Soulvenir is a project focusing on Vietnamese culture, history, and individuals through clothing, art, and design. In the midst of the bustling Vietnamese fashion market that is all about chasing the next trends, Soulvenir and its community are still preserving and promoting the Vietnamese identity.
V2X got an opportunity to catchup with Tân Nguyễn and Ý, the creative minds behind Soulvenir. Deep diving into their brand story as they share the highs and lows of their journey, what it means to "love and work together” and how they preserve Vietnamese culture through their practice.
Hello Tân and Ý, congratulations on the launch of your first collection in Việt Nam - “Chapter 1: Lao Động”. What does this homecoming mean to you two as well as Soulvenir?
Ý: Since Tân founded VSSG and Soulvenir, he had always wanted to return to Việt Nam to create “Made in Việt Nam” products. To the point that Tân often dreamed that he was in Vietnam, I knew he really wanted to go because he had been away from home for a long time. Having spent half his life in America, Tân longed to be a part of the creative community in Việt Nam.
The ethos of Soulvenir is shown clearly through "Chapter 1”. I think it is the most complete collection of Soulvenir because both of us are living and implementing this project in Việt Nam.
How did Soulvenir's story begin?
Tân Nguyễn: At first this was just a project in my design class. Initially, I wanted to make souvenir t-shirts for cities around the world, like New York, Paris, Sài Gòn, Hà Nội,... For example, Sài Gòn has the Botanical Garden and other famous landmarks. In Việt Nam at that time, clothes rarely had Vietnamese words and phrases on them, so when I accidentally designed Sài Gòn and Hà Nội shirts, I found it very special and realized there was so much more to research and explore. After that assignment, I decided to focus 100% on Việt Nam and its beauty for Soulvenir.
Ý: When I first met Tân, he was operating on VSSG. Although I was not a fashion person, I saw that all the decisions Tân made were always oriented towards Việt Nam. When he released the first pieces for Soulvenir, I was like 'Oh this is it’. It felt exactly like what Tân had in mind.
How can you describe the Soulvenir customers?
Ý: When we were in America, it was expensive to ship to Việt Nam, but there were still many people who supported us regardless. There was a customer who volunteered when we had our first pop-up in Việt Nam. When I heard him talking to other customers, I thought that he was the founder of the brand because he understood our visions so well. Lots of people showed up to that pop-up and showed support. Stateside, the majority of our customers are Vietnamese Americans. A lot of references we use, like Xuân Quỳnh’s poetry for example, is familar in Việt Nam but not in the US, we were happy to be the bridge that would bring these different communities together.
Tân Nguyễn: If I could describe Soulvenir customers, they would be people who are eager to learn and explore - they can be Vietnamese Americans, African Americans, Chinese Vietnamese,... no matter who they are, all they want is to get to know more about the Vietnamese culture.
Tân also founded VSSG (Vietnamese Street Style Group), a fashion community for Vietnamese people around the world. It seems that Soulvenir has a "humble" feeling that is completely opposite to VSSG. Can you share a little about this view?
Tân Nguyễn: Actually, when VSSG first started, it was quite humble, I just wanted to create a community to talk about fashion for my Vietnamese friends. Unintentionally, that fashion is streetwear and high-end... but the general purpose is for the Vietnamese to share what was cool around the world. When I founded Soulvenir, I also had those same thoughts. The fashion community is indeed a bit contrary to the word "humble", so when I made Soulvenir I wanted it to be free from the things I didn’t enjoy about the fashion world.
Ý: Soulvenir is not a fashion brand. We want to convey our messages through many different mediums, and among them, clothing is something people use every day, so it’s actually the fastest way to spread our messages.
Can you guys talk about your experiences as a couple working together at work?
Ý: I know many couples working in the same industry. I always ask how is it for them to work together, and most of them say it comes naturally. Tân and I have similar personalities so sometimes they pushes us apart. However, our ways of executing are completely different, Tân is a minimalist, and I am a maximalist. I always wanted to do "out of this world" kind of things, and I learned a lot from Tân’s minimalist mindset.
