I met Daniel Chew in 2017 at Mission Chinese for the Yellow Jackets Collective’s Lunar New Year celebration. He briefly mentioned launching a brand and inquired my interest in walking. Less than two months pass, and I meet Tin Nguyen at 47 Canal for a fitting. Summer 2018, Tin and Daniel, brought me back to their studio to be an e-com mannequin. By the time I arrived at the bustling park to rehearse Season III titled "Surface Trend", I was bringing press.
As leading voices in New York’s fine arts scene, the two designers were able to comprise an extensive list of industry professionals to collaborate on the production. Cameron Tidball-Sciullo, of fn-up studio, generously filmed the official runway video; and celebrity publicist Cynthia Leung was seen both on, and off, the runway. All of the models were friends of the brand, but they are all artists, musicians, even fellow fashion designers. In short, it was a performance only capable of life because of its players.
A dialogue on dialogues: Daniel, Tin, and I, decided this conversation was going to be contextualizing piece on art itself. Our goal was to offer something different, and, well, artful. Between a back alley, under full construction, and an almost oriental gazebo—perhaps, a playful nod to CFGNY’s famously “vaguely Asian” description. We briefly chatted until the city soundtrack reclaimed her ground.
You both come from an art background, so why fashion?
Daniel Chew - Garments were just how we figured out we could talk about the issues we were interested in: addressing identity, and race. But I don't know if we are doing fashion. I don't think we are.
Tin Nguyen - For us, we're really interested in the collectiveness that fashion embodies. Casting models, having collaborators, working on the collection. In a way, it’s different from painting, and sculpture, which can be isolating, you know? A lot of times, you're working in a studio alone, but I think with fashion there's an existing dialogue.
DC - Like how race is visualized. Fashion is sort of—
TN - —a neutralizing field—not a neutralizing field, but a way to intervene. The way someone reads you depends on how you wear clothes, or even what you wear. When people are reading you differently, you can use that as a way to transform a potential conversation.
Conversations that are rarely being held to begin with. Fashion is such a powerful tool for expressing visual thoughts that words, perhaps, do not serve. Where do you see the dialogue between fashion, and art; the intersection of them residing: specifically within your own brand?
TN - I don't think of us as existing, or residing, in either context. I think about my intentions. The information that I understand from both passions, I sort them into wherever they have a dialogue with one another.
DC - Yeah. It sounds like that's what I'm trying to get at. Where that middle ground exists, how you create that space for us—
TN - —it says “art practice”! But also, we have to reconsider what we are, based on the opportunities we’ve received. People really want to understand the context of something. If they’re unsure of how to deal with the project it's because the context may not fit their understanding, or may not fit within the economies in which they work.
DC - I think this divide between fashion, and art, is purely an economic one. They work in two very different markets. The thing is, we don't really operate in a fashion market, we don't operate in either market. Or basically, we don't make enough money with the project to sustain itself, but it's not like it’s something that's scalable or even something that can grow, in its current conception.
TN - If we want to grow, or scale this project, we need to reconsider our process, and most likely develop the project in a way that is already understood. We would have to produce at a factory. We'd have to do fashion week. We'd have to do two collections. And each collection, deal with buyers. I think we're more interested in ideas: thinking about labor, and where that exists, and how we understand it, and how that moves economies.
How do think, then, the concept of art for art’s sake—oftentimes, an elitist notion, that only exists within economic means—is being applied to the fashion industry? Or does it even apply to fashion at all?
TN - You know, art for art’s sake doesn't like the art industry. It just runs differently. Most people who are in the art world are aiming to be something that works within that world, to be able to use that money. And most people who are in our role don't do art for art’s sake. Of course, there are people who obviously have a job, and just think, “I'm going to work this job. I'm going to support my art just to make art”. But I actually don't think most people engage with art in that way. And as Daniel said, there's an economic divide.
DC - It’s a different economic divide, different economies. I mean, it's not even that it only exists within art and fashion. It's just how our economies work in general. It’s just the speed of how things go.
Right. Shifting the conversation, what does culture mean to you?
TN - I guess when you ask that, I just think of authenticity, but I think that's always the question about culture. Is that authentic? Does it still exist? I don't think about CFG in terms of culture. We just are.
You’re a New York-based brand, but you are manufacturing in Vietnam. What role does Asia play in the identity of the brand?
DC - It plays a lot of different roles, but we're trying to do it in a different way than I think we've seen within fashion. Vietnam plays a role in how we conceive of race, and it does alter our process because we were physically there.
TN - It's such a slippery idea: race, and identity—or is it just a slippery idea that an authentic Vietnamese culture doesn't really exist? I think when fashion looks to race, or a certain country, they're looking for a tradition. What can I take from this; or what history from this culture seems like a trade-off?
DC - Both of us grew up Asian in Western culture—like I'm not Vietnamese, but Vietnam plays a role in how “Asian-ness” is perceived. I'm interested in exploring that.
TN - The question would be: what is the role of the optics?
DC - We can't deny the fact that Tin is Vietnamese. He speaks the language. A lot of our decisions are based on the limitations that are already presented to us. It’s the easiest way for us to access the garment industry, or tailors even, you know? We made clothes because the process was available to us. We didn't start a label because it's purely what we want to do.
