Nicholas Phat Nguyen is a fashion designer who calls Houston home. Known for his over the top and vibrant garments, Nicholas has become a staple of the Texas high fashion scene. Here, he sits down with photographer, creative director, and Good Newscast co-host Chelsea Francis to talk about his inspirations, being a queer Houston icon, and why he’s always got such a beautiful smile on his face.
The creative mind behind Mysterious by NPN, Nicholas Phat Nguyen infuses his designs with his own rich personal history. He grew up in Vietnam, under the wing of his strong, independent grandmother. He left at fifteen to study in the U.S. and make his childhood dream come true. And come true it did, through hard work, determination, and Nguyen’s journey to grow and accept himself as he truly is.
Chelsea Francis: To get started, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Nicholas Phat Nguyen: My name is Nicholas Phat Nguyen and I’m a fashion designer and creator of Mysterious by NPN. I am Vietnamese American, and I moved to the United States for high school when I was fifteen and have been living by myself since. So now I’ve been here for more than half of my life, sixteen years later!
CF: That’s amazing. What initially drew you to the fashion industry?
NPN: From a very young age, I knew I was interested in anything artistic, from music to painting to art to design. I realized early on that I love dressing up, I love clothing. It’s sometimes hard for me to find what I want to wear, though, in a style that really fits me. So that’s when I tippy toed in—buying my own machines, learning how to sew from YouTube, making my own garments. Looking back, it really helped me find something new. I never believed in myself at that time, because I was so insecure. I was really young, and it was a lot for me—accepting who I am in being gay and learning to love myself. That was a journey for me.
I didn’t start my business until my last year of college. I spontaneously applied to Austin Fashion Week, but I had no sketches, no design, nothing. Ten days before the show, they accepted me! It just came to me that night when I got that acceptance—I didn’t sleep at all because I was sketching my pieces. And in just ten days, it came alive. The second the show was over, all of my exhaustion came pushing through at the same time. I’m a huge risk taker, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. This time, everything worked in my favor. I guess it was a sign.
The best part was that my grandma was there at the show. She’s my biggest supporter in everything I do, and she got to see me happy, doing what I love, for the first time. After the show, I guess she finally understood something that I’d always wanted to tell her, without saying a word. She was like, “Okay, when you’re done with school, I will help you start your studio.” And that’s how Mysterious by NPN began.
I think the world is changing. Instead of waiting for it to change, I wanted to go ahead and be that person who started making changes.
CF: What a beautiful story. One thing you said that really struck me was when you talked about your attraction to becoming a fashion designer—how it was born out of your personal style and it wasn’t you dressing up to be anything else. It was you dressing up to be who you truly are on the inside. I feel very similarly about personal style. I’m always trying to match who I am on the inside to how I’m dressing on the outside. I love that your journey led you to start a fashion line and make designs that fit other people’s personal styles that they don’t see represented. Everyone’s always trying to sell you an idea of who they think you should be. I think the best thing that we can do with our closets and our wardrobe is look for pieces that really represent us, that aren’t asking us to be something that we’re not. Pieces that make us feel more confident.
NPN: I agree.
CF: You mentioned your grandmother being a huge source of inspiration for you, and I wanted to ask what about her particularly inspires you?
NPN: My grandma has played the biggest part in my life. Part of her always saw who I was inside, and I could feel her love. I get emotional when I talk about it, but I felt her trying to push me away in the way that she believed I could find something better for myself out in the world. My grandma is a very powerful businesswoman. Everything that she wants to do, she makes it happen. Even now, she feels like the head of the family—she’s the most powerful woman in the house.
CF: I very much appreciate a headstrong woman. Speaking of inspiration, how does your story and personal style affect your professional style?
NPN: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out, especially here in Texas. It’s pretty obvious that people know I’m gay. You know, there’s nothing to hide. But it’s about my confidence level, too. When I started out, I wasn’t as confident as I am today. I really struggled to be myself and also make people around me feel comfortable. Because, at the end of the day, I still live in a very conservative state, and I didn’t want to rub people the wrong way. I didn’t want to let my personal image affect my lifestyle, but I’ve decided I need to be true to who I am. I should be able to wake up and dress as whoever, whatever, I want to be. So I’m going to do that. I’ve gotten so much positive support these past few years. I think the world is changing, too. Instead of waiting for it to change, I wanted to go ahead and be that person who started making changes. Everyone is actually really supportive, especially in this industry—anything in vogue with art, with fashion, anything artistic, there will be LGBTQ represented. So let it be me.
CF: Like, why not you? I definitely see that in your work. I want to talk about the fashion industry a little bit. I have a couple of friends that work in New York in the fashion industry, and I know that there are definitely ebbs and flows. There are seasons of feast and there are seasons of famine. How do you keep an optimistic mindset while navigating the ups and downs of the industry?
NPN: People say fashion is a cutthroat industry, which is true, but everything now is a cutthroat business. You have to overcome that fear and just do what you need to do. I feel I’m successful at doing that because I can look at myself in the mirror now and say I love myself. For me, I always look at it as: I’m doing this for myself. And I’m creating more than just fashion—I’m creating art. And hopefully my art can help inspire other people. I know people talk about how fashion is cutthroat, or difficult—and it is. But at the end of the day, there is space for everyone, and there is space for everybody to be exactly who they are and be embraced by this community. I think that is the optimism in fashion.
CF: Who is on your bucket list to dress?
NPN: Oh, definitely Lady Gaga. I love her so much. I feel like I grew up with her, she gave me so much every time I was struggling. She did that for a lot of people. I definitely want to meet her and dress her one day.
CF: You should have done the clothes for “Rain on Me,” and I’m really disappointed that Gaga didn’t have you dress her for “911.”
NPN: Lady Gaga, call me!
CF: She should! My last question for you is, what would you say to a young designer getting their start? How would you encourage them to stay optimistic, especially when beginning?
NPN: Nothing is easy at first, but if you have a passion, then you have to do what you truly want to do. There’s only one you. And if you can show people who you really are through your fashion, your garment, your size, your clothing, then you are successful to yourself. And when you’re successful to yourself, you’ll gain the confidence you need to grow bigger. You’ll attract people with the same mindset. So follow your dream. Don’t give up too easily and keep pushing through.
Photo credit: Nicholas Phat Nguyen (left), Chelsea Francis (right)