I was on vacation with my husband (then boyfriend at the time) when I got a call from Jan Strimple. And to be honest, I always perk up when I get anything from the iconic Jan—no need for a last name. Jan is a kind, considerate, no-nonsense, glamorous woman of the world. She’s booked me on runway shows and print jobs all across the country. So when Jan calls, I answer, or do my best to get back with her ASAP.
As luck would have it, my phone wasn’t working, but she left a message and it went a little something like this, “Hi, Toni, it’s Jan. I heard you’re traveling right now. I have a client and I’m booking a show, and you just have to work it. She’s the next big thing! I hope you’re keeping your overindulgences to a minimum (breathy laugh). I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
Don’t hold me to these exact words, but they’re pretty dang close. Anyway, I put down the phone and the spoon of ice cream, and tried not to put anything that wasn’t sustenance in my mouth for the next seventy-two hours. Needless to say, Jan did not disappoint. The Nhã Khanh collection was simply amazing, and so was the serious and focused woman working diligently behind the collection. I just got this feeling—this woman was going to be a star.
So, it came as no surprise, the hour after I got engaged, I called Jan and screamed, “I’m engaged! I want to book Khanh to do my entire wedding.” And that she did. In fact, members from our families were ordering dresses for our winter wonderland wedding held in Santa Fe. When it was all said and done, Khanh created my wedding dress and welcome party dress, my mom’s dress, my mother-in-law’s dress, my sisters-in-law’s dresses, and all eleven of my bridesmaids’ dresses. She sketched and designed each look specifically for each bridesmaid. They were their wedding gifts, and I wanted them to feel and look their best. Khanh was nine months pregnant by the time our wedding came and had just showed at New York Fashion Week, the week before. She never missed a beat, and she even found the time to share her journey on social media. I was completely floored by this dynamo, and I continue to be to this day.
I’m blessed to call her a great friend, and since my wedding, I order pieces from every collection she comes out with, she’s made all of my special occasion dresses—pre-maternity, maternity, and post-maternity, and she’s even started designing for Darlington. She sells to Neiman Marcus, Barney’s, Saks, 4510, and I’m sure a ton more that I’m forgetting.
I don’t consider myself to be a person who overindulges in life. I believe less is more, but when it comes to Nhã Khanh and ice cream, Ken Downing’s words ring true, “More is more, and less is a bore.”
Thank you, Khanh, for being our Woman of the Month and confessing all to Courtney in our latest WOTM interview.
MB: For anyone new to the amazingness that is Nhã Khanh, how would you describe who you are and what you do?
KN: First and foremost, I’m a mother to my four-year-old daughter and a wife to my (best friend) husband. I’m also a founder and creative director of Nhã Khanh, a luxury womenswear clothing line based in Dallas, Texas.
MB: Love it! I admire how very clear your priorities are. How did you get your start as a designer? And how did you know that’s what you wanted to do?
KN: It took me eight years to graduate from college. Three years of hopping majors, two years of fighting and gaining strength to change my major from biology to fashion design despite the support from my loved ones, and three years of determination, focus, and passion to earn my design degree. During my last semester of college, I knew I had no time to waste. I entered as many design competitions as I could. Luckily, I won most of the competitions. One of them was the all-expenses-paid scholarship from FGI of Dallas Career Day to further my fashion design study in Paris, France. I went to Paris during the summer of 2008 for the program. I lived and breathed ultimate fashion in the world’s fashion capital, Paris. Getting to study and work briefly under fashion experts from Chanel, Dior, Elie Saab, Jean Paul Gaultier, and more was a dream come true.
It was a life-changing experience for me. After I finished my program, my husband (then boyfriend) joined me in Paris. We explored the city and traveled to Italy for a few weeks. During our stop in Venice, he proposed to me at sunset on a gondola, where immediately after he almost had a heart attack because I nearly dropped the ring into the water!
Being so overwhelmingly happy and inspired by the beauty and style of Paris, I couldn’t wait to come home to design my own wedding dresses. Yes, dresses…not one…but several dresses for my wedding day. I designed and made four dresses for myself, five bridesmaid dresses, and two flower girls dresses while documenting the whole process on Facebook. This lead to custom dress inquiries. Next thing I knew, I was too busy working on my clients’ dresses before my own wedding dresses. Luckily, I completed three dresses—a main gown, a Vietnamese traditional dress, and a first-dance/cake-cutting dress. But I wanted another dress. So I set out to make one cute party dress just a few days before my wedding day that almost didn’t make it to the wedding. It was a short, fun, and flirty lace dress that turned heads. That mini lace dress became what Nhã Khanh is known for today and has been our all-time bestseller until now. I named her the Milace dress (short for “mini lace dress”).
MB: I know just the one you’re talking about! I’ve seen many variations of the Milace dress on your Instagram and website and countless celebrities. What an interesting and unique connection between your brand and personal experiences.
Okay, confession time. I know next to nothing about the world of fashion design. Is it common for a designer to own a studio and her own company?
