adobe diverse voices hype vietnam streetwear los angeles designer biker interview young asian future anime public school new york minnesota
adobe diverse voices hype vietnam streetwear los angeles designer biker interview young asian future anime public school new york minnesota
Where I’m From: Kai Nguyen Sheds Light on Cross-Cultural Connections Made with Lumières
Speaking to Dao-Yi Chow, the designer shows the power of believing in yourself while building a brand.
Presented by Adobe

The cool aura that surrounds Kai Nguyen and his brand Lumières has birthed a curiosity for the designer’s thought process and how his background plays out in his work. While images from Vietnam, where he was born and raised until about 11 years old, consistently appear in his designs, Nguyen weaves in influences from biker culture and futuristic styling to give a unique touch to Lumières. The label’s aesthetic is an extension of Nguyen’s personal identity: highly functional apparel with bold slogans that empower those who choose to wear them.

As an ambitious teenager living in a small town in the Midwest, Nguyen participated in online streetwear communities to cultivate his graphic design skills and make connections across the States. Driven by his strong will to succeed, and seemingly against all odds, he launched his brand at 17 then made his way to L.A. where he now lives. Although Nguyen is only 24, he’s no newcomer to the streetwear scene thanks to a tenacity that led him to hanging out and helping at some of the city’s most prominent stores. This persistence is also responsible for his self-taught design skills, a practice informed by meeting people and hearing their stories while also identifying visual connections that span across different countries and cultures.

As for his own story, pulling style elements from his family or childhood in Vietnam started as a subconscious practice, having only noticed their presence in recent years. He’s proud of his heritage and journey without being too overt about it, preferring that his eye-catching work, which often features embroidered or painted tigers, dragons and other strong symbols, do the talking for him. Overall, the Lumières brand is a testament to his unrelenting work ethic and the power of believing in yourself despite minimal resources.

In support of Adobe‘s Diverse Voices initiative and commitment to amplifying the stories of Asian and Pacific Islander creators, Dao-Yi Chow, the co-founder and designer of Public School New York, spoke to Kai Nguyen to learn more about what drove him to move from Minnesota to expanding his brand in L.A., the influence of his native country on his work ethic and his self-taught approach.

Dao-Yi Chow: Pleasure to meet you, Kai. Can tell us about where you’re from and how it plays a role in your work?

Kai Nguyen: I was born and raised in Vietnam. With everything that the country went through and how I was raised right after the war — my parents grew up during the war and right after — I got the personality of the country, which is perseverance and how hardworking Vietnamese people are. And that bleeds into my work ethic and how I am as a person, which includes standing up for yourself and being proud of who we are.

DYC: Have you had to exercise that a lot as a designer?

I wouldn’t say that I have to exercise these things I named as a designer. I think it’s ingrained into me, as a person, since growing up. I never thought about it, but if I take a step back, and think about what other people say about me or the way I work, I guess those things stand true. I always find a way to overcome any obstacle.

DYC: I’ve watched a couple interviews, and you seem to wear that resilience as a badge of honor. It feels like it defines who you are. Even your “Fuck Off” mantra comes from a real place.

KN: I think most of it is me trying to spread the message to kids like me. A lot of Asian kids, especially kids that just moved to this country with an accent like mine, get bullied in the Midwest, et cetera. I went through that for a short period of time, so I wanted to spread a message to kids that you don’t have to be that way anymore and you can be proud of yourself.

DYC: No doubt. I think that idea of representation is a big thing — thinking about how your appearance and where you’re from has a role in influencing the next generation. You’re still on the come up, but thinking about the next generations, that idea of representation is super important.

KN: Yeah. It’s kind of crazy that we recently got representation on bigger channels, like mainstream media and movies. Even two years ago, we didn’t have that much representation in media. It’s pretty exciting to see the come up for Asian communities, especially for younger kids. Now, it’s not only K-pop anymore. There’s fashion, movies, TV, comics. A lot of Asian culture has been blowing up lately. Everyone loves anime now.

DYC: Exactly. And I know that biker culture is an inspiration for you and your brand, but where does that come from? Is that from your childhood?

