She's a Vietnamese heiress and style influencer who was a regular on the front rows of every catwalk show, until in February last year she tested positive for coronavirus and became fashion's patient zero. Nga Nguyen tells Anna Murphy how it felt to go from Gucci girl to social media pariah.
Remember last February, when Covid seemed to be happening somewhere else – to be someone else's problem? I was travelling for the biannual fashion shows at the time and the first cracks began to appear towards the end of Milan. The week had opened with one of the season's hottest tickets, the Gucci show. Sitting on the second row was a 27-year-old Gucci fan by the name of Nga Nguyen, the daughter of a Vietnamese property magnate, and her sister. Not that anyone cared at the time.
On the final day of Milan, Giorgio Armani became the first brand to take the decision to hold a virtual-only show. Yet most of the fashion pack – like almost everyone at the time, to be fair – was still ignorant and/or in denial. Paris proceeded pretty much as usual. Nguyen had returned to her home in London but then attended a live show in Paris too: Saint Laurent, another of her favourite labels. Then she came back once more to London, where she heads up the interior design side of the family's business.
At which point, feeling fine, she went to the doctor's for a routine check-up. During which she happened to cough. Cue a positive Covid test and sudden pariah status as fashion's patient zero. Social media – the blood in Nguyen's fashion-junkie veins – turned poisonous. Now her Instagram account, normally a testament to her expansive wardrobe and nonstop globetrotting, with 85,000 followers hanging on her every ensemble, bore witness to the flipside of the social-media fairytale.
Some would say that Nguyen had always set herself up to be a subject of envy. In the weeks running up to her brush with Covid, she would be in scarlet chinchilla in Paris one minute, cerulean marabou in Courchevel the next. Now she found herself on the receiving end of a different kind of attention: vitriol. "Rather than 'influencer', it seems she was an infector," one woman tweeted. Newspapers referred to her as a "superspreader".
Nguyen recovered after two weeks of hospital treatment and, in the end – having informed both Gucci and Saint Laurent of her diagnosis – no other case was traced to her. However, the brouhaha around her didn't go away. "People said I flew home [to Vietnam]," she said in March, "that I already knew when I was at the shows – neither of which is true. That I am spoilt, that because I showed my cleavage in one picture, that's why the virus was attracted to me. That it's time for greedy fashion people to stop and think."
When we spoke over Zoom last month – Nguyen at another of her homes, this one outside Frankfurt, and dressed in a non-influencer-appropriate M&S turtleneck and a Paul & Shark cashmere zip jacket borrowed from her mother – she was more circumspect. "People were really judged back then – people who didn't know the virus existed but were accused of spreading it. It came from fear and confusion. No one knew what was happening. It was because it was such an early stage in the game. If I caught it now, nobody would care."
She came off social media for a few months. "I was being bombarded with lots of negative messages. I needed to get my mind straight." She didn't go out for ten weeks. And, like the good entrepreneur's daughter she is, she began looking at how to monetise her experience. "People said, 'Why don't you do a fashion line because you are so fashionable?' But I can't draw, and I am not very creative in that sense."
She came up with what she calls "multisensory experiential products" designed to aestheticise all that horribly infra-dig hand-sanitising and mask-wearing that comes with Covid. The brand is called Never Go Alone, the initials forming her first name. "I wanted to make more of a celebration out of this procedure that has become our new normal. I want to make people enjoy sanitising their hands rather than hating it."
So the sandalwood and cardamom-infused hand sanitiser "is 60-70 per cent alcohol but smells like Diptyque", the mask is "microsuede" and the home wipes come in a dispenser that "looks like a really cool speaker or an Alexa, so you can leave it out on a surface rather than put it away after each use". This last idea, I have to admit, seems like rather a good one, at least to someone who currently has a nasty luminous yellow packet of wipes sitting in her hallway. All the above launch later this year. In the meantime there's just a candle, which has no magic Covid-warding properties.
What would Nguyen say to those who might consider it bad taste to profit from her peculiarly 2020 brand of notoriety? She wanted to find "a silver lining in it all", she says, and also claims that it's not about making money. "I want to use it to support mental health awareness, because so many people have issues, and I have some understanding of what it's like because of what I have been through." Never Go Alone will donate 10 per cent of its sales respectively to the Mental Health Foundation and to GlobalGiving's Coronavirus Relief Fund.
I ask Nguyen what life was like as a high-rolling fashionista pre-Covid. "I would attend a lot of events here and there. I was on a plane pretty much every week. I look back at the archive on my phone from 2019 and I think, 'How the hell did I even do that?' " Just one Instagram highlight is her Met Gala appearance in 2018 in a couture body-con black sequined dress covered in flesh-revealing crucifix-shaped cut-outs.
January was couture in Paris, February and March the ready-to-wear fashion weeks in the world's four fashion capitals. "Then Easter is spring break, so I would go to see my friends in New York or Miami. May was the Met Gala. Then I went back to Europe for June. July was my birthday, so we would all go on holiday."
