Fashion and Social Justice Are Interwoven, Says Activist Amanda Nguyen

Spend a few minutes talking to Amanda Nguyen and you realize just how deeply fashion is intertwined with social injustice, politics and sexism, as well as personal enjoyment and empowerment.

A rape survivor, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights activist was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for her efforts to change how the U.S. criminal justice system deals with sexual violence and its survivors.

She is happy to relate the backstory of the dress she chose to wear when she sat for her nomination portrait.

“I wore the outfit I was raped in, and it was because I wanted to make the statement that it does not matter what you wear or where you wear it — that you could be in college and raped in this outfit, or you could be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

Nguyen is the founder and chief executive officer of Rise, a nongovernmental organization that has helped enact 34 laws reinforcing the rights of sexual assault survivors, the latest extending to more than 330,000 survivors in Montana. She is also an aspiring astronaut who interned at NASA — and a key figure in bringing media attention to the recent wave of Asian hate in America, and urging collective action.

She zoomed onto the fashion radar last month when Chloé named her an external adviser to its new sustainability board as the company shifts to a purpose-driven model putting environmental protection and social progress for woman at the forefront of its goals.

An unabashed fan of fashion with a weakness for dresses, handbags, jewelry and lipstick, she is honored with the appointment. “So grateful for this opportunity. Honestly, it was so full circle to me because my first fashion show ever was in Paris for Paris Couture Week at Armani. I just was so thrilled and excited,” she said. “Of course, when I go to Saks Fifth Avenue, the first place I go to is Chloé.”

Rise is in the throes of organizing what is billed as the first fashion show for survivors of rape and sexual assault. It’s been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, but Nguyen hopes for it to be an official event at New York Fashion Week as soon as this fall.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Nguyen talked about how fashion is woven into so many things she cares about, and why it can be a force for social change:

WWD: How do you feel the fashion industry stacks up against other industries in terms of social justice, equality, and civil rights protection?

Amanda Nguyen: Fashion has always been political. When we think about what it means to clothe people, how many laws across the world have been passed to define what specifically a woman should look like? I think that the Chloé woman is someone who is confident, is someone who is going to be a change-maker or is already a change-maker and is empowered. So fashion to me, not only is it political, but fashion is also empowerment.

WWD: You’ve been a key figure raising awareness about the wave of Asian hate. Is the fashion industry doing enough to help stop this?

A.N.: It was influencers and designers from the fashion industry that in part played an enormous role in bringing the hashtag Stop Asian Hate to the mainstream. Folks like Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Tina Leung, Eva Chen — we all got together on a phone call. I brought together folks from Hollywood, from the United States Congress, grassroots organizers, and fashion designers and influencers to speak about how we could keep the momentum going after my video went viral. So I’m very grateful to them. Now, of course, every single industry can and should do better in uplifting Asians within their community and also denouncing the violence. So that isn’t exclusive to fashion. But of course it is truly remarkable the power that fashion and luxury have, and I am grateful that there are designers who care about this issue. And that there are maisons like Chloé who are committed to battling gender-based violence and improvements to sustainability.

WWD: Are there any other companies or brands in fashion that have caught your attention in a positive way, in terms of what they’re doing to advance social agendas and change the world?

A.N.: Gucci Chime for Change has been doing incredible work. They’ve been in this game for a while now. I really applaud them for the work that they have done on eliminating gender-based violence and advancing other sustainable development goals. And a shout out to all of the Asian-American designers and houses that I have mentioned like Phillip [Lim], like Prabal [Gurung]. They are seriously committed to social justice work.

WWD: Fashion is often derided as something superficial and not taken seriously in a lot of realms. Why do you think fashion is a subject worthy of regard even in your line of work?

A.N.: Honestly, I think that attitude toward fashion is intermingled with sexism. Because if you look at the way that people think about how we treat the joy of women, the things that we say are frivolous, the roots of it are derived from invalidating the joys of how women choose to present themselves in the world.

Fashion is political. Fashion is about how we show up in the world. Let’s talk about how fashion has been used within high-stakes diplomacy. One of the most famous examples is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She used to wear pins, these brooches to indicate what her point of view was when she would go into negotiation. When we think of historical moments, yes, we think of the deed, but we also think of the symbolism around that outfit, right? The fashions the suffragettes wore, the white pantsuit. And so fashion is a statement. It is empowerment, it is agency.

