Sherry Nguyen is a jack-of-all-trades during a promotional photoshoot on the morning of Sept. 23 at Selfie Spot RVA, a photography studio on Admiral Street. The former model is now a fashion designer, creative director and stylist who recently founded the new clothing brand, Urban Academy.
“I feel like I’m talking to 15 children,” Nguyen jokes as she calls for one of her models, a tall, dark-haired girl dressed in Urban Academy’s black shirt tucked into a short pleated skirt, to do a campus news segment on their social media.
The designer will be debuting her brand during the 15th annual RVA Fashion Week on Thursday, Oct. 5 at Studio Two Three. This fall's theme is streetwear, and what better way for Urban Academy to debut than during the back-to-school season? The brand combines preppiness and streetwear, but rebels against traditional prep-wear style by adding a diverse range of models and stylistic inspirations.
Nguyen created Urban Academy last year after seeing that few minority groups were represented in preppy wear brands.
“Minority groups, like people of color and the LGBTQ community, usually are out of the conversation,” she says. “I feel like when it comes to preppy wear, it’s geared towards a very specific type of audience and that never sat right with me.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Designer Sherry Nguyen is excited and a little nervous for her debut show at Studio Two Three.
Modern preppy fashion originated in the mid-20th century, though its roots go back a hundred years to early Ivy League schools. The style mostly was worn by white, upper-middle class collegiate students in the Northeast, who were privileged and often deemed pretentious in satirical publications like 1980's "The Official Preppy Handbook." Today, the widespread style has faded from its stereotypes and is reflected in many fashion brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren and Lacoste.
With early-2000s trends coming back among Gen Z, Harper’s Bazaar reports that the "old money aesthetic" is popular among younger generations, however newer and smaller brands like Urban Academy are finding ways to be innovative.
“But rather than reinforcing the lifestyle of prep and its trappings, they are swatting at them, playing with them, questioning them,” says Rachel Tashjian, Harper’s Bazaar fashion news director. “Prep is back, and this time, it’s personal.”
Nguyen used to follow fashion trends and often dressed to impress others, but she now practices sustainability within Urban Academy. She explains that she would often go thrift shopping for pieces, such as blazers and collared tops, and then sew on the brand’s embroidered logo to practice fashion sustainability. Depending on how big the clothing pieces were, it would take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to fully design them.
- Scott Elmquist
“We want to use not as many materials,” she says. “A lot of times, I will go thrifting and see certain pieces and I’ll remake them.” Nguyen looks up to actress Audrey Hepburn, who was known for her elegant and timeless sense of style, for fashion inspiration personally and professionally. She wants that to be reflected in her brand.
“I would rather put on things that are timeless, [instead of] being trendy ... pieces I can wear 20 years from now,” Nguyen explains. “It’s also about not being wasteful because when you’re trendy, that piece of clothing is going to go out of style.”
Lately, Nguyen’s team has been prepping for the big day by doing photoshoots, interviewing the models and welcoming new student designers that will showcase their own designs for distinguished guests and for RVAFW fashion show next year.
- Scott Elmquist
But the hard work of starting a brand did not come overnight.
“Who is Sherry Nguyen?” the designer asks with a laugh. “[She] is a Vietnamese ‘90s baby who is an extrovert with a very open ended sense of style.”
The 30-year-old designer and former model was born in South Vietnam in a small city called Biên Hòa, which is roughly an hour flight away from Saigon. She says she always had a creative spirit since living a simple life as a child, when Nguyen would help her grandmother, who was often sewing, by sticking the thin thread into the needle.
“I was exposed to sewing at a very young age, so actually up until last year, I handsewed everything,” she says. “I knew how to use a sewing machine, but handsewing is something I always go back to.”
When Nguyen was 7, she came to the United States to reunite with her family in Richmond. Raised by a single mother, she often had to raise herself due to her mother working most of the time. Being from a family of immigrants, their mentality was about survival, she says.
“I know that she wishes she could have done more, but I never blame her for that because we both made the best of the circumstances of the cards that were given to us,” she explains. “She was never the mom that would push me into doing things that I didn’t want to do, which is a blessing.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Deigner Sherry Nguyen learned to sew from her grandmother in South Vietnam.
Throughout her life, Nguyen’s creative spirit never left. Growing up, she would handsew her own Halloween and pageantry costumes, swimsuits and even designing rave outfits during her 20s.
While moving to Richmond was a culture shock, Nguyen lived in the West End in a somewhat diverse environment. However, when she attended Liberty University in Lynchburg for its aviation program, she says she often felt the students around campus were homophobic due to the strongly conservative culture.
“Richmond is so accepting [of the LGBTQ community] and going to a place that was homophobic and that displayed homophobia was just a huge culture shock for me,” she remembers. “I just didn’t think that [homophobia] was still a thing in 2016.”
Being in a conservative environment allowed her to see both sides of the sociocultural divide and it was one of the driving forces that led her to start her own fashion brand. She eventually became involved with RVA Fashion Week as a runway model, but always had her own business plan in mind.
- Scott Elmquist
Richmond Fashion Week (RVAFW) was founded in 2008 and is an organization highlighting and celebrating Richmond’s fashion and art community. The fashion event organization hosts fashion week based on the fashion season calendar (spring/summer, fall/winter) as well as swim week. RVAFW also collaborates with local businesses, college students and up-and-coming fashion designers to help grow their platform, social media presence and establish themselves within the fashion industry.
Jimmy Budd, co-founder of RVAFW, recalls meeting Nguyen last fall fashion week. “After fall fashion week she said, ‘I have a proposal for you.' It’s really cool what she has done. I was blown away by the proposal,” he says.
The proposal was to bring her creative spirit to life by making Urban Academy an actual brand. Soon enough, her dream came true as the brand held its official launch party this past April. “It’s always cool to have people that can express their designs,” Budd adds. “She’s a very coachable person. It’s a great relationship.”
Nguyen hopes that one day, Urban Academy can offer fashion apprenticeships, a creative social group and her own studio. “I worked for everything that has been granted to me,” she says. “Everything I’ve gotten, I’ve worked for [it]. It’s not easy. If it were easy, everybody could do it, right?”
- Scott Elmquist
Along with representing minority communities, including the LGBTQ and disabled individuals, the designer says that though the fashion industry has been progressing in recent years, it still has a lot to work on when representing certain groups.
“Even though the fashion industry is improving, it’s not the best. Even though they are including minorities, I still think they are trying to make it palatable,” Nguyen says. “I do think with my brand, I want to add people of all shapes and sizes.”
Her grandmother, who is still living in Vietnam, has dementia and cannot remember the granddaughter she raised and taught to sew. However, Nguyen says her grandmother would be proud, especially if she knew her designer granddaughter was going to incorporate áo dàis, a modern Vietnamese tunic dress, into the show.
“I can’t call her anymore because it genuinely makes me sad that she doesn’t know who she's talking to,” Nguyen says. “I do think my grandma would be super proud that I’m incorporating my culture into my show.”
With her debut fashion show approaching rapidly, Nguyen is of mixed emotions, but trusting of the process that made everything worthwhile.
“I’m definitely so excited, a little nervous, but I think that’s normal,” she says. “There’s no amount of money in the world that can stop me from creating.”
Tickets for Urban Academy's debut fashion show at Studio Two Three on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. are currently on sale online. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. A social period will begin around 7 p.m. Street parking is available for guests attending. Tickets for other RVAFW events running from Oct. 4 to Oct. 8 are also available online.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Biên Hòa, the name of Nguyen's hometown. The story has been updated.