So Nary asked me for the article I wrote about him, so I figured hell why not post it to my blog too. I told you guys I would, so here you go! If any of you are brave, read on! If you have the attention span of a chihuahua, then maybe this post isn't for you. But I can guarantee this: you'll be missing out on an inspirational life story... and we could all use one of those!
In a sea of black, there is a solitary splash of bright red. Closer observation reveals a T-shirt emblazoned with nine large, white letters reading OHIO STATE.
It is New York Fashion Week and the shirt is unconventional to the illustrious scene, but its wearer is finding himself well received by the fashion world he has long dreamed to be apart of, a world universes away from the one in which he grew up.
Nary Manivong just presented his first collection with design partner Ally Hilfiger, and as they stand hand-in-hand in front of photographers, Manivong wears his Ohio State shirt with a wide smile. While he keeps a firm grip, literally, on his hard earned New York City success, his shirt establishes a connection to his hometown roots which, ironically enough, he doesn’t technically have.
The Laotian-American designer, who grew up in Columbus, became homeless by the age of 14, eventually separated from his siblings and was left to fend for himself. Instead of disassociating with Columbus and his rough past, however, Manivong has made a name for himself in fashion while embracing his hometown and all those who have supported him along his challenging journey.
Manivong grew up on the east side of Columbus with two brothers and a sister. They came home one day to find their things on the lawn, and, with no sign of their parents, were left to take care of themselves, ultimately losing touch with one another.
“I had a couple choices to either drop out of school or continue on, and I was very determined,” Manivong said.
With help from his teachers and principal, Richard Hammons, Manivong graduated on time with his class in 2000 and even became a class speaker. He was the only one from his siblings to attend Walnut Ridge and graduate.
“Without [my high school principal], I would not be where I am,” Manivong said.
After graduation, Manivong moved to New York City with $200 in his pocket. He started work at B&J Fabrics, which helped him become acquainted with the fashion world.
“I made a lot of connections [there] and worked a lot,” Manivong said. “I just really got my feet wet.”
Eight years later Manivong found himself struggling to put together a fall collection for fashion week. He had presented shows prior, but his financial investors had backed out, leaving him, once again, homeless and without the appropriate funds to put on a show.
Hammons stepped in again, providing his former student with the rest of the money needed for his Fall 2009 show, a show that would mark the beginning of successes and opportunities to come.
The trying months leading up to this show would become forever documented in the film “Dressed,” which premiered in New York City on Feb. 4, 2011.
Earlier in 2008, Manivong was introduced to movie director David Swajeski who wanted to show the realities of starting a fashion label from virtually nothing.
“This is not Project Runway,” Swajeski said. “What Nary went through was the real thing.”
Over the next eight months prior to his show, cameras captured Manivong’s struggles (and his many Ohio State shirts), revealing an unglamorous side of the fashion business, but also an introverted person whose eyes tended to shift away from the lens. Ultimately, however, the documentary helped him open up to people, he said.
“The whole process about doing this film was finding myself,” Manivong said. “It felt more like therapy and I would not have done anything differently at all. This was part of telling my story I wanted to be told.”
If he did have any insecurities, they were certainly not noticed at the Columbus premiere of “Dressed” on Feb. 25, 2011 at the Drexel Theater. Manivong was distinguishable in, ironically, his bright red cardigan while he greeted guests of all ages and backgrounds, shaking hands, carrying on conversations, signing autographs and taking pictures with all those who asked.
“I’d like to thank Nary for opening up and sharing his story,” Swajeski said during the Q-and-A segment after the film screening. “It’s a real testament to his talent and his belief in himself.”
The talent Swajeski mentioned is undeniable. Two weeks earlier Manivong, who is entirely self-taught, and Hilfiger presented their first line together during New York Fashion Week to rave reviews. Their collection NAHM, which is their initials and also means “water” in Laos, was a reinterpretation of the classic shirtdress. The only minor discrepancy: Manivong’s T-shirt.
“Here he is wearing this football shirt at fashion week while everyone else is wearing black!” Swajeski said with a laugh.
Hilfiger, who flew in for the Columbus premiere that same day, said that not only does Manivong wear his Ohio State T-shirts regularly, but he even decorated their design studio in homage to the Buckeyes.
“We have a football letter in our studio!” Hilfiger exclaimed. “Everything’s scarlet and gray!”
To strengthen his connection with Ohio even more, the day after the premiere Manivong jumped at the chance to meet Buckeyes’ head football coach Jim Tressel who personally showed him around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“Coming home is always nice but this, this is definitely going to make for a top year,” Manivong said with a smile.
Back in his office, Tressel listened as Manivong explained his life story, one that he is well versed with, having told it so many times.
“The past few years have been really great,” Manivong said. “We showed the collection for New York Fashion Week and it has just been well received and Tommy[Hilfigers]’s been a mentor to us as well, which has been really great. I’m on cloud nine right now…”
“And you’re a Buckeye!” Tressel concluded.
With a memorable experience that many don’t get and an armful of new T-shirts to take back to New York, Manivong was all smiles and the “thank you’s” were endless. It’s safe to say that he will have enough Ohio State gear to wear during fashion week, suggesting that it might soon become his “signature thing.”
But ultimately, his most valued memories of Columbus he said, are the people who have loved and supported him throughout his journey.