Tân Nguyễn: Soulvenir wouldn't be Soulvenir without Ý. If Chapter 1 didn't have her working on it, I would have released the first one or two samples. I want to be as simple as possible, but that must be combined with Ý’s attention to detail to create a truly beautiful design. The two must be balanced in order to produce a perfect product.
Ý: We spend a lot of time together, we go everywhere together, and talk to each other all day. There’s no line between work and personal life. Most of the time work doesn't feel like work.
We often talk about philosophy and ways of approaching problems. Executing is easy, I just need to sit down and do it, but the way we think and approach that project will take more time. That's how we work together. Our works reflect a lot on our life philosophies, so every time we talk to each other it sounds like we are working but not really.
Tân Nguyễn: We spend a lot of time thinking, orienting the messages given to people, and how others receive those ideas. Sometimes a design only takes 15 minutes to make, but it takes a lifetime to think about.
Ý: Tân and I are not a perfect couple. I think everyone is the same, but some couples are more compatible than others. We put in a lot of effort to maintain our relationship. Love is fun and stuff, but staying together and having children is a different story. I have to learn and unlearn to ensure that the next generation will be better.
Bien and May, your children were born in the US. Usually, when Vietnamese grow up living abroad, they will often have a journey return to their homeland. What will you prepare for their future journey?
Ý: I think about this a lot. I have many Vietnamese American friends, some of them identity crisis. Not Vietnamese enough to be Vietnamese, not American enough to be American.
Tân Nguyễn: People will always label you with something, for example, anyone in America who doesn't like you will say "you're not American", or anyone in Việt Nam who doesn't like you will say "you’re not Vietnamese." There's always a prejudice about us or something they don't like, so I’m not bothered by what people think, I'm just myself. It's like if I was born on the moon and I am also Vietnamese, I'd say I'm Vietnamese, not “Moonese”.
Most Vietnamese Americans often have an identity crisis because when they come to Việt Nam, they are called Việt Kiều. When they’re on the street, other Vietnamese seem to keep a distance from them or have prejudice towards them, treat them differently than other folks. That makes Vietnamese Americans feel like they do not belong to the Vietnamese community. But like I said, just be yourself because you can never satisfy everyone.
Ý: We can't define it, what does it mean to be Vietnamese? If I'm staying in Sài Gòn 10 more years, I'd still say I'm from Nha Trang, I'm proud of that. I hope that when Biển and Mây grow up, they maybe a little confused, but they will still be proud to be Vietnamese.
Tân Nguyễn: I created Soulvenir because I want to share information and beauty from both sides. Not only Vietnamese who live in Vietnam are “authentic” Vietnamese, not only pre-1975 Sài Gòn is beautiful, Vietnamese living abroad also have different communities and they all as authentic, as awesome as folks living in Việt Nam. That is the message I want to convey through Soulvenir, everyone can learn and explore Vietnamese culture.
Returning to Soulvenir, why you choose the theme “Labor is Glory”?
Tân Nguyễn: When I brought Soulvenir to Việt Nam, making a brand that honors Việt Nam, for Vietnamese, I wanted to explore something that both Vietnamese and our international friends would understand. I took inspiration from workers on the streets of Sài Gòn. I saw them on the streets wearing all kinds of layers, people who work on the streets have to be like that because of many environmental factors: rain, wind, sun,... We’re inspired by those images and we paired them along with the phrase "Lao Động là Vinh Quang". The glory (Vinh Quang) here is when you do what you love, you put in a lot of effort, and time to practice, and it’s awesome to get the result, which motivates you to work on the next thing. That’s the glory.
During the war, this sentence was used to encourage people throughout the country to increase productivity. Now we bring that sentence back but change the meaning slightly so that younger generations can relate.
What are your thoughts on young people and communities in Vietnam? What are your future plans? If possible, please share with V2X readers!
Tân Nguyễn: Everyone is so enthusiastic, folks always apply whenever we call for volunteers. The youth here enthusiastically contribute to the community. Their spirit is free. Doesn’t matter what they do, their energy is aspirational.
We have a project called "nay mai”, which includes VSSG, Soulvenir, and other projects from us. We want to create a space to collaborate with young people and brands that we believe in, connecting different communities from many parts of the world together.
Photo by LAM DAM