CONVERSATION WITH PHAN DANG HOANG
In the world of fashion, we always look for something new and exciting. Something that is not just another twist on the same old. Something out of the norm. A few months ago, we had a chance to have a conversation with Phan Dang Hoang, a young Vietnamese student studying fashion design in Milan at the prestigious NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti University. He spoke to Vietnamese students at an online talk organized by an environmental local charity “Keep Hanoi Clean“. Hoang’s new collection “Quintessence” presented during the Afro Fashion Week as part of the Milan Fashion Week SS22 was widely considered to be one of the best collections of the season and got the stamp of approval of no other than Anna Wintour. Even the supermodel Neomi Campbell showed a keen interest in it.
He instantly became the darling of the fashion world for several reasons. Not only his designs were innovative and stylish, but he also used sustainable materials for the entire collection. Additionally, he honored his rich heritage and craftsmanship by using natural fabric, bamboo, and rattan that are widely used in Vietnam, his homeland. He also managed to make the collection during the lockdown with very limited resources and added hindrances caused by the Covid lockdown.
DEFUZE: Sustainability has become a central topic in the world of fashion today. Why do you think it is important and how do you incorporate it into your designs?
HOANG: I think there isn’t any other industry that has such an extreme impact on the environment as much as the fashion industry. We have thousands of tons of unused clothes every year. So we have to burn them. Many of them cant disintegrate in 100 years or even more. Some luxury brands have to burn all the products that are out of season because they can’t cut the price as it is not fair that people who buy them later get a cheaper price. Therefore their solution is to burn all the unsold stock. On the other hand, the process of destroying the products has a bad effect on the environment. That is the reason why the fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution. Even simple things such as dyeing or processing the material can also have a negative impact on the environment and add to water pollution.
As a student of fashion design, I can’t always do things differently because sometimes, I need to use materials that are not environment-friendly. However, I think that, as a young person, before you do something, you should care about the environment around you. If our environment is ruined, we will be ruined too. So I think that as the focus on sustainability increases, it also means that it is a step towards a better environment. When we are too focused on profit and ignore the side-effects of our activities, the impact can be really bad for the environment. It seems like our environment is screaming right now. I think we need more action to protect the environment. For me, I can start from the little things like using environment-friendly materials as I did in my last collection. I believe that if each person does his/her part, we can bring about huge positive change.
DEFUZE: What do you think is the future of sustainability in fashion?
HOANG: Actually, sustainable fashion has already made its way into mainstream fashion. You can see many big brands in the world that have new eco-friendly campaigns or are starting to offer products that are environment-friendly. For example, Stella McCartney has been leading the way in the use of sustainable materials. Or Burberry has made clothes using recycled materials. H&M is recycling old clothes to create new clothes. It means that the fashion industry is trying to shape the change to reduce its impact on the environment.
As a member of Gen Z, I can’t determine the future of fashion by myself. I think that the future of fashion depends on everyone in the fashion industry. I just can feel that it will develop well. We will develop better solutions, for better clothes that are environment-friendly. Right now, we can see fast fashion is getting increasingly popular. People like wearing clothes just once and then they throw them away. I actually did that too since I am from Gen Z. I was clearly not environment-conscious at all. So I think, first I should change myself. I will use products that can be reused. So that I can help the environment. I obviously cannot determine the future of sustainable fashion but I can determine for myself how I am going to be more environmentally conscious in my future collections and personal choices.
DEFUZE: In terms of sustainability and in general, what advice would you give to the upcoming fashion design generation especially in developing countries like Vietnam?
HOANG: I am actually not in a position to give good advice on a topic like this because I am still a student and am new to fashion design. I couldn’t give any general advice yet. However, I think fashion students, have different styles. So we can’t force them to do what they don’t like. I never let my personal point of view judge others’ work. It is important that you really love the things you do and only then you can create something incredible. It is about yourself and the choices you make. No one can force you to do things. But we should be more aware of the impact of our actions and try to stick to good practices. Or you can just do things that you like and enjoy.
DEFUZE: Ok now, it must feel great to have all this attention and for your work to be recognized and appreciated. Was it unexpected? What were your expectations before the show?