Nguyen was the kind of girl to throw her party on Mykonos. "For my 27th birthday the theme was Aquawoman. I wore a glitter jumpsuit from Gucci. All the dancers were dressed as mermaids, so I was just going with the theme. When my mum saw the pictures she was like, 'I'm sorry, what are you wearing?' I said, 'I'm just dressed for the occasion, Mum.' "
The rest of the summer "was a routine". The south of France. More Mykonos. Home to Vietnam. "I would get FOMO," she says. Sometimes she might throw something else into the mix. "In 2019, I went to Rwanda for the weekend to see the gorillas."
When in London – where, along with Vietnam and Germany, her family's business interests are based – she would go out for three consecutive dinners in one night with different friends. Where? "La Petite Maison, Cipriani's and Annabel's," she says, namechecking three of Mayfair's flashiest gaffs. "It sounds crazy, but it's what a lot of my friends did. I was flying so much, and I would want to catch up with them all."
Wow! I like my food, yet even so. How did she do it? "I was seven kilos heavier then," she laughs. "I would always wear a long blazer to hide my bum, and cinch my waist with a big belt that I could let out."
Is she a clothes addict? "I would say that I was." She says she doesn't know what she spent each year, but would typically order "three to five runway looks each season from Gucci, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Fendi", each of those likely to cost five figures once accessories are factored in. In the past couple of months, she claims to have limited herself to buying 15 loungewear sets "in different colours". Her reinstated Instagram account suggests otherwise.
Nguyen's now notorious attendance at the Gucci show last February was just one of the many fashion invites she would receive each year. "I have always supported the brand," she says, "and my mum has always been a very good customer. They will deliver things to me straight away if I request them, and if I don't like them I can return them. It's very special. That's why I call myself a friend of the house."
This is what you find when you talk to fashion's biggest spenders, and also to the brands they buy from: that the transactional nature of the relationship – adding up to annual expenditures that would make us lesser mortals' eyes bleed – is disguised by the lexicon of friendship, of "special". In truth, there's a stark accountancy in play, one in which spend is triangulated with two other kinds of currency: social media traction and coolness.
Was Nguyen sitting front row at Gucci? "I think second." She thinks? "Every brand has its own way to pick the front row. At Gucci it's executives, celebrities and the brand's main influencers." If Nguyen had dropped even bigger bucks – most houses have a set, secret target that someone has to spend each season to make a certain row, usually six figures – or had a bigger social media following, she could have made it to the front row. That's how it works these days. "I felt very blessed to sit in the second row," she says. "I had a good view."
It was her mother who introduced her to the world of luxury brands, she tells me. "She likes Chanel. She likes traditional French houses." Luckily for Nguyen, her mother "doesn't really like events. So when she used to get invitations she would tell me to go instead. And I gladly accepted."
Her parents live in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital in the north of the country. When it comes to fashion, she says, "Everything is very elegant and polite-looking. And you have four seasons. So at the moment everyone will be in full Chanel suits." That Nguyen's definition of "everyone" is not yours or mine goes without saying.
Ho Chi Minh City in the south, by contrast, "is the city of boom. There are so many start-ups and tech companies. Lots of young people begin their careers and brands there. It's a hub of creativity. And it's much more tropical: 28 to 30 degrees all year round, and superhot in the summer. So people might wear a dress from a local brand with Gucci slides and a designer bag, or Gucci shorts."
As we know, Gucci is a favourite of Nguyen's. "I could describe myself as a Gucci girl, or a Saint Laurent girl, but there are just so many brands that I love. Nanushka does amazing leather, 16Arlington does amazing feathers, and then there's Commission, run by an Asian friend of mine in New York. It's inspired by Sixties and Seventies Asian mums. They do such cool turtlenecks, floral dresses and fitted trousers."
Ah. So here is the next stage in the luxury life cycle. No one questions the power of the Asian consumer. Last year, Asia for the first time surpassed Europe and the Americas for luxury sales, according to the Bain consultancy. Vietnam currently has five billionaires and is projected to have 42,000 millionaires by 2024.
Yet the Asian spend so far has largely been focused on western brands. Conspicuous consumption has to be precisely that – conspicuous – in order to endow status, so it's no surprise that the newly wealthy elites of countries such as China and Vietnam initially turned to recognisable western brands rather than to local operations. Not, needless to say, that there were any local operations to turn to after decades of traditional communism. Now, just as the Georgia-born designer Demna Gvasalia built his name with post-ironic eastern bloc-inspired fashion at first Vetements and now Balenciaga, we are witnessing the same thing happening across the Asian diaspora.
The young and wealthy Vietnamese are, according to Nguyen, more open than ever to wearing Asian labels. However, for those labels really to take off, they need to get better at playing the celebrity game. "It's very celebrity-driven in Asia. The western brands are good at marketing strategy and product placement. Asian brands aren't so much. There is a K-pop band, Blackpink, with four beautiful young girls, and each of them is now working with a brand: Chanel, Saint Laurent, Dior, Celine. Everything they wear sells out straight away. Local brands don't do this, and they need to."
Of course they don't. It's expensive. And the well-established European houses – most of which now form part of vastly powerful conglomerates, all of which are spending huge amounts of money on their Asian businesses – want to keep it that way. For how long will they manage it?
Written by: Anna Murphy
© The Times of London