AT A RECENT PHOTO SHOOT IN NEW ORLEANS, Houston-based designer Nicholas Phat Nguyen wears a thick knit sweater with the word “Mysterious” emblazoned in gold across the chest, a tiny pair of matching shorts, and a toothy, megawatt smile. A stylist removes some of Nguyen’s gowns from garment bags for steaming, and the fabric’s blue dots and yellow tessellations start to swirl and reflect the light. A model points to him and says, “I want those legs and teeth,” which makes him laugh.
“Honey,” Nguyen calls back, “I bought these teeth. But I want those boobs.”
Nguyen is here to shoot his 2020 collection, which he’s just debuted at Houston’s Fashion for Good show. The Bayou City’s haute couture and high-end fashion market has reached a crescendo of youthful creativity in recent years, and Nguyen is one of its freshest designers.
His label, Mysterious—founded just five years ago, between Montrose and his native Vietnam—is the 30-year old’s vision of flamboyant luxury. The bold collections for men and women employ vibrant splashes of color, sumptuous fabrics, and playful silhouettes; they are, Nguyen says, “not for the faint of heart,” but rather for “those who are strong enough to stand out.”
But for a designer whose clothes are noted for their whimsy and exuberance, Nguyen’s early life was far from cheerful. He recalls his childhood in Ho Chi Minh City as one of endless conflict between the strict traditionalism of his family and his own burgeoning fantasies—both creatively and sexually—which had to remain secret. This included a Proustian escapade into his grandmother’s closet to touch, smell, and try on her dresses and shirts, an experience that first engendered his passion for clothing. “I felt free, and I loved the textiles and flow of the fabrics,” he remembers. “I liked dancing and twirling around to see the dresses float.”
By 10 Nguyen began to notice the differences between himself and his schoolmates, who taunted him with epithets like “queer” and “fag.” “Vietnam has such a strong culture,” he says. “I felt like everyone was trying to push me to this ideal of normal.” To escape, he spent weekends at Suoi Mo (Dream River), an aquarium park owned by his grandmother, where he befriended the Russian animal train- ers and engineers, improving his English skills and learning about the wider world.
In 2004, at 15, he left Vietnam for America—more specifically, southwest Houston. It was a purely practical choice, he says, as he was required to live with a host as a minor, and family friends from Vietnam who’d already immigrated here agreed to keep close tabs on him.
Still, he was a teenager—alone—more than 9,000 miles away from all he knew. “The first three years were definitely the toughest three years of my life,” he says. “Without family there for my emotional support, I had to handle everything alone, and it wasn’t easy for a 15-year-old.”
But that pushed him to make friends, he says, who have since become family. And when it came time for college, rather than return home, Nguyen chose UH—although, at his parents’ insistence, he studied international business rather than the arts.
Nguyen’s expanding friend group nurtured him, but the end of a serious relationship during his senior year was a low point. That’s when he bought a sewing machine to make his very first outfit: a red party dress he could wear out to clubs.
Soon afterward, in 2014, a friend submitted Nguyen’s application to participate in Austin’s Fashion X. To his surprise, he was accepted—despite having no garments ready to show. Even now he tells the story with an air of melodrama, as if he doesn’t completely believe the unusual series of events.
Twelve days before showtime, “I had nothing,” Nguyen recalls. He borrowed money from friends for materials, then quickly sketched a 15-piece collection with just 10 days to manifest it. “I probably only had six hours of sleep in those 10 days—I sewed and painted and sewed,” he says. “And for those 10 days I didn’t feel the pain from my breakup anymore.” He finished the twelfth dress on the day of the show, in the car on the way to Austin. “I was exhausted,” he says, “but I never felt prouder of myself.”
Nguyen named the collection “Bang, Bang” after the Nancy Sinatra song; he dripped gold paint down his gowns as a symbol of his difficult journey. “It is like I was bleeding gold,” he muses.
After his successful debut, Nguyen’s grandmother—who flew to Texas for the show—agreed to finance his operations in Vietnam. He briefly returned there to open a studio, where he hired local couturiers and embroiderers to handcraft each garment. Four months later he’d produced nearly two dozen gowns with luscious fabrics and rich embellishments. He named his romantic second collection “Another Love” and subsequently won the 2015 Fashion X Austin Critic’s Choice Mash Up Award. He was selected to show at that year’s New York Fashion Week.
Five years, eight collections, and numerous shows later, Nguyen has grown to join the ranks of Houston trend-setters alongside fellow Vietnamese-American Chloe Dao of Project Runway fame and local mainstay David Peck. His gowns have appeared on entertainers such as Chrysta Bell, Veronica Vega, and Alejandra Espinoza. Each collection is vastly different from the next “because it reflects my own emotions at the time I design,” Nguyen says. “It’s definitely a roller coaster.”
Unlike other local designers who relocate to New York or Los Angeles in search of greater recognition, Nguyen wants to stay in Houston, and he thinks it’s finally our time in the spotlight. “Dallas used to be the fashion city in Texas, but now Houston’s scene has definitely grown,” he says. “All the major fashion houses are pouring in—and they need to be. It’s such an international city.”
He would know. He shoots another megawatt grin. “Houston just needs someone to kick that conservative door down,” he says, “and it would be amazing if that person was me.”