the cfgny show brought together generations of asian creatives
i-D talks to designers Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew about dressing legendary artists and nightlife pioneers in their latest collection.
“I mean, with creating any kind of history, you have to find out what you want to relate yourself to,” says Tin Nguyen, co-designer of label CFGNY (Concept Foreign Garments NY) alongside artist Daniel Chew. He’s talking about their most recent show, held in New York’s Seward Park, on the edge of Chinatown. The duo cast an array of Asian American art world types from across the ages, including iconic 80s and 90s drag queen Ming Vase, AKA Benjamin Liu, and artist Tishan Hsu, who has been making work for 40 years. “Casting, that’s a way for us to do that, to sort of continue to build a tree and a dialogue,” says Nguyen. Of Liu, who served of doorkeeper to a generation of clubs, he adds “I think for us to include him is also a way for us to show him the kind of community we do have, and invite him into it.” Behind the scenes, the designers also worked with long term friends and collaborators, including stylist Avena Gallagher, who is integral to their aesthetic. This community is the heart of the CFGNY project — the fashion show is just the visible sapling of a vast network of roots that Chew and Nguyen have been nurturing.
This year was the third annual CFGNY show, inspired by the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, where the designers have visited with Nguyen’s family in between producing their collections. Phu Quoc hems closely to their ideal as it’s what they describe as “vaguely Asian” — a collision of both Western and Asian aesthetics, somewhat like Chinatown. While there, you could end up “Stumbling upon this crazy gondola contraption — you ride up to this gondola at the top of this hill and it's these fake ancient ruins that have no real place, but covered in references to Venice or Rome or Athens,” says Chew. “This type of mistranslation begets an incongruity when viewed from our perspective and this incongruity can be seen on the island in many other ways including through clothes and the clashing of patterns. You can see it also here in Chinatown and that’s what we are celebrating, a way of being at home for us. We grew up there.” This mix is the essence of their “vaguely Asian” ethos, which comes up a lot as they talk about why they started the label, more as a tool for understanding their place in art and fashion culture than to churn out a ton of clothes. “I think it’s our way of understanding “Asian” as amorphous and not fixed — so not a racial label or a political box, but more fluid,” says Nguyen. “Just the idea that our families are from Asia and that we’re born and raised in the U.S., and that part of our identities are in relation to what we learned from our parents but also growing up here. So I guess that’s the idea of vaguely Asian.”
CFGNY makes its collections in Vietnam, with Nguyen going for a month to supervise production. It isn’t the typical designer/factory relationship, however. The label’s clothes are made in collaboration with local families, who exist at the cross section of tailoring and factories, each of them interpreting the designers’ ideas how they see best (even if they haven’t exactly been asked for their input). “A lot of times they'll just kind of make decisions,” laughs Nguyen. “Because they worked with us so many times, they feel like they understand our sensibilities,” says Chew, “So if they can't contact us and it's at the tailor, there's this sort of chain of sequence that goes down, and then decisions are made, not by us, and I feel like they know our aesthetic.” Sometimes, it’s just an unusually placed zipper, but sometimes it leads to unusually large coats. “A lot of times what we find is it's actually surprisingly weird in the right way,” says Nguyen. “Opening up and having it being between us and them also feeds into the conversation.”
If CFGNY have a predecessor in their work, it’s very much Bernadette Corporation, the art and fashion collective helmed by Bernadette Van-Huy, along with friends Antek Walczak, Thuy Pham, Seth Shapiro and Sonny Pak. BC envisioned the young artist as part of a corporation, casting aside ideas of romantic artistic isolation to play with a businesslike identity. In the same way, Chew and Nguyen see fashion as a tool for both interrogating their “vaguely Asian identity” and connecting with other creatives who might feel the same way. Their show included drag artist West Dakota, artists Timur Si-Qin and Trisha Baga, and ALL Knitwear designer Annie Lee Larson. Wearing Shiseido makeup and choreographed by Steve Kwok and Kyoto, they criss-crossed Seward Park, observed by the elderly ladies doing their Tai Chi. “It was dead silent. You could hear birds chirping and children screaming,” says Nguyen. Adds Chew, “The idea was that they would be sharing public space just if you were a park goer and you were going to share a bench with a neighbor.” With their collaborator, the artist Carissa Rodriguez, the duo watched it unfold by standing on benches just outside the circle the crowd formed. “I just also love the idea that it was public,” says Chew. “People kept asking us ‘Is it private, it is invite,’ and it was like, ‘No you can come, you can bring all your friends.’” And thus the roots of CFGNY grow ever wider.