KN: The reality is most fashion designers are highly creative and talented, but that’s only a fraction of what they need to build a successful business. Having a design studio is very common, but owning a fashion company is uncommon. Within a fashion company, there are many departments. First comes the design team/department (typically, there are three to five members: designers, patternmakers, and seamstresses), then merchandising, marketing, sales, PR, shipping, and so much more..
There’s also a difference between having a studio versus having a company.
A design studio is typically a place for designers to design and develop their custom garments or first samples. It can be owned and run by the designer to custom design and make dresses directly to and for their clients. This is a small business that typically requires two to four team members to operate. Designers can also have their own design studios within a company to design and create garment samples before the garments are selected to be mass-produced by a company. A fashion company can have more than one designer, but one creative director. Then each designer works with a design team to develop a garment sample.
MB: Dang, I never realized how much goes into fashion design! I read on your website that the label was established in 2010. That seems like such a short time, especially when I consider how distinct and strikingly beautiful your work is. I guess I had this idea in my mind that it takes decades for someone to develop that kind of signature style. What was your process like to get where you are now? How did you develop the “Nhã Khanh” style and what observations can you make about how it’s evolved over the years?
KN: I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I honestly did not know anything about the business side of it or what to expect of it other than making beautiful dresses. After graduation, I did not work for a single fashion company. My husband and I joined forces to build our business through trial and error with our trusted team. If it weren’t for my husband’s support and encouragement, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today.
The first two years were all about networking, making mistakes, and learning from them. There was also a lot of debating if I should give up my dream of owning a business or keep going. I chose to keep going. The next three to four years were spent building passionate and trusted teams of talented individuals who took my visions and turned them into reality, got into many luxury clothing stores, and onto many inspiring and powerful women around the world. The last two years, we have continued to learn, be innovative, design, and dress women in a way that makes them feel more beautiful, leaving them with unforgettable memories. I’ve always loved designing dresses, especially bridal dresses. From day one, that has never changed. I have this obsession with lace—all kinds of lace—that I must have in every collection I design. Over the years, it’s become clear to me that our customers come to us for our work with lace.
MB: From inspiration to fully functional pieces of clothing, what does your design process look like?
KN: Each year, we would design and develop five Ready-to-Wear (RTW) sample collections (Spring, Summer, Pre-Fall, Winter, and Holiday collections). On top of our RTW collections, we develop many special projects exclusively for stores, and we custom design wedding and evening dresses for our private high-profile clients. I have a design team that I work with every day.
For my RTW collection (which usually take four to five months to develop), I always start with an inspiration to keep my focus. This also makes the collection more cohesive and well-rounded. I’m an optimistic and very visual person. I’m constantly looking for beauty in nature and everything around me. Many times, my clients inspire me as well. I begin collecting inspirational images virtually through Pinterest, and physically pin images on a corkboard in my office. Then I meet with my sourcing and find staff to walk them through my inspirations. Once they get my vision, they’ll gather sample fabrics and notions for my selections. After selecting fabrics, colors, and notions, I begin to design and sketch the collection…from fancy tops, to skirts to casual dresses all the way to extravagant gowns…all while keeping in mind the allowed budget for each design and level of technical difficulty for production.
Then I meet with my merchandising team from New York City to visually plan and merchandise the collection, making sure we have a great range of exciting styles and silhouettes while staying true to our signature “Nhã Khanh” style. After merchandising the collections through sketches, I meet with my technical teams of patternmakers and seamstresses (this is the longest phase and very time consuming). I work closely with my RTW collection manager to distribute the design sketches and explain to my patternmakers every detail about each design. Our patternmakers will make patterns for each design mostly from scratch and build the patterns into muslin garments as samples for me to examine and approve the fit and cut details. After each muslin garment is approved, actual fabrics will be used to cut and sew into the first collection sample.
Developing a new collection is a very exciting process, but it can be very stressful because we have to test and try out new fabrics, new details, new fits and cuts. Each design has to go through many adjustments and sometimes will not even make it into the collection at the end. We usually make more than sixty styles, but roughly forty to forty-five styles make it into each collection.
Before adding finishing touches to the garments, we have our fit model try on the garments for fits and movement. Many adjustments to the garments continue after the fittings. Then the cost of each garment has to be calculated to determine the wholesale and retail prices.
Our last step (but not least because it’s my favorite) is shooting the look book for the collection. This is the most exciting part where we get to see the fruit of our labor. Every single garment is being built into a whole look from hair and makeup to the dress and shoes, then it artistically gets photographed and edited. Then, off to New York City the collection goes to its new home for display during market months for about two months, being pulled and borrowed left and right by press and celebrities. Orders will then be placed by stores while fabrics and notions will be ordered by us. Production is in full swing at this point. Patterns are being graded for different sizes, cuts are made, and garments are being sewn. Lastly, is the quality checking process, and then of course, packaging and shipping off the orders to the stores. The entire process from inspirations to the sales floor takes about nine to ten months.
MB: Phew! I can’t believe you fit all of that into such a short amount of time. Not to mention, there’s bound to be overlap from one collection to the next. I am so impressed and in awe.