KN: I think it’s a mix of both, but it’s one of those things that have been with me for so long that I didn’t even notice until I moved to the States. In Vietnam, there’s thousands of motorcycles and people just weaving in between [traffic]. Unless you’re wealthy, you don’t really have a car. Every person in each household owns a motorcycle. Growing up, my dad and mom took it to a whole new level because you see people drive 100cc or 200cc. My dad was always a rebellious kid and he was riding a big Harley bike. Everyone had a motorcycle, but I’d look at him because his bike would be way louder than everyone else’s. Even in a whole country of people riding motorcycles, our family still stands out as, ‘Oh, those are the crazier ones.’

DYC: How much of your dad’s style comes through in what you do?

KN: Without even noticing until four, five years ago, which is kind of crazy to me, it’s a lot. He was in an actual motorcycle gang. There’s this photo of him wearing a full jumpsuit with logos on it, and then there’s hundreds of other bikers around him with flowers. It was a culture that, even now, I don’t understand. I actually understand the biker culture over here way more, but looking back, I don’t know how that even exists in Vietnam or how the culture went that far, way across the country. There’s all these Asian guys dressed exactly the same, they do the same thing, riding the same bike. I didn’t see that until high school, which is the second or third year that I started Lumières. And I was like, ‘Wow, weird coincidence.’ “I got the personality of the country, which is perseverance and how hardworking Vietnamese people are. And that bleeds into my work ethic and how I am as a person.”DYC: What about your inspirations when you were growing up? Any designers?

KN: Oh, man. I don’t think I ever look at other designers’ work at all. I try not to and I don’t really pay attention to trends. I love drawing inspiration from video games and film. Those are my number one inspiration right now. One of my favorite people that influenced the way I design is actually a video game designer, it’s this guy named Hideo Kojima. I always look at his video game design to compare to my own clothing design. He had games, such as Metal Gear Solid. He just dropped one called Death Stranding. He’s known for these very cyberpunk games. I’m drawing inspiration from hyper-futuristic clothing, which I’m trying to find the words for. It’s a mixture of utilitarian and military clothing, mixing between aesthetic comfort and functionality. I hate when people’s clothes have no function, like straps all-over. It looks good, but I always want my clothes to be functional because I’ve always been a nomad. I love to be out all the time and take risks to be here, so I want to draw inspiration from that, too. Bikers have a lot of nomad aspects and are prepared at all times.

DYC: That’s dope. How old were you when you came to the States?

KN: I came to the States when I was, I think, 11 or 12, around that time, around my birthday. It was Christmas time. I remember because I saw snow for the first time. I thought it was really cool until two days later. We landed in Mankato, Minnesota. When we got there, it was a fairly small town.

DYC: It must’ve been a culture shock for you, huh?

KN: Yeah. It was a really crazy shock, living in a big city in Vietnam and ending up in a town of 20,000 people or 30,000 people when I first moved there. Everything is red brick. There are cornfields everywhere.

DYC: And I’m sure nobody looked like you over there.

KN: No, no one at all. I didn’t really see any Asian people there until the end of my time in Minnesota. By my freshman year, I knew I wanted to leave. Our town grew really fast. It grew to 150,000 people and turned into a college town. A lot of kids from different towns came in, partying, and I got to meet more people and I started realizing that I wasn’t made for a small town. I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.

DYC: Where did your interest in fashion come from, then?

KN: I think it’s very interesting that I can pinpoint my first memory of fashion. When I got to my new school, I went through a rebellious phase. I went from a Catholic school of 600 people in the entire school to 600 kids in my grade. I started meeting more people and seeing basketball players and all the athletes in my new school wearing Jordans. I started taking part in that culture. I asked my friend, ‘Hey, where’d you get these pair of shoes?’ He was like, ‘Jordan Cement 3.’ This was on Black Friday, so he said, ‘There’s new shoes. It’s black and red,’ which were the Bred 11s. He was like, ‘You want to go line up with me? Let’s go.’ We went and we stood outside in the cold at 12 A.M. all the way to 6 A.M. to line up for a pair of Jordans, which was my first time ever. My first shoes ever, in that aspect of fashion culture, were the Bred 11s, which is kind of insane. From there, I started collecting Jordans and joining Facebook groups, like trading groups on Facebook, exchanging info, shopping and collecting. And that’s how I got interested in fashion. “I always want my clothes to be functional because I’ve always been a nomad. I love to be out all the time and take risks to be here.”DYC: What was the defining moment when you were like, I need to move to L.A. I’ve got to get out of a small town. Because when you moved to L.A., you had already started your brand, yeah?

