As the number of COVID-19 cases in the region rises, so does the number of Houstonians coming together to help the community stay safe. Local designers are doing their part by creating masks to either raise funds for charities or help loved ones in need.
Nghi Nguyen, a trans man who owns an online clothing shop called NEEWIN, is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from his fashionable masks to support families who have been financially impacted by the pandemic.
“I’ve always wanted to help people,” Nguyen says, “and I never expect the people I help to give back to me. I don’t care about that. If I see people struggling, I’ll try my best to help.”
His project follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest guidelines. According to the CDC site, face masks are important because even individuals who do not show COVID-19 symptoms can spread the disease in public settings such as grocery stores and pharmacies where social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
During a press conference on April 22, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order that requires residents 10 and older to wear face masks outside the home to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease. The new rules will take effect on April 27 and last 30 days.
Nguyen creates the face masks in his home and sells them at neewin.co. The masks are available in both solid colors and Louis Vuitton-inspired fabric that comes in black, red, and white.
Interested parties can order the masks in sets or packs. Those who want to stay informed about his masks’ availability can sign up for updates on Nguyen’s website.
While sewing so many masks can be arduous, Nguyen says he loves the creative process. He starts by washing his hands and disinfecting his workspace. Then he cuts the fashion, or outer fabric, as well as the lining fabric based on his custom mask patterns. Before packaging and shipping the product, he sews the two fabrics together with an elastic string and leaves a small hole in the mask in case customers want to insert a filter.
Nguyen’s attention to detail and work ethic comes from years of practice and his family’s background in the fashion industry. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Nguyen grew up surrounded by industrial sewing machines and cut fabric. His parents and aunt ran their business and filled orders for other companies at home. With the help of their employees, Nguyen’s family sewed pieces in large quantities and then ironed, packaged, and shipped the products. His family’s heavy involvement in the business fueled Nguyen’s passion for the designing and manufacturing process.
He veered away from his family business and enrolled in architecture school after graduating high school, but eventually he returned to his true passion. “Sometimes, I think fashion chose me before I chose fashion,” Nguyen says.
He went to Ho Chi Minh City College of Culture & Arts and earned an associate degree in fashion design in 2015. A year later, he moved to the United States to continue his education at Houston Community College (HCC), where he is now an undergraduate.
The full-time HCC fashion-design student hopes people will also support local healthcare professionals any way they can.
“Right now, in the medical field, healthcare professionals lack a lot of personal protective equipment,” Nguyen says. “So, if you know any healthcare workers and have resources to give, please reach out to them and donate what you can.”
Like Nguyen, openly gay Project Runway contestant Alan Gonzalez is also creating and selling masks on his website, alantude.com. Gonzalez’s proceeds will support Meals on Wheels in the Houston and Galveston areas as well as local healthcare workers.
From his childhood home in Houston, Gonzalez creates fashionable masks geared toward the general public. He aims to help the elderly, slow the spread of COVID-19, and encourage non-essential workers to stop buying and potentially misusing the personal protective equipment that medical workers desperately need.
“As someone who knows how to sew and construct garments, we must consider how we can use our talent to help people out,” says Gonzalez, who plans to donate 100 percent of his proceeds to Meals on Wheels.
His hand-sewn masks feature textured layered fabric and come in black, gray, and white. Gonazalez’s designs reflect his concern for quality.
“A lot of people are prioritizing quantity over quality [since masks are in high demand], but I want to stay true to myself as a designer,” he says. “My ‘Alantude’ aesthetic is attention to detail, sustainability, and the attitude I bring to the masks.”
Gonzalez became a fashion designer toward the end of high school, where he realized he had the ability to help others recognize their own beauty by rethinking their wardrobe.
“I think that has always been one of the best parts of being a designer,” he says. “Seeing clients just gleam and truly light themselves up after finally seeing the beauty they’ve had this whole time.”
Gonzalez says he’s more familiar with designing custom products for a specific client, but his shift from custom wear to mass production was driven by necessity and a desire to help his community.
“I can’t personally deliver meals to the elderly, but through the masks I can donate to a program that does,” he says. “Just knowing that is fantastic.”
Galveston Arts Center curator Dennis Nance shares Gonazalez’s love of community. He has been creating colorful masks to help his loved ones.
Although his masks are not for sale to the public, he donates the masks to family, friends, and neighborhood people (such as mail carriers) whom he interacts with daily. The stylish masks are made from the same fabric Nance uses to craft the designs featured on his dennisnance.com website.
“I have the skill to help people who need masks,” says Nance, an openly gay man. “I am not making these for money, and I ask people to pay that forward to someone who’s out of work, or donate to a cause that’s supporting the community.”
Nance is an Austin College bachelor of arts graduate whose contemporary shirts, costumes, and dynamic needlework have exhibited in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Menil Collection Bookstore. He says he wants to share the love while having fun with masks that can bring a smile to people’s faces.
“It’s common in Houston to smile at strangers, but now our smiles are disguised when interacting with people,” he says. “So, wearing a mask with a pattern that matches the clothes you’re wearing or happens to be bright can make people smile, and bring a little bit of comfort.”
Nance also encourages people who have a sewing machine, available fabric, and a minute to themselves to try their hand at sewing.
“Now is a good time to slow down and learn a new skill,” he says, “if not for yourself, then for your loved ones.”
This article appears in the May issue of OutSmart magazine.