I’m in an ANH OI article!

January 21, 2007

Designing for the trendy set
Thursday, January 04, 2007    By Tara Bui
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FASHION AND FUN: — Tuấn K. Nguyễn wins applause from fellow Vietnamese Americans after the much-awaited Bé Ơi launch.

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Practice sketches leading to the creation of “What the heo?” designs.

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ON THE DRAWING BOARD: The entrepreneur is working on his first line without text, titled Người Đẹp, experimenting with this abstract of a woman’s face.

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WHAT I’M WEARING: Anne and Dylan introduce the audience to whimsical T-shirts from the Bé Ơi release party.

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Child models Sam, Jasmine and Kaitlyn on the catwalk. Photos courtesy of Tuấn K. Nguyễn.

Just for fun, he had always made T-shirts as a kid, experimenting with images, airbrushing and shapes. But the first time he took the hobby seriously was in 1995, when he sketched a design for a tee for the 30th anniversary of the Freedom March in Washington, D.C. The event, launched in the pre-civil rights era of the 1960s, was a time of social and economic unrest between black and white Americans, but Tuán K. Nguyễn saw the larger scope of its message, and wished to connect it to his own Vietnamese American experience.

So he did something very last minute.

Nguyễn, now 29, purchased the domain name, http://www.anhoi.com, on a whim and produced the shirts two days before the big day. The items bore his own message of hope, and he longed that people would buy them because such quality products were expensive to make. Breaking even would have been nice. But having consumers understand their significance (with or without paying) was more important.

“If you can develop a concept, and know that people understand your idea… it’s pretty strong,” says Nguyễn.

Nguyễn, a motion graphics artist and producer for Vân Sơn Entertainment, took a couple of the tees to Australia for a concert the California company organized, giving them away, thinking little of it beyond the delight his peers showed. Somehow, news of the original shirts leaked out to Vietnamese forums and ANH ƠI, modestly named after a term of endearment, soon became the word on many Vietnamese lips.

As one of the company’s admirers, Jenni Trang Lê, 26, says, “There are few truly ‘Vietnamese’ products out there that aren’t just copies of Chinese ones. It’s good to support something homegrown.” She first met Nguyễn in 2003 at the Vietnamese International Film Festival and as a stage manager, works with him at Vân Sơn.

“This may come out a bit cliché, but I think these shirts really bring the generations together. It’s something my grandpa can enjoy but cool enough for my cousins to wear and understand!” she says. “I wore those shirts in Việt Nam when I was there for four and a half months filming recently, and they were a big hit… It got the local Vietnamese crew to say ‘What the heo?’ all the time. They think our “Vietglish” — and in this case, a play on “What the hell?” — is hilarious.”

It seems, too, that Vietglish — the slanglike combination of Vietnamese and English — hadn’t been marketed for casual wear until it appeared on ANH ƠI slogans like “vIetnAMese,” and “What the HEO?” in which “heo” refers to “pig.” And by splashing them on his creations the designer is giving prominent nods to the shared heritage of all Vietnamese, both in Việt Nam and the Diaspora. The home page of Nguyễn’s Web site, in fact, is a slideshow of Vietnamese pals, acquaintances and patrons who live and work all over the globe. One of the label’s most popular scenes shows a series of birds flying away and the words “Free Vietnam” printed across the bodice.

“I guess the designs touch on politics, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a political person,” says Nguyễn. “But it’s hard to avoid it when you’re an artist and your T-shirts are about Việt Nam.”

In this moment, he uses the word “artist” with reluctance and care. “I never thought I was an artist before my last year of college,” he admits. “I thought that title was pretentious…Picasso or Michelangelo, you know, were made to be artists. I think I’m just creative and passionate and hard working.”

Nguyễn, one of seven children, was born in Phan Thiết, Việt Nam, about 90 minutes north of Sài Gòn, and a town where, according to him, “the best nước mắm (or fish sauce) is made!” When the boy was 2 weeks old, his family made a desperate escape from the country as boat people. They languished in the ocean for nine days before their rescue by a Korean commercial craft, which pointed them in the direction of Malaysia, their temporary haven for a year and a half before U.S. sponsors from a Lutheran church settled them in Minnesota.

They lived there for seven years until his parents got laid off from their jobs at a food- packaging plant, and, following advice from friends, moved to Southern California to look for work. In the Golden State, Nguyễn’s father drifted in odd jobs from gardening to selling ice cream. When the Vietnamese nail salon business started booming in Virginia in the 90s, the clan returned to Gaithersburg, Md., where Nguyễn has mostly lived ever since.

Even with all the places he has called home, Nguyễn still refers to his trips to Việt Nam as “going back.”

“I’ve been back twice, the first time in 2000,” he says. “For me, it really is going back because it’s where we came from.

“It was so strange to see my cousins,” he remembers of the trips.  “They look similar to me. My aunt’s hands and feet looked like my dad’s hands and feet… Just those miniscule things.”