WWD: You’re based in Washington, D.C. How do you use fashion in your various lines of work?

A.N.: When we walk into a hearing, there’s a dress code for how we should be presenting ourselves to the nation when we speak on a subject, or if we step into the Oval Office, there’s a reverence there. The fashion is very business formal…. That’s part of fashion in D.C. And then there’s also the protesters. I straddle both worlds. The protesters use what’s on their clothes to speak about the causes they care about, the streetwear and how you present and show up at protests that literally happen every single day — marches, signs in front of the Congress, Supreme Court, White House, you name it. All of this is, to me, a beautiful tapestry that shows the different sides of fashion, and how fashion is used as armor, as code switching and as representation ultimately.

When I spoke at the United Nations, I wore an áo dài custom made by Thai Nguyen and Tim Nguyen, and I wore it because I wanted to express my Vietnamese heritage.

WWD: Of course, clothing is a loaded subject when it comes to the subject of sexual assault. In 2017, amid the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, Donna Karan landed in hot water for questioning whether provocatively dressed women might be asking for it. She apologized profusely. But is that kind of sentiment more prevalent than we think? How do you frame the subject?

A.N.: Quite simply, rape is rape is rape is rape. The onus should not be on the victim — that’s victim-blaming culture. Again, the root of it is sexism. … Because of this topsy-turvy, backward logic of “Let’s blame the victim” instead of “Let’s denounce violence,” we have a long way to go, quite frankly. The MeToo movement has been incredible in putting out, front and center, why it is that we should care about this, because there are so many people that are affected. And it’s a good first step, because unconscious bias, our patriarchal society, and structures and systems in place, all of these things still exist. And even though we have a long way to go, we are making progress to combat that kind of victim-blaming.

WWD: Tell us about the genesis of your idea for a survivors’ fashion show under the Rise umbrella.

A.N.: When I was sitting at fashion week, at a show, I had this lightbulb moment, which is that the most commonly asked question during fashion week is, “What are you wearing?” And I realized, I’ve been asked that question before in my life — after I was raped: “What were you wearing?” And so in one context, it’s very empowering. It’s the choice you made to come to that show. And the other context, the literal opposite is shaming you for the violence that happened against you.

We want people to be able to take that statement back — what were you wearing? And the goal here is for survivors to walk down the runway feeling amazing, beautiful, confident, empowered. And each survivor will be walking with a prominent figure either from their own country or a celebrity. And each pair of them will be dressed by a different designer, so that we have multiple designers, because a lot of people have been really interested in supporting this. So we want it to be very powerful, moving but also positive.

WWD: Why do you think fashion is such a lightning rod for discussion? And how can it be harnessed for social good?

A.N.: Fashion can be a lightning rod, because in some places of the world, it means controlling women, controlling their agency, controlling what they put on their bodies, how they present themselves. And that’s what the patriarchy is about — controlling women.

WWD: Where are you at on your journey to become an astronaut? And was this always in the cards for you?

A.N.: I’m so grateful to my NASA colleagues, my astronaut mentors. Yes, I’ve always loved space and I am going to have some exciting news coming up soon. I can’t say what it is. But yeah, I hope to be able to share with the world soon.

WWD: Do astronauts and civil rights activists have much in common?

A.N.: Space and social justice, while it may not be immediately evident, are actually really integral to one another. When astronauts go to space for the first time, many of them experience what’s called the “overview effect” where they see Earth from space for the first time, and it’s everything that ever lived or died on this pale blue dot. It is described as a humbling and terrifying experience. Essentially it’s an existential crisis, but astronauts describe having this orbital perspective, being seen that we are on the spaceship Earth together. And they return to Earth as humanitarians, saying, “Why are we fighting over borders? Why can’t we just love one another?” And this orbital perspective makes them really delve into social justice issues.

WWD: Have you tried on a spacesuit yet?

A.N.: I have, when I was at NASA.

WWD: And what did you think?

A.N.: It fits! And if it fits, it works.

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