Lumières founder Kai Nguyen is a streetwear designer who lists his inspirations as anime, rock & roll biker culture, Final Fantasy, and the functional design of garments that have no practical use in native Vietnam. His pieces show that other brands are going to have to dig deeper if they want to keep up with this 19-year-old daydreamer. Nguyen has turned Lumiéres into a platform for his own past, present, and future, as he uses his life experiences and a longing sense curiosity to discover himself. Here heLumières founder talks about taking self-reflection and awareness and making it into a brand.
What sparked you to start designing clothes?
In Vietnam it’s so hot that we can’t wear hoodies, so my obsession with hoodies started out with anime. When I moved to Minnesota from Vietnam eight years ago, I wasn’t that into fashion yet. My mom had a job as a sewing contractor for pants, and she was making samples for people. Design started for me when I made a graphic as my signature on forums I would contribute to. Someone on a fashion forum liked the design and said I should put it on a shirt. I put the graphic on a hoodie and people liked it. But everything started when Ian Connor hit me up on Facebook. I asked him to model for me. I flew him out to Minnesota, we shot, and that’s how it all got started.
What about American culture interests you for your designs?
I grew up around bikers. My dad, my mom, everyone rode. In Vietnam, only extremely wealthy people have cars; even an old Honda Civic would be extremely expensive because it costs a lot of money to import cars. So I took to really liking the rock & roll biker culture. Later on I started to love hip-hop from friends of mine, like Odd Future, who were involved in music.
What’s not interesting to you about American culture?
No matter how much I’m into hip-hop and fashion, what I don’t like or understand is celebrity culture. I have an ego like most people, and since everyone is equal, I go out of my way to prove I can do that same thing as well as anybody. Everyone has to work hard, but some people just get luckier than others. I’ve discovered some very creative people that just don’t get the exposure they deserve, so I’m trying to collab with these people to come out with some relevant stuff.
What aspects of design do you focus on the most?
Functionality. The Lumieres x 3Peat Jacket was all about functional design. The Lumieres God’s Unwanted Children vest has six pockets, but they all serve a purpose, it’s not like some random assortment of zippers. The straps on the back of the vest are there to make the fit better, not just for decoration. Then you loosen the strap when you want to layer the vest with a hoodie.
Who was the first designer that influenced you?
Marcelo Burlon, who used to do a lot of graphics and design for Givenchy and a bunch of other brands. Also brands like Number (N)ine, Wacko Maria, and Undercover, because they are fashion brands that built their designs on Japanese art and anime. They want people to look like characters from anime shows.
What parts of you life have defined your style?
Around my sophomore year I got my first job, I started playing sports, life was starting to get together. I met one of my best friends, who was an Asian guy. He was everything any Asian kid wishes he could be: good looking, rode motorcycles, amazing skateboarder, good fashion sense…he just sucked at communicating with women. He started to introduce me to the motorcycle and tuner car scene and helped me build my first bike in America. That first bike began to impact the way I dressed. I went from wearing Diamond Supply, khaki pants, and Vans to focusing on color, silhouette, and stuff like that. I was dressing everything based on my bike, from things I would see on TV shows, to bikers around my hometown wearing baggy pants, a small vintage shirt, and jackets.
My father passed away from an accident when I was six years old. He would get mopeds and try to take them farther, so then he started to build Yamaha, Honda, and Harley motorcycles. He was part of a biker club for a long time. I remember the first time my mom showed me photos of his club. And when he got in his accident, I remember four hundred bikers packed our tiny house in Vietnam, all waiting for a word from the hospital.
I don’t know how to explain my aesthetic, but it’s heavily influenced by anime, video games like Final Fantasy, and bikers. Final Fantasy clothing is futuristic and fully functional—it’s not too crazy, so you could still wear it. That’s why I love video game designers.
What are you looking for with your work and life?
What’s the story behind your most recent designs?
My recent collection draws inspiration from Hannya masks and Fight Club. People usually think Japanese Hannya masks represent something evil, like a demon or something, but it can also be interpreted as something similar to a guardian angel or gargoyle. With Fight Club, I wanted to make something that represented not necessarily a biker gang, but a group of outcasts or misfits who come together. It will be available at 424 on Fairfax in a month.
Where did the name Lumières come from?
It’s a French word that means “light.” I came up with it at a time when everybody was trying to dress super dark with all black clothing. I kind of came up with it to mock that style, because I have a loud mouth. People thought it sounded sick, so it just stuck.