So you have the seasonal RTW collections and your bridal line. When you’re designing pieces, how do these two sides of your work balance each other out? Is it easier to design one over the other? Do you prefer one over the other?
KN: I enjoy designing both lines for different reasons. For my RTW collection, there are strict deadlines, strict budgets, and somewhat strict guidelines that we must follow. I work with two different teams and everyone must be on the same page. Designing a collection is more challenging for me compared to designing custom/bridal line. Therefore, it takes discipline, great focus, patience, and a lot of mental support from each one of our teams.
As opposed to the RTW collection, my bridal/custom line has a bigger budget to work with, which makes the process easier and exciting. I love meeting with my clients one-on-one to learn about what works for their body, the fits, and their expectations. Sometimes they share experiences and inspiring stories. I find them very uplifting and very relatable. Usually, the time line is also flexible. However, custom bridal and evening work can be tedious and time consuming when working with intricate lace, fabrics, embellishments, and endless beadings. All of that work is all done by hand. Finding very skilled and talented artisans to perform this line of work nowadays is very difficult. That results in me spending many hours and hours of handwork on the custom garments.
It’s hard for me to choose between the two lines because they both are equally special to me. I put all my heart, sweat, and tears into both to create beautiful dresses for women that help them celebrate life’s precious moments and milestones.
MB: I want to switch over to talk about the business side of things for a bit. You are the Creative Director and Designer of Nhã Khanh. How much of the business side of things are you involved in? Some creative people love dealing with the business end while others feel it gets in the way of their creativity. Where do you fall? And how does that come into play with your company?
KN: My husband and I both own the company, he’s the CEO and I’m the Creative Director. He handles the business side and I handle the creative and development side. I think I’m smart enough to not handle both the business and creative parts of the company, haha! I’ve learned that it’s almost impossible to handle both business and creative sides while trying to balance life outside of work. At least, I would not do that to myself again. A successful business is built upon a great team. It’s all about figuring out your strengths and weaknesses, while knowing how to utilize your strengths and talent. Being so great at what you do best while improving your weaknesses, but also knowing when to step back and let your teammate take control of the wheel.
My husband and I both have very different interests and personalities, but we both share the same core values—respect and support for each other. We know when to not step on each other’s toes and when to agree and disagree on things. We communicate clearly and loudly. Sure, there are always moments when we don’t see eye to eye, but I know when to fight hard for my visions and ideas and he knows when to stay firm with his decision and not let me have my way. One thing I’m so very grateful for is how he’s supportive of what I do and want to do—always encouraging and keeping me grounded.
MB: I feel like that could be a whole other interview of the dynamics between a husband-and- wife team working together. But it seems like you both have a great system worked out. Not to mention, you have the most adorable little girl! I saw her in an Instagram picture playing “dress up” in one of your gowns and I had to laugh. Her version of dress up is WAY cooler than mine, when I would wear my aunt’s taffeta prom dress from the ’70s. How does being a mom influence your work and how does your work influence being a mom?
KN: Ah, it’s amazing! I’ve never been happier in my life. She came into my life when I was about to give up my dream of building a fashion business. There were doubts, hardships, and failures. Through it all, the thought of being a mother to my unborn child gave me the strength to push through. I started to take good care of myself physically and mentally. I felt different, more stable, more focused, and stronger. I focused on what really mattered to me and only allowed positive thoughts to live in my head and heart. My mind and heart started to open, and then doors of opportunity started to open as well. I opened each door with confidence and built stepping-stones from there. My daughter brings out the kid in me to play with her, the hero to protect her, the compassionate side to share and to love all living things, and the truth, to see who we truly are.
She came into my life and taught me that we can really achieve anything we set our minds and hearts to. All these qualities have greatly influenced my work and everyday life.
MB: Don’t mind me. Just blubbering over here. What’s your greatest wish for your daughter when she grows up?
KN: My ultimate wish for her is to always follow her heart. Do whatever the heck makes her happy. Just don’t be destructive or harm others. To always be the light of her own path in life and help shine that light on those who are stuck in the darkness. To fully live life and enjoy the simplest pleasures that life has to offer.
MB: That’s such a beautiful wish. I’m hoping that for her too!
I’d like to close things out by mentioning a line from your “About” page because I absolutely love it. “The mission of Nhã Khanh is to empower women with inner-strength through their clothing while focusing on feminine elegance with a modern edge.” How do you see this mission coming to life in the women who wear your designs?
KN: My favorite and most rewarding comments I usually get from women wearing our designs that I’ve never met are, “Your design makes me feel beautiful and confident.” “I’ve never received so many compliments in my life.” “Your dress was the special part of the special day of my life.”
These lines never gets old. I’m grateful to do what I love and make a small difference in a woman’s life, one dress at a time.
Thank you so much to Khanh for sharing such interesting behind-the-scenes info about her life’s work. Be sure to check out her Day in the Life feature here where we’re hosting a $1000 Nha Khanh Shopping Spree Giveaway!
And don’t forget to follow Khanh on social media!