What was supposed to be a momentous highlight quickly turned into a nightmare.
When 27-year-old London-based society fixture Nga Nguyen was invited to her first Gucci show earlier this year, she was ecstatic.
With her sister Nguyen Hong Nhung, 26, in tow, she flew into Milan on Feb 18 to catch the Italian brand’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection. A week later, the pair made another whirlwind trip to Paris – this time, to attend the Saint Laurent show.
Another week passed before the horror began.
At a routine medical check-up on a business trip to Europe, a mild cough led Ms Nguyen to undergo a Covid-19 test. The positive result that came back marked the start of a harrowing month as the initial fever and cough gave way to suffocating chest pains and breathing complications.
“It’s like someone’s pressing on your chest. You can’t even lie on your side. Just breathing or getting up to go to the bathroom was so difficult,” Ms Nguyen recalls.
It took two weeks of aggressive treatment in a hospital and two negative tests before she was finally in the clear.
As her health was hurt by the coronavirus, her public persona took a battering as well.
Heiress to a property business that spans Vietnam, London and Germany, Ms Nguyen has always been close to the fashion world.
An early stint in the marketing department of LVMH’s perfume and cosmetics division, followed by a role at the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation organising its yearly galas, put her in close contact with the glitterati of society.
In 2018, she attended the Met Gala, the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art ball that is also known as fashion’s biggest night. She has been a guest at Dolce & Gabbana’s highly exclusive Alta Moda shows – days-long extravaganzas at spectacular Italian locales, where the brand’s clients spend millions on its couture.
Ms Nguyen documented all these experiences and more on her Instagram feed. That same fast, fabulous life that earned her a sizeable social media following garnered vitriol when it was revealed that she had contracted Covid-19.
With fear, resentment and uncertainty running high, she came to signify all the excesses of the fashion industry that seemed out of step with the realities of a pandemic – the constant gallivanting around the globe, the endless consumption and display of luxury.
The press and the Internet went into attack mode, with Ms Nguyen and her sister pilloried the world over.
“That was a truly difficult episode. Physically, you’re sick, you’re far away from home, you’re alone in the hospital, and mentally, you’re not at ease because you’re dealing with all this negativity and cyber drama. It makes the whole experience and recovery much, much harder,” she says.
“I turned off all my social media, just to focus completely on my health.”
In truth, the allegations that Ms Nguyen triggered new clusters in the fashion world were largely unfounded.
“I was in Milan and Paris for only 24 hours each. I didn’t go to any parties or after-parties,” she says.
“Right after my diagnosis, I called the brands and they informed all the guests who were seated around me. I haven’t heard of any of them contracting the virus. The people who were with me on those trips – my photographer and make-up artist – tested negative.”
Having recovered from both the virus and the backlash, she finds herself in a much better place nowadays.
“You know what they say; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What I find very important in situations like that is that you remain calm,” says Ms Nguyen on how she got through that period.
“Tune out the negativity and the fake news, and just try to find the truth – absorb what’s good or what’s relevant for you. Get to a logical comprehension of your situation: How did you get there and what are you going to do about it?”
For Ms Nguyen, that has meant rethinking the way she lives. “I’ve always lived quite a chaotic life.”
She adds: “Now that everything has slowed down, it has been a process of self-reflection. It’s a time to press reset and question not just the way we live, but go deeper. What’s the purpose of doing the things we do? What makes us happy? What’s meaningful to us?”
This new mindset extends to her relationship with fashion as well.
“We’re bombarded with this enormous amount of collections. As a fashion lover, I really value the creativity shown, but do we need four seasons?” she says.
“What would be the most efficient way to maintain this showcase of creativity without losing the consumer’s attention and losing sight of the new normal after the pandemic?”
As she ponders how fashion would change post-Covid-19, she is sure that her behavioural habits, along with those of countless other consumers, would shift.
“Before, we like to just purchase, but perhaps now, we’re hungry for more understanding. Not only will we pay more attention to what we buy, but we’re also going to focus on the story behind the product, why we’re buying it and what it means – not just the financial value, but also the emotional value. I think we’ll be making smarter choices.”
Determined to turn her traumatic experience into something more meaningful, Ms Nguyen is launching a new venture later this year: Never Go Alone, a line of premium personal hygiene products.
Like everything she does, it will be in high style – the collection will be marketed as fashionable accessories with a high-performance element.
“A lot of research has gone into it, everything will be sustainably packaged, we’re supporting (community initiative) The Hygiene Bank to tackle hygiene poverty in the United Kingdom and 20 per cent of our first-year profits will go to the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund,” she says.
According to The Hygiene Bank, hygiene poverty is not being able to afford the everyday hygiene and personal grooming products most people take for granted, from deodorant to shampoo.
Ms Nguyen adds: “Before this, I treated the platform I had as a playground – purely for entertainment and never thinking too much about it.
“Now, I realise that I can use it to promote change and a positive message. I had to deal with the virus completely alone and it made me stronger. But that also inspired the idea behind this project – that wherever you are or whatever your journey, you never have to go it alone.”
• This article first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpers bazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpers bazaarsingapore on Facebook. The September 2020 issue is out on newsstands now.
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