Thu Thu founder Thuy Duong Nguyen tells of her ethnic inspiration

Designer Thuy Duong Nguyen tells Divia Harilela how the discovery of a fabric in a remote Vietnamese village led to the founding of her fashion label

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 11:25pm

Ethnic themes are everywhere this season, from Givenchy's kimonos to Alexander McQueen's tribal beading and embellishments. Bang on trend is British brand Thu Thu, which wouldn't look out of place on the Parisian catwalks with its colourful handwoven Vietnamese embroideries and contemporary silhouettes.

"When I started, I was the only one using exotic fabrics but now I am noticing so many brands going in that ethnic direction," says founder Thuy Duong Nguyen. "What makes us different, though, is the cut. It's all about making the look modern while paying respect to craftsmanship." While most designer brands will be jumping onto a new trend next season, the vibrant fabrics sourced from Hmong women in Vietnam are the foundation of Nguyen's label, which was founded in 2010.

Born in Vietnam and raised in a small town in Germany, Nguyen didn't consider a career in fashion until she spotted an ad for famed fashion school Esmod while still at secondary school.

"I loved art and drawing dresses, but never thought about fashion design. Then I saw the ad and decided to give it a try. I always knew I would pursue something creative," she says.

After studying in Berlin for three years, she interned at MTV in 2008 where she styled presenters and celebrities and built up a list of contacts. A few months later she was off to Vietnam on a mission to source clothing for some of her clients. There she uncovered beautiful silks and exquisite tailoring, but it was her visit to a remote village in the North where she found the inspiration for her label.

"I discovered the Sapa fabrics and immediately thought, why is no one using these? The fabric is handwoven by the Hmong women to celebrate the birth of a baby and sometimes takes up to two years to make. I just fell in love with the colours and workmanship. Every piece is different and is handmade using natural dyes like beeswax," she says.

After amassing a collection of vintage Sapa skirts and blankets, Nguyen went about creating her first piece - a biker jacket featuring contrasting panels of Sapa fabric with modern materials and zips. It became an immediate hit when she went back to Europe, appearing in the press and being worn by celebrities. It remains her bestseller today. In 2010, she headed back to Vietnam with a master plan to create a full ready-to-wear collection and Thu Thu was officially born.

"By this time I was based in London and found a girl to help me with the patterns and tailoring. It took me a while before I was brave enough to launch it, but I had a gut feeling that it was the perfect time. No one else was doing this sort of thing.

"I am very into vintage and all these fabrics have a story behind them. Each woman who made them has a different way of putting the patterns together so we took this idea and merged it with modern fashion," she says.

Thu Thu in its current incarnation embodies the best of East and West. Intricate, ancient geometric embroideries are reinvented for a young generation by mixing them with panels of bold colours and floral prints for a playful, yet modern look. Then you have the silhouettes which are both urban and easy to wear, running the gamut from shorts to halter neck dresses.

The spring-summer 2014 collection, which was inspired by Morocco, highlights this best. Crackled leather is mixed with Sapa fabric on a skirt and biker jacket, while a white halter dress in dimpled cotton is updated with a panel of yellow embroideries at the front. She's also used other handmade Vietnamese fabrics which are crafted into must-have pieces like a cropped jacket.

Her latest collection also signals a new direction for the designer, as the Sapa fabric has become more of an accent rather than the main focus. A pink dress for example is covered in a print inspired by marbles found in an aquarium, while the straps are made from blue and white Sapa fabric. A vibrant orange silk blouse features a colourful trim on the pockets, while flared cotton shorts are given an exotic twist with panels of tribal embroideries on the sides.

"I am going slightly away from the fabrics but not completely. The new pieces are much cleaner and more about details like trimmings on cuffs and pockets. The look is not too bold, so you can wear the pieces on a daily basis.

"Autumn-winter 2014 is more grown up and sophisticated but still fun. Thu Thu is a lot about textures - even if I have more basics in the collection, it's about fabrications as well. The Sapa fabrics are always in my head when I start a new collection," she says.

Thanks to her unique mix of artisanal craft, vintage fabrics and modern shapes, Thu Thu has been picked up by retailers that include Harvey Nichols and Browns in London, and A Boy Named Sue in Hong Kong. In the future she plans to translate her ideas into other categories such as homeware.

"It's special that I can reuse something that was created before and turn it into something new. The pieces that have the Sapa details are to be treasured beyond one season because it's so beautiful and unique. We are not about fast fashion but about creating something that pays respect to craftsmanship," she says.