TN - We did it because it seemed like it may able to embody the dialogue we wanted to have, and it's physical.
DC - Tin, and I grew up with this idea of his mom going to Vietnam, and there is a tailoring culture there where you can go, and get custom clothes made. But that's not only specific to Vietnam. That's also something I grew up with, but in the context of Hong Kong. You go to Hong Kong, and you get clothes made. But we're also trying to question what being Asian is. There are some traits, and trends, you can sort of trace back to Vietnam, but they're also broader than any space within the physical sphere of Vietnam. Does that make sense?
No, it does. There are nuances between being Asian in America, versus, in Asia, versus being an Asian American. You’re exploring the cross-cultural differences. Since launching the brand, what have you learned about the business aspects of it?
DC - We're not really a business right now. What we're finding out is that more, and more, we're not structured like a business. I think I had a preconception of how fashion worked because I used to work retail, and kind of understood how it worked, in terms of sales.
TN - We’re not interested in being a business.
DC - We understand how the business side of fashion works, but we’re just not engaging in that. We get opportunities to, and it's always a conversation: do we do this, or not? So maybe in a year, you can ask us again to see where we are with the business.
TN - But I'm interested in the business of fashion... to change how it works.
I just don't see that changing anytime soon.
DC - There are new ways, in which, you can provide for yourself, and we participate in that when we can.
In terms of the Asian community in New York — and, in tandem, the “Slaysian” Movement — do you feel supported by your peers?
TN - Daniel, and I, are not Slaysians.
DC - No — I just think New York specifically has changed so much since we started; it's amazing to be able to see that growth for sure.
TN - The terminology that people are using, even this idea of community, I question sometimes: do we have a community? I think we want to label it like that, but some of the people that we work with, we only see them during the shows. This idea of a community gets tossed in the air.
I feel like community requires exchange and a sense of uplifting.
TN - It's the word; it's a word. Everyone is like “community safe space”. There are all these terminologies that everyone's using to talk about, and relate to, their circles.
DC - I like that there have been different kinds of Asian communities. We don't want “community” to signify, “Oh, everyone's the same out there.” The conversation has changed. Before there's none to little, and now there's a wealth of different Asian communities; groups of communities. It's about having the space to be able to create your own community within.
TN - Two different communities will disagree on what to identify with, or what their interests are, and that is what a community should be like. Not everyone's going to get along, and not everyone's going to agree, but that's what's beautiful about creating a community — what we should be allowed to be as an Asian community. So, yeah, we definitely feel supported by parts of the Asian community that we have. I think of them all as a group of friends; these are people that have we built relationships with.
DC - I think people look forward to seeing what we do, and people are really interested in participating in and supporting us, which is really great. And I'm always very thankful and grateful for everyone's input. Everyone has different expertise, you know. We are learning so much in this exchange. The best part is if I want to participate in specific industries, I am able to get a glimpse of what that may mean, and just learning about how that may operate. Especially with this last show, we really engaged with a lot more people than we usually do because of the first time, especially, we kind of do everything ourselves. Our first instinct as artists is to want control of everything.
TN - Being able to rely on other people for this presentation also made it a lot more enjoyable because interacting with our friends breathed life into the project, and that was really powerful. That's what made this project grow so much.
How do you choose collaborators?
TN - Daniel and I are always social, so a lot of people we ended up working with are just people that we've had dialogues with. One of the main points for me is that the people I decide to work with, I've just talked about for so long, and I understand how they think. It’s just intuitive and a part of that is how they respond to what we say. If you’re able to approach the project in a way that I never thought about, we'll definitely be interested in continuing a conversation.
Before we wrap up, I do want to talk about this collection and the inspiration behind it.
TN - If you read the press release, it's very much this island [off the coast of Vietnam], a space of transnational connection that narratively is art. It’s a very concrete inspiration for the collection. We also want to see this transnational contact in spaces like Chinatown. In the press release, we talk about the best translations—specifically the mistranslation of this Gondola architecture. This is one example, but we feel like that kind of mistranslation that exists in ‘other’ places, or that sensibility is more than just specifically Vietnam.
DC - There's also a sensibility that we grew up with. It's more of like this paradigm of aesthetics that just seems wrong within an American context. And it's also the opposite, in the way, we as Asian-Americans, imagined the east. We try to imagine what that may be, and what their approach in they're imagining the west is, and we're really interested in that. Being there, and using that perspective, imagining the West as just someplace that saw it: the slippage between their view versus our view at the same time. We were just seeing such a huge influx of it on the island because of the development, tourism. When we went there, we generally just go to the beach.
TN - But my aunt was really encouraging us to [go sightseeing]—she knew we were doing a photo shoot, and, to her, this new location is the new destination that’s international.
DC - There's this shiny new airport that basically looks like every other international airport; how all international airports kind of all look the same. It’s clear this was a very recent thing. And there are direct flights from Italy to this island. I doubt there are direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Italy, you know? This weird in-between space is what we're always interested in, just like our conception of Asian is vague.