We’re over the moon about this profile post on NYU professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, whose fabulously smart book, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, is due out this Winter from Duke University Press.
Longtime readers and friends of Threadbared will recognize Thuy Linh’s name from previous mentions of her in this blog. Thuy Linh (pronounced “Twee Lin”) is not just a colleague, but a good friend. Mimi first grew to love Thuy Linh about a billion years ago in her first graduate program and co-edited with her Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America (Duke University Press, 2007); years later, Minh-Ha and Thuy Linh met as professors at NYU where they happily discovered that by joining forces they were able to cover the most ground at sample sales. Recently, Thuy Linh chatted with Minh-Ha about her book, The Beautiful Generation, her own fashion history, and her most devastating fashion loss. See below for all the highlights.
Nattering with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her Noho apartment.
When I was a grad student (in the mid 1990s), I started noticing all these new boutiques in Nolita, the East Village, 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Williamsburg that were helmed by Asian women. And it struck me as really curious. Asian women aren’t traditionally seen as stewards of chic fashion; we usually think of them—if we think about them at all in relation to fashion—as sewers and sweatshop workers. But at that time, we began to see them working in small scale boutiques, becoming bold face names—Vera Wang and Vivienne Tam, for instance—and entering fashion schools like Pratt and Parsons in droves. I really felt that this was a unique social phenomenon and I wanted to understand why we were seeing this growth in Asian Americans’ participation in the fashion industry and what the effects of their presence was. Eventually, this curiosity became The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion.
It’s not inaccurate to say that fashion is a frivolous thing to study because some studies of fashion are frivolous, but it’s not much different from the film or television industries, and I do take an industry approach to fashion. Fashion’s a multi-billion dollar industry that is globally dispersed and that cuts through class, race, gender. So it has this significance that if we’re able to look at fashion beyond “what’s in, what’s out” we’re able to see how it drives economic development, shapes identities, mobilizes consumer desires, etc.
Fashion is a wonderful cultural object that allows us to see how economics and culture are interlinked.
There’s this picture of me, my mother, and my sister on my bookshelf that I love. It’s one of three or four that I have of us from Viet Nam—because everything else was lost in the war. My mom is wearing a beautiful black and white áo dài and she’s wearing these cat eye Ray-Ban sunglasses that she bought with my dad on their first date. You can just imagine—a young, single Vietnamese woman buying American sunglasses in front of her new boyfriend in the 1960s. This was a fashion statement.
My mom didn’t buy a stitch of clothing for herself and she always looked phenomenal. Everything my mom owned when I was younger—like, our first five years in the U.S.—was given to her from the church that sponsored us (in Avon, Connecticut). I remember this green shift dress she had with black piping . . . she always looked like a total class act.
I don’t have any sense of anyone influencing my style. That’s not to say I’m so original. But I always felt that—even though my fashion sense has changed so much since high school—I have always felt myself sartorially. Everything I put on is the me of that moment.
I fear I’m sometimes sartorially boring. There are a lot of fashion limbs I won’t go out on. I’m pretty classic. I do have a sense of fashion though. I do like the updating of fashion . . . and details kill me. A well-placed pleat can always turn me.
The Japanese are going to kill me but I hate asymmetry. I don’t want to have to tilt my head to see your outfit.
I’d love to say that my mom is my style influence but I don’t think I’m as creative as she is.
A while ago, my favorite item of clothing was a 3.1 Phillip Lim tan wool shift dress with square sleeves and a wide belt. I got it with Minh-Ha at a sample sale. Every time I put it on, I felt fantastic. The genius of this dress is that it’s cut in such a way that it would look good on, seriously, any body. Recently, though, I went through a very stressful period in my life and I have to say that the article of clothing that I wear the most and that makes me feel the best is my Adidas running shorts. I feel like I can kick some serious butt in those things.
Five years ago, I was moving from one apartment in Manhattan to an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We packed up everything and I had this brilliant idea to put all my shoes in a giant duffel bag—all the shoes I own except the flip flops I was wearing. The movers came and moved our stuff. In Brooklyn, I unpack and there’s no duffel bag. I called the movers and they said they moved it. They said they remember seeing it in Brooklyn as they were unloading the truck. But it never made it inside. Someone must have swiped my bag of shoes! These are all my shoes. It’s not like a dress that doesn’t fit you. You can wear shoes for the rest of your life. My beloved shoes—all gone. This is my most devastating fashion loss—my bag of shoes. I’m still rebuilding.
I don’t actually love to shop. This is probably surprising to people, considering the work I do. I like to shop as much as the average person. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.
Sometimes people do things fashion-wise that I don’t think will work but it works for them.
I am a stickler for well-fitting clothes. Ill-fitting clothes do no one any favors.
Smart fashion is hard to find. That’s what Threadbared is—smart fashion, not fast fashion. All I want is to be on Threadbared.
(All photos by Brian Camarao)
Threadbared will be celebrating the publication of The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion in the Winter with a special profile and promotional giveaway of copies of the book, courtesy of Duke University Press!