed synthetic textiles, lace knitting and technical fabrics, further blurring the boundary of the natural and the man-made. You are not, what you are, but what you can be.
How does your vision of a collection for Nhu Duong first come together – do you start with a material that inspires you, or a character, a muse?
I do not really work on specific collection themes or one source of inspiration, I take inspiration from everywhere, it is a constant flow and evolution. My work is always an experimentation of a certain lo-fi technique or material, that I then push towards the point of abstraction. I often use materials and details that one may recognize from other sources such as sportswear, streetwear or more affordable fashion. Lots of my ideas come directly from my own wardrobe of experimenting.
Why do you think the idea of metamorphosis fascinates you? How did it get to this point?
I believe in the fluidity of culture, gender, body types, and class and explore this in my work. So the process of transformation is something that has always interested me. Metamorphosis is a more animalistic interpretation of that thought: The collection blurs binaries such as human and nonhuman, night and day, black and white, male and female.
Also the blurring of leisure wear, sports wear and evening wear is happening more and more – this combination of clothing for different occasions – why do you think this is?
I like to play with the idea of functionality in clothing – what a piece of clothing symbolizes, what it does or is expected to do and most importantly how it can transform the wearer. This question of function is at the core – When is a wedding dress functional? I am very much interested in this question of functionality, on what fashion can do, its potential. In a sense, the clothes I make are quasi-functional, pushing functionality into abstraction.
How did you begin designing clothes? Was it always a dream of yours?
For me fashion can be a way to fit in and stand out at once and I understood that from a young age. When you move to a new country as a child – as I immigrated from Vietnam to Sweden – you naturally try to adjust to your new surroundings and to a certain degree reinvent yourself. Fashion can be a very direct expression of that, taking things you may know from one cultural context and putting them in another. Since I was a child I was drawn to shiny materials and objects, making no distinction whether things are real or fake, kitsch or expensive. This probably has to do with my Vietnamese heritage, where for example plastic flowers are often more popular than real ones. I think this fixed idea of identity or notion of what is real is what I often try to challenge.
What do you think about the future in terms of segregation of “menswear” and “womenswear”?
Fashion can at least be a seismograph for change, helping to elevate existing shifts in society such as gender roles. However fashion is still very much often rooted in this separation of gender and with it comes a whole set of traditions. I come very much from a womenswear background, but as mentioned before I believe in a more fluid notion of identity and try to challenge this within reason.
In your career, you tend to blur different jobs, as you also were head designer at Toteme. How did this come about?
Me and the founder of Toteme, Elin Kling, met each other during another project called Nowhere. We became friends and we liked working together so when she started her new brand she asked if I wanted to join as Head of Design. I designed the first collection and did in total 6 seasons, SS17 was my last collection for Toteme. Moving between different projects allows me to play with different conditions of production and consumption. Whereas a commercial project like Toteme aims at a more minimal approach to fashion, aimed at a relatively big audience. With my own brand as well as art projects I can experiment with new ways of making clothes and creating a personal dialogue with a much smaller audience.
In both worlds – what are the most important aspects of a garment to you?
Fashion has a clear function: it should be wearable. At the same time, fashion constantly questions this function, trying to push against its limits, whether these be physical, technical, or even social limits. If you look at the great collections from the past, they were experimental but at the same time directly relevant for the everyday life of people. Fashion always seeks out these functional edges, balancing on the fine line between function and decoration. This is also what differentiates fashion from being just “clothes”.
Looking back on all these endeavors: Which piece or collection are you most proud of?
The process of working on the S/S17 collection and show was special because it was very collaborative with a lot of my friends. For the SS17 collection I collaborated with my friend the Swedish-Berlin based artist Karl Holmqvist whose text-based works run through and over the collection. A lot of the garments are unisex and based on performance outfits I designed together with Karl. We also worked together on the runway show casting friends to models, during the 9th Berlin Biennale and a presentation at Gavin Brown in New York, with a dinner performance by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Do you plan on working around the topic of metamorphosis for future collections as well?
In a more abstract sense, transformation has always been and will be a current in my work. Furthermore for me the transition from one collection to the next is often quite organic and aspects from previous collection reemerge.
Apart from that, what are your hopes for the future of Nhu Duong?
I want to continue slowly and in a sustained manner building up my brand in terms of both organization and distribution, hoping to develop a sustainable model to produce fashion, beyond seasons and in my own pace. At the same time I want to engage in a more critical discourse around fashion and also connect internationally.