HOANG: I feel tired, to be honest. I couldn’t sit from morning till 5 or 6 pm while I was working on the collection, but a day before the show it felt really exciting. I was looking forward to it because this was the first time I was showing my collection as a designer. It felt exciting but I was also worried and scared. I was also calm because I could not overthink at that point. There was too much to take care of. So I just focused on what I had to do for the show. However, I really enjoyed that time.
DEFUZE: How has been your experience of living in Milan? You said in an interview that Milan is like a second home to you now. Did it take long to get to that stage? What would you suggest to the students who plan to study abroad? How should they prepare themselves?
HOANG: It is true that Milan is my second home now. Before coming to Milan, I didn’t really know about the country. When I first came, `I was just 18. Everything was different. Another country, another environment, different language, different lifestyle, to name a few. It was all so difficult for me. I was alone with no family and no friends. Sometimes, I wanted to give up and life was just up and down. But I told myself that my life in Milan is a test for me. If I didn’t get through it, I wouldn’t get through anything else so if I persevered, `I would find the opportunities to shine. I knew that I had to try 1000 times harder than the local students because I came from Asia, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge and background about Europe. I came here and felt just like a baby learning how to speak. To be honest, I didn’t really like it when I first came. I felt life in here was so hard, so difficult. There were times when I thought that I should go back to Vietnam and had planned to come back in the first year. I couldn’t say studying abroad was easy and pleasant. I thought that I would come back as soon as possible. I really wanted to go home, so I called my parents and said that I couldn’t live here anymore but my parents cheered me up and said that I should stay. And I thought that I have been here already and had been through a really hard time, I just couldn’t give up like that. Difficulties come and go, they never end. Many things happened during 3 years. Now when I look back, I feel thankful to have those experiences so I can feel fulfilled today. Not technically fulfilled because I am just 21 and the process to develop myself is still long. However, at the moment, I feel satisfied with my efforts within 3 years. I went through all the challenges and managed to be successful.
I think anyone who has a dream to go abroad to study art or fashion design specialty, you have to prepare yourself. There are no pleasant or dreamy things. To have 5 minutes on the fashion show costs blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights. Success does not come easy and you have to go through all the difficulties only then you will get the success that you want. If you think it is all easy and pleasant, you will be disappointed and there will be no success for you. I have been through that and I think to have any kind of reward, you have to be prepared for hard times. I don’t want to sit here just to share how successful I am because I don’t know if my future would be successful or not. I just know that I came here with all my love for fashion and the dream to become a fashion designer. It’s very important for me. I hope that I will be a fashion designer. That is why I am here today. I am very grateful because Milan has given me lots of meaningful opportunities so I can develop myself much more and gain the success that I dream of.
DEFUZE: Can you share some interesting experiences or moments in Milan, Italy?
HOANG: The most interesting experience was, and it is kind of weird to share this; I noticed that there are very few public toilets in Milan. Italians are very polite. Some times when you walk on Milan’s streets and you have “the need “ and you can’t find a public toilet. It’s weird to go to a restaurant as a college student having no money, right? But you can go to a restaurant to use the toilet. I found it was a funny experience. I didn’t think a big country like Italy wouldn’t have many public toilets. It is kind of bizarre, isn’t it? It was a funny experience of mine.
The second one was when I go to school by public transportation such as train, bus, I have to walk a lot every day as there is no other transportation that I can afford.
I cannot buy a car and do not know how to drive. Because I study fashion so there is a lot of stuff to carry. I have a suitcase and personal stuff to do the assignments. Also, I have to stay at school from morning till night.
I don’t have too many memories, to be honest, this is my first trip out of Italy. After 3 years of studying, this is the first time I traveled abroad. I am in Poland now. I think that in 3 years besides studying and focusing on my career, I haven’t spent much time for myself going out and experiencing life. That was my loss but I think there is no way it is going to be easy. If you want to have rewards, you have to accept to trade the entertainment times. Everyone has a choice to decide which life they want to get. I think that this is my best experience, my first trip after 3 years studying in Italy.
