CFGNY: The Art-Fashion Duo Creating Community With Clothes

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CFGNY ‘Surface Tension’Photography by Mary Kang

Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew’s label CFGNY is a powerful and playful interrogation of their Asian-American identity

  1. Who is it? CFGNY, a New York-based label begun by Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew
  2. Why do I want it? Clothing which straddles art and fashion, exploring the founders’ Asian-American identity 
  3. Where can I find it? At CFGNY’s online store

Who is it? Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew first encountered one another amid New York’s art scene in the early 2010s; Nguyen had come to the city to study painting and sculpture, Chew to study film at NYU. There were few Asian faces: “We were inhabiting this space that felt very white, which made us so much more visible to each,” Chew tells AnOther over the phone. “We came from a similar place – not necessarily because of our cultural background, but because we knew what the difficulties were of being Asian and part of the gay social scene in New York and then how to navigate that world.”

In 2016, they founded fashion label CFGNY (Concept Foreign Garments New York or, as per their Instagram bio, ‘Cute Fucking Gay New York’) as a place to interrogate these ideas, showing early presentations at 47 Canal, a Lower East Side gallery run by artist Margaret Lee. The medium, clothes, was somewhat incidental – CFGNY is perhaps best described as an art-fashion label, straddling the two worlds at once. “We enjoy playing with the convention of clothing,” says Chew. “The fashion and art worlds work in very specific parameters and we’re willing to inhabit both.” (Forebears are 1990s art-fashion collective Bernadette Corporation, begun by Bernadette Van-Huy, and uncoventional fashion label Bless, once stocked in Project No. 8, a now-defunct store where Nguyen and Chew both worked.)

The resulting collections – which might be set among giant cardboard sculptures, or pieced together from bootleg handbags – centre on a concept Nguyen and Chew deem “vaguely Asian”, in reference to the way Asians and Asian-Americans are all too often homogenised into a singular group. “What does ‘being Asian’ even mean?” says Chew. “We can’t possibly define that. What we can define is the experience as being viewed as one huge group. The alienation that is a consequence of being judged for something you aren’t, and what brings us together is understanding that relationship between ourselves and our identity. It’s not about being Asian, it’s about trying to expand what being Asian means.”

Why do I want it? This past June, Nguyen and Chew presented their latest collection at Seward Park, found on New York’s Lower East Side (in keeping with their democratic outlook, the park remained open to the public). It marked their largest show yet, bringing together several generations of Asian artists to walk in the show: from drag queen Ming Vase and artist Tishan Hsu, to Huy Luong, one of the designers behind fashion label Commission. “Casting friends is very relevant to what we do; we’re a very DIY brand,” says Nguyen. “Our work is about having a conversation with people, and inviting them to work with us in order to do that.”

This most recent collection – the label’s third, titled Surface Trend – began with their frequent trips to Vietnam, where their collections are made by a series of tailors and craftspeople (neither Nguyen or Chew are formerly trained in fashion, and though can cut and sew, rely on these Vietnamese clothesmakers to bring their ideas to fruition). While there, they visited the island of Phu Quoc, a tourist haven where Asia and the West intersect. “It has one of the longest gondalas in the world, and at the entrance to it there are these Roman ruins to mark the entrance, and these references to Venice and Athens,” says Chew. “To see that in this tropical atmosphere of Vietnam was quite jarring. Our whole thing is ‘what is your conception of Asianness?’ For us to see a conception of ‘Westerness’ through Asian eyes was really refreshing.”

In the clothing, this was articularted in what Chew deems CFGNY’s “patchwork aesthetic”, which is often literal: jackets might be reconstructed from counterfeit North Face jackets, a skirt pieced together from shards of fabric depicting strawberries or wasps. A sweater or dress might be cut from Snoopy-branded baby blankets; sarong-like skirts, in various layers of clashing fabrics, inspired by Vietnamese ‘motorbike fashion’. Details are playful: one shirt is inlaid with Pokemon cards in plastic sheafs, like those in children’s collector’s books. 

CFGNY add to a growing chorus of emerging designers in New York – among them names like Vaquera and Section 8, who showed as part of a collective during New York Fashion Week – articulating their experiences living and working in the city with presentations and collections that sit outside of the industry’s norms. “Economically, New York is a really hard place to be creative which in turn breeds this amazing energy, and innovative thinkers,” says Chew. “I think, in a similar vein to London, these places are just so expensive you’re forced to find alternative ways of getting the things you want done.” 

Where can I find it? At CFGNY’s online store.