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Rice fields and Rihanna: the Vietnamese couturier with a celeb clientele

Some say the pandemic has given the industry a chance to shift, with virtual catwalks allowing designers from all corners of the world to shine, but Cong Tri believes Asian designers need to keep fighting to make it to the top

When billionaire singer Rihanna posed for an ad campaign by luxury shoemaker Manolo Blahnik, she also made a star out of the little-known Vietnamese designer who made the oversized white shirt she posed in.

For more than two decades, Nguyen Cong Tri has been crafting chic structured eveningwear made of Vietnamese-spun silk, organza or taffeta, but despite some success at home, his designs had gained less traction elsewhere.

“I am so proud. Designs by a Vietnamese designer, all Vietnamese production, being chosen and worn by Hollywood stars,” he told AFP from his glamourous “Cong Tri” boutique in Ho Chi Minh City.

With three stores in the country’s business capital, a judging role on the local version of reality TV show Project Runway, and growing international interest — he is a firm believer Vietnam has more to offer fashion beyond its role of factory workhorse.

He said: “It won’t be too far in the future that Vietnam can stake its claim on the world fashion map.” 

One of eight siblings, Tri was born in the central coastal city of Danang in 1978 — just three years after the war with the US ended. 

But a fascination with the “resilience and strength” of Vietnam’s women soldiers, who he had heard stories about at school, propelled his slide into fashion and led to his first collection — “Green Leaves”, made using a patchwork cloth technique that took inspiration from the winter uniform and hard green hats of the fighters. 

“In all of my collections… the characteristics that make a strong Vietnamese woman are always conveyed or hidden in my design, even in the material,” added Tri, dressed head to toe in white plus a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses. 

The fabric needs to be dyed up to 100 times using the ebony-coloured mac nua fruit to achieve its leather-like appearance, and it took Tri two years to get together enough material. 

His flower girl collection was spotted by Rihanna’s stylist at Tokyo Fashion Week — who promptly ordered three designs — and two years later, he became the first designer based in Vietnam with a show at New York Fashion Week.

However, he spent many years “trying and wishing” to get the attention of global stars in an industry where, according to a recent report by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, half of employees of colour believe a fashion career is not equally accessible to all.

Tran Hung, also based in Ho Chi Minh City, has shown off his designs at London Fashion Week, while rising star Tran Phuong My made her New York Fashion Week debut in 2019.

Some say the pandemic has given the industry a chance to shift, with virtual catwalks allowing designers from all corners of the world to shine, but Tri believes Asian designers need to keep fighting to make it to the top.

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