And there are many more other experiences. For example, there was one time people went on strike, so I couldn’t come home. I didn’t know how to because I finished class at 8 pm and all the trains were on strike. There was no way to get home. I remember I had to walk to get home. I arrived home around 1 am. It was one of the unforgettable memories.
There are other memories. Like I don’t know Italian. Everywhere I go, where people just speak Italian, I don’t know how to describe the things I want to buy. I have to use google translate. It is a funny thing. Until now, I haven’t learned any Italian. Or simple things like that. I went to other cities. I love the Duomo Cathedral. The biggest and most famous Cathedral in Milan. It is also one of the most beautiful places to see in Italy. I went to that cathedral and it had really remarkable architecture. I didn’t know how they built that enormous building. Every little detail in that architecture is truly an art. Only when I came here, did I realize why Italy was considered the origin of art. Everything is breathtaking and out of my imagination. I felt so small when I was in Vietnam, Here the distance is huge. Like I can open my mind to witness the architectures that I thought I could only see on TV. Or in Venice, they built houses on the sea. I don’t know how they could do that and how they didn’t fall down in all those years. It’s hard to describe and explain the architecture in Italy. I found that it was one of my favorite experiences.
DEFUZE: Milan is one of the capitals of the fashion world. How did you stand out?
HOANG: Actually, there were no strategies. I always do things because I love them and am passionate about them, for example when you play chess or some kind of intellectual competition, you have to use strategies. But for fashion, there are no strategies. It starts from my own feelings and my own experiences. I do it with all my passion. I try to create my own product with some advice and guidance from my teachers.
And regarding your question about how I managed to stand out, I really don’t know the reason why my work managed to impress people because I don’t like to judge myself or show off. I think that all of my products will be judged by everyone. If there is anything impressive or not, they will give feedback to me. I am not going to judge my own products. I just need to know that my collection is going to be worth my efforts. As far as people’s feelings are concerned, I can’t force them to like my work. I also think that people have different beauty standards, so I will listen to all the opinions to see where I feel that I need to improve. I don’t think I can say how impressive I am but if I have to give the advice, I will say that you should try your best and learn more every day. Since we all have different tastes and different purposes, we can’t give any comparisons or standards. I think that it is important for you to improve your own ability so you can do your best. To be honest, there is no advice or standards for you to follow because even the most well-known fashion designers in the world were born original. As Coco Chanel has said: “ We were born as the original. Never try to become a copy of someone.” We learn but not to lose ourselves. It is necessary to find yourself in the job you are passionate about and if you really enjoy the job, you will be successful.
DEFUZE : The biggest lessons you learned?
HOANG: Let me share my point of view. This is what I have learned and I don’t think it is suitable in everyone’s case. Like I just said, everyone should have their own lesson. My biggest lesson in fashion is that I have to accept my mistakes. So that I can figure out how to fix them and improve. Some people have this attitude that when someone points out their mistakes, they think: “ Oh I don’t need to listen to what other people say, I should just be myself.” Sometimes it’s right but sometimes, it’s not. Teachers have a lot of experience. Their views and advice mainly help you to improve. Their purpose is not to change you or something so you should listen to their advice and what they share to know how to improve yourself. I think that is the most important lesson for me. There are some teachers who helped me change for the better and I am very thankful to them. It’s because of their advice that now I can complete myself fully.
DEFUZE: You made your collection during the lockdown and it must have been so hard…
HOANG: I think that everyone has been through a lot. Different jobs have different problems. We all have to face the pandemic right now and it is difficult. It has taken many lives and has changed the whole world. Everyone have their own problems, not just me. I think the problems in fashion are similar to other jobs’ problems and the problem of me not being able to find the materials and not being able to go to school is just like another barrier that stops you from learning. I couldn’t have the experience of going shopping for the materials but we have to adjust to the conditions, right? So I told myself to get through this and try harder. Every time I felt moody or exhausted, I always thought that right now I am so lucky to have all these things. I also thought about unlucky people who didn’t have a chance like me. I needed to use the hard things to be my motivator to get better. If there are no difficulties, there won’t be living anymore. We should have a positive outlook so we can find things to be grateful for and happy about. Look on the good side. Try to solve the problems. Be more positive so you can improve yourself.
DEFUZE: What are the key things that you keep in mind while designing your pieces?
