First published in Renegade Collective, February 2015
The fashion world reserves an unwritten code for those it deems the Next Big Thing. Show the kind of obsession with your craft that precludes sleep, outside interests or time for family and friends. Be gracious enough to bask in the glory but know that the forces that allowed your star to rise are the same ones that could see it fall. When I meet Leroy Nguyen at Three Williams, a sprawling Redfern cafe a short walk from his studio, it’s clear that he has no interest in playing someone else’s game. The young designer might punctuate his responses with infectious bursts of laughter but he talks about his achievements with a quiet autonomy that equally applies to his short but sparkling career.
“I’ve always had a really strong idea of what I want and what I don’t want so design and fabrication has always come really easily to me,” says Leroy, who enrolled in TAFE’s Fashion Design Studio on a whim while helping a friend with her own application. “But before I started studying fashion I didn’t know how to sew a button. The practical side of things was very slow and it took me a long time to get things done which was frustrating. The first year was awful and I’ve burnt it from my memory. But in the second year, I thought that maybe I could do this as a career. I eventually found my feet.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to witness a Leroy Nguyen fashion show, it’s difficult to believe that the designer didn’t burst into the industry with a fully-formed vision. During Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week 2014 , he sent models down the runway in swirls of violet and ink blue, a palette plucked from the cult Bowie classic Pan’s Labyrinth, a favourite from the film studies classes he took during an arts degree at the University of Sydney. The previous year, Leroy, who won the Fashion Design Graduate of the Year award in 2012, opened the Innovators show with The Candy Shop, a spring-summer collection that blended fluid silks and sleek neoprene with shapes inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But it was his 2012 graduate collection Natural Born Killer that’s defined his trajectory so far – the parade of white-mesh cocktail dresses, sharply tailored shorts and digitally-printed bomber jackets that recall a modern-day Bond girl sparked a fateful phone call that saw Leroy hold a private showing with the editors of Vogue.
“The day after my graduate show, I got a call from Vogue Australia who wanted to have a personal meeting with myself an the collection and it was such an awesome thing to happen when you’re still a student,” says Leroy, who is about to launch an e-store and whose pieces have since featured everywhere from Harper’s Bazaar to US indie bible Nylon. “I’ve been surprised by the amount of support I’ve received from local media and that people want to nurture the latest thing. I think the biggest obstacle is often training your brain to work like a business, which is what your label is at the end of the day. To maintain longevity, you need to juggle wearability and profitability. It’s an exciting learning curve but it’s also really rewarding.”
Margaret Zhang, the high-profile blogger behind Shine by Three attributes Leroy’s success to this combination of creativity and commercial acumen. “Leroy’s graduate collection was a breath of fresh air – other designers explored print, structure and colour but don’t share his understanding of the female form,” says Zhang, who was one of the designer’s earliest advocates. “He’s had a lot of industry support from the outset which I think has helped him have a more holistic view of the business of fashion beyond the creative process. It’s something that a lot of designers easily overlook but it’s imperative to building a brand.”
Leroy is comfortable with the relationship between creating and brand-building. The designer is just as quick to credit his PR team Zoe and Sam, who he says are his “biggest support” with helping him achieve his goals as his rollcall of influences, which range from the late Alexander McQueen to worlds immortalised on film.
“When I was studying McQueen was really in his heyday – he passed away in second year but his stuff was amazing and his productions so thematic that it always inspires me every time I develop my collections,” says Leroy, who is planning a series of new collaborations and hopes to capitalise on growing interest in the US and Asian markets in the coming year. “At the same time, the visual strength of film fascinates me. I’m so new but throughout my retrospective of work, I’ve fed into films and stories – whether it’s James Bond, Swan Lake or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Film is such a strong way of ingraining colours and emotions in your head. If you love a movie, you’ll never forget that one character that really hit home.”
Even if you’re unsure if art really does imitate life, it’s clear that Leroy’s own story is one worth chronicling. The designer, whose siblings Luke and Pauline Nguyen run Surry Hills eatery Red Lantern, grew up the son of refugees that escaped the war in Vietnam to put down roots in Sydney’s Cabramatta, a chequered history his sister documented in her memoir The Secrets of the Red Lantern.
But Leroy, who originally studied physiotherapy, believes that this difficult upbringing has helped his siblings find the courage, determination and work ethic to chase who they really are.
“Having older siblings such as Luke and Pauline have helped me develop my self-confidence and self-respect,” he smiles. “Luke has always told me that it’s my life and I should do whatever makes me happy. And Pauline always tells me that I’ve got the goods so there’s no point stressing – just belief in yourself, knuckle down and get it done.”
He sips his flat white and stops speaking for a moment, as if to consider how much of his approach he owes to his mentors. “You have to meet deadlines but I’m a quick fast decision maker. Before a show – either the day of or the day before – I never seem to panic. I’m always calm. And I’m always zen.”