An Uptown fashion plate

Design Collective's Christina Nguyen spotlights local clothing designers

On a particularly gorgeous day the second week of April, Christina Nguyen sat, as she often does, at the desk in her store, greeting customers from behind a Mac Powerbook and a collection of business cards.

The doors to the Design Collective, a boutique on 26th & Hennepin featuring clothes, jewelry and other items from local designers, were flung open to let in the summery air and, of course, patrons, who wandered in generally one at a time.

Such is the atmosphere at the Design Collective on almost any given day: breezy, relaxed, friendly. A long line of fashionistas take turns inspecting racks of clothing with all the intensity of fine art collectors.

Nguyen, who turned 22 that day, was clad in a fashionable gray sleeveless top and red skirt - separates of the sort found in her store. She fiddled with a bracelet of large red beads on her left wrist.

&#8220I don't really have any ties to the Minneapolis fashion scene,” the owner said somewhat apologetically. &#8220I wanted to use my business background and my passion for fashion.”

So, two years ago, Nguyen put together a business plan, hustled for loans and, in July 2004, opened her store.

Since then, the boutique has done pretty well, she said. &#8220When I first opened it, I had 20-some people. Now we have more than 50 designers.”

Those designers were found, Nguyen said, by means of &#8220guerilla recruiting.” She found people at local fashion shows like Fresh Face, MMA and Voltage. She also scattered flyers around the Twin Cities, exhorting local designers to bring their wares to her.

Their work is sold on consignment, the individual pieces having been chosen by Nguyen. &#8220I try to keep things pretty eclectic,” Nguyen said. &#8220People have all kind of tastes.” What doesn't sell is eventually returned to the designer.

&#8220A lot of people are really happy that there is a place that not only will carry their stuff, but supports only local designers,” she said.

Local support is extremely important to Nguyen, and she's been sad to see a few other local clothing stores close in recent weeks, even if they were her competition.

&#8220I try not to get all soapbox-y about it, like if you're supporting mass-produced items you're probably supporting sweatshop stuff. I hate sounding all preachy and bleeding heart about it,” she said, but you can tell the issue is an important one to her.

&#8220Why would you look elsewhere when you have so much talent right in your own community?”

Patrons of the store seem just as pleased with the venue as the designers. A few days earlier, a woman scoured the racks for nearly half an hour, occasionally asking questions about the designers or specific pieces; she then tried on several items. The clerk, a designer who sells jewelry in the store, helped her take down a coveted skirt from the display window.

Many customers enthusiastically talk with whoever is working and promise to come back regularly. Since the pieces in the store are generally one of a kind, a lot of customers ask about ordering custom-made work.

&#8220Some of the designers do, some don't design to make clothes upon request, Nguyen said. &#8220Sometimes they're working with a limited amount of a certain kind of fabric or something. Sometimes it's hard for designers to make a lot of stuff.”

Perhaps one reason the Design Collective has done so well is that it isn't the first business venture for the young proprietor: Nguyen opened the Tea Garden on Hennepin Avenue just around the corner from the Design Collective four years ago. (In fact, the space the Design Collective occupies used to be storage space for the teashop. Brightly painted chartreuse and outfitted with lighting from Ikea, the space was easily transformed into the clothing shop it is now.) Nguyen also opened a second Tea Garden in St. Paul two years ago, about the same time the Design Collective was born.

So, would she open another store?

&#8220Definitely. I'm already starting to get that whole ‘wow, I should do something' thing. It would be cool to open other Design Collectives in other cities that also feature local designers.”

Nguyen isn't sure exactly where that might be, but Berkeley has crossed her mind. &#8220Cities that have an underground scene,” she said. &#8220Opening in New York might be pointless because they already have so much of that.” In any case, it would have to be a compelling enough city for her to want to leave the Twin Cities.

&#8220It's always nice to be here,” she said. &#8220It would have to be somewhere really, really great to leave Minneapolis.”