HOANG: First, to keep my personality in it.
Second, to be appropriate to the current trends.
Third, it needs a meaning behind it.
These are my 3 rules.
DEFUZE: What are the biggest lessons that you learned from the Covid lockdown?
HOANG: I learned how to study online. It’s a crazy thing to learn online about fashion. It is like a nightmare. Fashion needs a lot of practice. I didn’t know what to do when studying online. It is very passive. I had to learn to study online in the middle of the pandemic. You actually can learn many things in the pandemic. Like some people learned how to cook better, how to be a TikToker. We can develop ourselves in different ways. We just need to think positively. Things happen to teach us some lessons. People come to teach you a lesson too. You should enjoy and be happy about it. If you are just being negative, there will be no success for you. Like my collection, it happened during the pandemic but my school carried out a presentation and I thought that was my time to prove myself. My lesson is “Never give up. Just keep going and going. “
DEFUZE: Your cultural identity can be seen in your pieces not just in terms of the materials but also in design. How important it is to you? How do you plan to highlight it?
HOANG: I did it from my own feelings, my own point of view. I didn’t think there would be a comparison. The values of Vietnam are there but the design is different. For example, the “Lua” collection by Cong Tri was inspired by Vietnam and it was very successful in Tokyo Fashion Week. Every designer has their own way to show Vietnam through their collection. We don’t have any common formula. I just used my own knowledge about Vietnam. I also needed to keep worldwide trends in mind. Fashion represents clothes not any kind of story. Your product should be outstanding enough to convince people.
DEFUZE: Many students dream to study abroad and have a mental image in their mind that is not always accurate. What was your experience and how would you compare your expectations versus reality? Based on that what would you recommend to the students?
HOANG: If you have a dream, just follow it. Many people texted me that they loved fashion but their parents or friends stopped them from pursuing that dream. I just have to say that if you liked something but you still had reasons to not do it, it means that you didn’t really like it enough. Like when I was 18, I told my parents about my passion. I had to prove that I really loved it and I wouldn’t let anyone tell me what to do. Even though my parents were not very keen on the idea initially, they never made me do anything I did not like. Besides I am a proactive person, I can decide what my life is going to be. Therefore, if we still have a reason to not follow our dream, it means that we aren’t truly passionate about it. There were some people who told me that I could not do it and I proved them so wrong. There are no limits for your dreams, if you really love it, do it in the best possible way. To be successful, you need to try hard. I ensure you there are no dreamy things, reality will hit you hard. It is going to be exhausting. But that is our choice so we have to move on. Prepare yourself, because studying abroad means you have to go through it alone. If you can go through it, it will be fine, be positive, be happy about life. That all. I want to express my positive energy to you guys. Don’t be sad if you can’t get this job, maybe it is destiny. Life changes so you should change too. There are much more opportunities out there for you. Always think positive, always try to balance yourself. So you can adjust and improve yourself. Just follow your dream, but not too far away or too dreamy.
DEFUZE: Where did you find your inspiration for your collection?
Usually, I find my inspiration from anything close to me because I see that if people start up with something huge, it can be hard to approach it. There was a quote that my teacher said. “Fashion is just about clothing. It can’t have too many stories behind it. It only limits the clothing language. You can’t read clothes like reading a novel or a book.” So I think that inspiration comes from many simple things. For example, like a cup here, like its material. Everything in life can be the source of inspiration. Or your daily life can be an inspiration too, for example when you saw your grandma or your mom wearing vintage clothes. Its just simple. Back in the day when I went to school, I often did not find some massive impressive inspiration. Eventually, I realized that it’s hard to express those things in fashion. I chose an easy concept to make it easier. Choosing a concept was already hard. I get my inspiration in the easiest things anyway. My previous collection was inspired by Vietnam, my own country which is close to me.
DEFUZE: What should we expect from your next collection?
HOANG: Not too much. The more the expectation, the more the disappointment. Everything is going to be normal. There shouldn’t be any kind of comparison with the previous one because I put a different meaning in each one. The next one will be part of my graduation project. It’s called “Inside Vietnam” I think that is the most important thing is my spirit for fashion. My love for fashion is unconditional.