Nguyễn keeps in mind these connections when he works. He graduated from the University of Maryland in Baltimore with a bachelor’s degree in digital imaging. And despite his hectic schedule, and the ANH ƠI enterprise, his parents still tell him to “get a real job.”

“They have seven kids,” says Nguyễn. “They kind of know what we’re doing. But still, they don’t really know what I do.

“They say, ‘Why don’t you do something with computers?’ because I have siblings who work with computers for the government,” he laughs.

All of Nguyễn’s shirts are made of fine ring-spun combed cotton. American Apparel, a sweatshop-free manufacturer in Los Angeles known for its lightweight and smooth garments, helps him produce his clothing.

Currently, ANH ƠI and Bé Ơi t-shirts, priced between $15 and $20, are exclusively available online, though Nguyễn is considering opening an ANH ƠI boutique in Westminster, Calif., — home to home to Little Sài Gòn – sometime in the future.

Nguyễn says his commercial awakening goes hand in hand with his political awakening.

His focus on the plight of the needy in Việt Nam emerged from his venture into Vietnamese American Television a few years ago in the East. Since its establishment in 2001, VATV, a nonprofit news station based in the nation’s capital, has provided coverage of community activities and the accomplishments and contributions of Vietnamese in the U.S.. As its youngest founder, Nguyễn also aims to highlight the second generation of Vietnamese Americans, hoping to help educate his peers about their heritage as well as guide them toward a positive way of understanding it.

Nguyễn’s work also allows him to partner with other Vietnamese media.

In 2004, Phong Trào Hưng Ca Việt Nam, a political group of performers, was planning a trip to Geneva to speak to the United Nations about human-rights violations in their homeland. They search-ed for a camera person to document their activi-ties. Someone at VATV suggested Nguyễn.

“I met them, and it opened a new light for me,” Nguyễn recalled. “I think I had forgotten what were the issues still remaining in Việt Nam. I’m in the U.S. trying to build my life, but at the same time most of my relatives are still in Việt Nam, we still need to send money. I didn’t realize that there were still a lot of conditions that are not right in Việt Nam. I started to realize then.”

During this discovery process, he met individuals like Thủy-Cơ Hồng, immersed in the small refugee community in Geneva, who became a friend and fan of ANH ƠI.

“We are trying to promote the culture, the language and the history among the Vietnamese people and especially the Vietnamese youth. When I discovered the T-shirts, I thought this was a great way to promote the Vietnamese spirit and the Vietnamese pride,” she says.

“A lot of my non-Vietnamese friends like the designs so much that they ask about the meaning and actually learn about the Vietnamese language and culture through the shirts.”

Another devotee, Donny Tran, adds: “I’m a fan of humor overall.  His shirts are very American Vietnamese… what I call Vietnamese that are born in America, a very complex crowd with a lot of history and they can be hard to please. ANH ƠI is one of the few that get American Vietnamese people as well as Vietnamese American culture.”

As a young Vietnamese American himself, Nguyễn says he is at times overwhelmed and intimidated by the intensity of the commu-nity. “When something is too much in your face, you tend to ignore it and push it away.”

Now, he says he looks toward the future with a clearer perspective of the past.

His new T-shirt line, Bé Ơi, premiered last November as a natural evolution because customers were asking for smaller sizes, and he had tons of ideas that he thought were too playful to gain popularity with a Vietnamese adult consumer base. So he used simple words and phrases, introducing hit designs that say “thơm” and “thúi” on the bottoms of baby rompers (for sweet-smelling and stinky) and tops with “dễ thương,” “dễ ghét,” (for lovable and mischievous) and “What the con heo?” — christening a piglet from the original pig.

He’s currently working on ANH ƠI’s latest spin-off, to be unveiled in early 2007, titled Người Đẹp. It will be the company’s first image without text, an abstract print of a Vietnamese female face, the result of Nguyễn being inspired by beauty and former boyhood crushes.

“I plan to experiment not with a T-shirt, but more of a blouse, this time,” he says, noting its “lower neckline, shorter cut on the sleeve, softer fabric. I don’t want to Orientalize the features,” he adds. “The eyes are important because Vietnamese people have distinguished eyes apart from Korean or Chinese.”

Nguyễn is constantly on the move. He runs Tunahead Productions (“tune” was how Minnesotans pronounced his name, and “tunahead” was a nickname given by an ex-girlfriend) and is producing the new animated series, Legends of Vietnam.” He’s toying with launching Em Ơi, in reference to another term of endearment used by men for women. The focus would be on designer jewelry and accessories, since he says he feels that women’s fashion is too broad to be represented by quirky T-shirts alone.

“The concept is much more important than the product itself,” he stresses, repeating an earlier point. “The idea behind it, what it means to you and other people, is more important than the actual physical piece itself. And I think I apply that to my work.”