Images by Canh Nguyen
We love Maiden Noir‘s streetwear-meets-menswear style, which can be borderline dressed-up and also extremely cozy, with a deft use of polar fleece. We’re psyched to carry the Seattle brand as part of Heartbreakers II, our Pop-In Shop this month focused on evolving menswear, curated by VP of Creative Projects, Olivia Kim.
So psyched, in fact, that we commissioned an exclusive reversible fleece jacket and fleece hat for the occasion.
Because Maiden Noir is based in Seattle’s International District, just a mile south of Nordstrom HQ, we thought we’d pop in for a visit. After all, how busy could designer Nin Truong and his partner Christa Thomas be? They only run Maiden Noir simultaneously with a coffee shop, a line of bags and Truong’s other job as design director of Stüssy.
They’re a power couple, for real.
You were just in New York and Paris. Were you there on official Maiden Noir business?
Nin Truong: Yes, but I work for Stüssy as well—I’m their design director, so we went out there for special projects we’re working on and meeting with our European counterparts. For Maiden, our New York showroom was presenting in Paris for men’s Fashion Week there, so we went to check it out, make sure everything was OK and make some connections. We didn’t do a show; it’s a huge undertaking. In the past, we did a presentation at New York Fashion Week: Men’s, but we didn’t do it this year. We did something smaller with models at a showroom and had buyers come through.
How was #NYFWM last year, in your opinion? There was a lot made about how it reflected a new interest in menswear.
Truong: It was a good reintroduction, because they hadn’t had it for a long time. New York is a great platform and there are so many designers now coming out of the U.S. doing men’s. So they need that back in the rotation. Because now the men’s Fashion Weeks start in Italy, then London, then Paris–and New York gets skipped until women’s happens a little later.
Christa Thomas: We’re a small brand and we didn’t come from a fashion background, we came from a design background, and sometimes we’re not sure how to present ourselves. Last year the trade show we participated in at New York Fashion Week: Men’s, called Capsule, pushed us to do it and it was a great idea. We’ve never thought about ourselves in the limelight, and we didn’t want to run into it right away. We want to reflect a little bit and make sure we’re going in the right direction.
Truong: It’s tricky with men’s, because there’s a tension between wanting to make something that’s a little more traditional and wearable, versus a seasonal collection that’s loud and bold. Since we aren’t a big brand, everything we make has to have some sell-ability to it. We can’t just make stuff to make it. It’s a fine line. At the end of the day, I hold up a garment and ask out loud, sometimes literally, “Who’s going to wear this?”
Thomas: We’re trying to be realistic.
Truong: But I also feel there’s kind of enough stuff in the world.
Do you worry about landfills full of polar fleece?
Thomas: But you can strain coffee through it!
Truong: That’s the thing that gets me. And that’s where Maiden Noir is really important for me. To push pieces where I think there’s a void. In my work for Stüssy, there’s a lot more product and it’s in a lot more doors. If the sales team there tells you that they sold a lot of your designs, that they sold 10,000 T-shirts, you’re supposed to feel good. I mean, I do. But it’s a pat on the back, and a kick in the butt. Because now all that’s out there in the world.
You both have backgrounds in working with nature to a degree, correct?
Thomas: We both went to school in separate programs at University of Washington. But we met in New York working on a landscape garden.
Truong: My background is in landscape architecture. It’s actually printmaking, industrial design and landscape architecture. But I wanted to do it for public art. So that’s where the part of me that always questions from an environmental side comes from.
Thomas: Mine’s the reverse, I went to architecture first, then landscape, then industrial design and metals. But both at University of Washington.
Truong: We found our stride somewhere. No matter how sustainable your process is, there’s going to be waste. The only thing I can do as a designer, putting things out in the world, is think about whether we’re creating stuff that people put a value to and keep for a long time.
Does that enter your mind when you make a reversible fleece, like you made for us, which can be worn two ways and so theoretically is twice as valuable?
Thomas: It’s practical, yes.
Truong: It provides options. It’s that one piece you can travel with. That one side has a comfort level. That other side is good when it’s windy or misty.
Where should someone go to see cool landscape architecture in Seattle?
Truong: I would say Gas Works Park, which is amazing, designed by Richard Haag. He was one of the forefathers of using vegetation and the land to heal itself. Gasworks was a polluted site because of the gas, and he brought it back to a certain level of health. And beauty. And the Olmsted brothers, who created a system of parks through Seattle: They made a grassway on Beacon Hill, and all through the Lake Washington borderline going down to Seward Park. And the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, a beautiful site, plus you get to take the ferry.
When did polar fleece come into your life?
Truong: Being from the Northwest, it’s always been there. In the fashion world, people talk about going from natural materials into synthetic, and so I understand that it’s a synthetic wool. But in the Northwest it’s always been a part of living here. You see it in REI, you see it in the mountains, it’s part of growing up. It’s weird seeing it accrue this fashion currency, but I could say that about hunting jackets, too. It’s inspirational to designers, and designers are pushing it creatively.
Are your cozy apparel designs continuing in the next season as well, fall 2016?
Truong: Yes, for fall 2016 the collection was inspired by Orcas Island and the San Juan Islands in general. Especially the sherpa polar fleece, the chunkiness resonates in that environment, that damp weather. The natural colors of the islands provide a brightness to the collection but still grounded, versus going totally sport with it. It’s almost like synthetic sweaters. That’s fall 2016. I’m excited about it.
Are your nylons and polar fleeces from Japan?
So you left the land of polar fleece to get fabric from Japan?
Truong: Yes. The mills in Japan pay a lot of attention to detail, and some of the colors there you can’t get other places. They’re forward-thinking about color, which makes fabrics easier to design with.
Japan factors heavily into our American streetwear/menswear hybrid. Post-streetwear. How do you feel you fit into that? Is it something you think about?
We’re nodding toward streetwear because our products are accessible, and connected to a streetwear silhouette that has to do with the military, has to do with contemporary sportswear. Where we push it is with materials. Every season I go to Japan and find amazing materials. And I put that in our garments which have that more traditional streetwear sensibility. So where we sit is in between those realms. As far as the state of menswear, I think it’s more exciting now than ever. Men are more willing to experiment.
Thomas: There’s more variety.
Truong: Guys are exploring variety, and also not just what’s available now but what was beautiful in the past as well. Intermixing vintage. And the idea of streetwear is about putting looks together yourself, mixing highs and lows, mixing designer pants and a non-designer T-shirt, for example. It’s not as clear now as it was before that a T-shirt is streetwear and a button-up is menswear.
Thomas: It’s more blurred. In men’s, there’s a lot of crossover.
Truong: Look at fashion houses. A large amount of their shoes now are sneakers. That’s a streetwear influence. Are they streetwear now, these established fashion houses? The DNA isn’t. But the style is crossing boundaries.
What do you love the most about designing Maiden Noir?
Truong: Apparel comes back to public art. When I was thinking about public art projects, or creating spaces, it’s about designing with an intent and then it’s out of your hands. The user adopts it, or nature overtakes it. There’s a vulnerability in that which feels healthy to me and I like the process of letting go that way. With every building that goes up, does it have longevity? Will people put it on a historical registry years from now? If you create a great landscape, are people going to care enough to maintain it? Those are the questions I’m asking myself with Maiden Noir and I want to answer in the affirmative.