KN: After collecting Jordans, there was a competition for making T-shirts and just graphics. At the time, I was really good at Photoshop. I mean, pretty good for a 15-year-old kid, all self-taught. Anyone who wanted a graphic or something would send ​it to me. I made hoodies and T-shirt designs, I shot a whole lookbook and sent it out to everybody. Then, the brand kind of blew up. My name kind of blew up more than even the brand. It was a very interesting time. Stores started picking me up. And I did everything in a trailer park, in my room in a trailer in Minnesota. And I was sitting on Facebook, seeing all my friends in New York and L.A. progressing in life. Someone would get a HYPEBEAST article or get booked to model. And for me, being 15 or 16, the FOMO kicked in. I was like, there’s no way I can just sit here and do this anymore. From that point on, I knew, as soon as I finished high school, I would need to either move to New York or L.A.

DYC: What did your parents think when you told them that you were moving to L.A.?

KN: I didn’t tell. I guess nobody really knew I was moving to L.A. until three days before. I kept it under wraps because I knew, if I tell anyone like my friends or my parents, everyone would do their best to make sure I didn’t go. I only knew two or three people there and that day, I tweeted, ‘Hey, I’m coming to L.A. I need a place to stay,’ and this overwhelming amount of people replied to me.

DYC: What happened? You went out there and crashed at other people’s spots?

KN: Yeah. I got out there and stayed with one of my best friends. The first time I went to L.A., I was hanging out at 424 and one of the sales reps wasn’t there. So, I was helping the store and I sold this guy a $3,000 outfit. And he remembered me. He was like, ‘Yeah, you convinced me to buy this outfit and everyone loved it. [Hit me up] if you need a place to stay.’ That’s how it all started, just meeting a bunch of different people, and here I am.

DYC: That’s right. It’s like a classic tale of just believing in yourself and, with no plan, just jumping in with two feet.

KN: I think that’s a very classic story of kids in New York and L.A., when they seek better opportunities. I think it has a lot to do with, going back to what I said, perseverance, ambition and believing in yourself that drives a lot of us here. That’s what makes fashion fun, too. There’s so many of us who are that ambitious. “My goals are very simple, but when it’s executed right, it will be bigger than it seems or what I saw in my head.”

DYC: Yeah. I always say you either have to be really, really broke or have a bunch of money to be able to do the fashion thing. You either have nothing to lose or so many resources that it doesn’t matter. It looks like your belief paid off. Tell me who’s part of your crew. Who are some of the brands or the designers that you work with, that you hang out with? 

KN: Living in L.A., the fashion community is really small. We all know each other, no matter what. Coming out here, I was introduced to the Odd Future crew. But overall, my friend group is huge. You know what I love about L.A.? It’s not cliquey. Most of my friends are L.A. natives, too. They’re born and raised here. I think I hang out more with musicians than designers, but I think one group of people who changed my life the most were the 424 people.

DYC: What do you think connected people to your brand early on?

KN: Early on, I think it was just me, my personality, and the designs, itself, that spoke to people. I’m very proud of my work. I don’t do drops very often. Every drop, the graphics are very strong and stand for itself. I believe in doing that instead of having an overwhelming amount of products. With my designs, if people look at certain thing, they know it’s Lumières. I think that’s what made people love the designs, it just stands out strong and it speaks for itself.

DYC: You’ve been building it slowly. It’s based on integrity and what you want to put out. So, what are your goals for Lumières?

KN: I’m finally reaching a point where the brand is not only about me anymore. It’s about people around me now, people that believe in me and the customer base. So I’m transitioning into being a real brand. We’re going to try to expand that with collaborations, dropping actual collections. My goals are very simple, but when it’s executed right, it will be bigger than it seems or what I saw in my head. I’m not really that type to be very explosive with statements or stuff like that. I’d rather just prove it.

Under Adobe’s Diverse Voices initiative, this three-part interview series celebrates Asian and Pacific Islander creators by showcasing creative minds who embrace their roots and create work fueled by their identities and experiences. As Adobe continues its commitment to elevating and amplifying underrepresented talent, HYPEBEAST has partnered with the brand to bring candid conversations and in-depth interviews with visionary creators. Featuring diverse voices across mediums, this initiative shares dialogue between established and emerging creators. For more in this series, check out Chow’s previous conversations with Pattaraphan designer Nok Salirathavibhaga and Vandy The Pink.


Credits
Writer
Kirsten Chen
Photographer
Shannon Brown
Designer
Yenna Chang
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