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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Twenty years from now, the Semifinalist designer will still be wearing the same shirt

Kitty Nguyen models the Spider Cotton and Linen Square and Stue Mini Dot poplin shirt. She named the shirt after the mom of a close friend who loves peter pan collars.

When Kitty Nguyen launched Semifinalist from the kitchen island of her Maplewood home in November 2019, she did so with the conviction that less is more. Determined to offer her customers a chance to reconsider their cluttered closets, if only they would slow down and consider what they accumulate, Nguyen explains that “I’ve always been about buy less, buy better, use forever.”

In a time of influencers, when many are accumulating shoes, apps, and a more-is-more attitude, Nguyen’s pared down approach is a breath of fresh air. Not that she does not understand accumulating clothes. “I worked in fashion for so long [that] I literally have an embarrassing amount of clothing,” she says. “I have closets full of really beautiful clothes. But I find myself gravitating to the same five or six things every day. I automatically reach for them because I know I look good in them, I feel good, I’m comfortable, and I can be presentable in thirty seconds.”

Nguyen’s aim – to “simplify your life” – is borne out of a passion for creating go-to favorite items. “I always think in terms of favorites,” says Nguyen. “I say that a lot. ‘My favorite shirt. My favorite spatula. And I feel that what makes something a favorite, and what makes something beloved, is that you return to it each day.”

The Butterfly Silk Square is shown here with the Robert shirt.

Discovering favorites and discarding the rest resonates now more than ever. When the country shut down, people found themselves home all the time, suddenly surrounded by an abundance of stuff they had very little time to organize. “It was not great timing to launch a business,” she says frankly, before adding, “but in a way, it’s simplified my vision and it’s reaffirming [that] I’m on the right track.” Her creative vision has found an audience prepped anew to consider how we prioritize what we value. “I think it coincided with this whole pandemic, in that we realized we don’t need that much,” she explains. “The things that give you comfort, and you feel comfortable and good about, [are] what matter.”

All of Nguyen’s products – from sweaters and shirts to scarves and purses – are made with an intention to last, or as she enthusiastically calls them, “forever favorites.” Emphasizing that items should be responsibly made, Nguyen envisions her customers handing down their well-loved favorites after decades of use, still in good condition.

For the notoriously wasteful fashion industry, Semifinalist is rebelling against cyclical, cheap trends – trends that no doubt play a part in why the average US citizen throws away approximately 70 pounds of clothing and textiles annually. Nguyen wants them to realize that change is about transforming one’s perspective: “It doesn’t have to be something that’s so revolutionary, like a new material, or biodegradability, or even recycling per se.”

Instead, Nguyen encourages people to think of their style in the long term. “Buying less, using it more, using it forever – and really appreciating it. That’s sustainability in a nutshell.” Of course, passing down your well-worn items is only possible if those items are exceedingly well-made in the first place.

Nguyen has spent her career striving to get at the essence of what makes a product top-notch. She began her career at Macy’s, starting in their celebrated, rigorous executive training program. After a few years, the luxury department store Barneys was hiring. Nguyen was captivated – “not just because it was a luxury beautiful store, but it had always been known to be a great purveyor of products,” she recalls, adding, “They were quirky. They had a real indie sensibility, and they had a very respected label that they built from scratch.”

Nguyen styles a friend – Katherine – for a photo shoot in New York City.

In addition to her desire to learn more about Barneys' process of actually making its stock in trade, Nguyen was also irresistibly attracted to the company’s commitment to earnest eccentricity. At the time, it was still a family-owned business, and she worked closely with Fred Pressman, the respected patriarch of the company. “That was so fortunate for me,” she says of this period. “He is Barney’s son, and he was a humble visionary who created a lot of things in the retail space and came up with a lot of unique ideas that became mainstream.”

Pressman was tireless in teaching his salespeople to approach the products and customers with a captivating narrative, insisting they be on the floor getting to know their shoppers. “You have to know who your customer is. What kind of car do they drive? Where do they go on vacation? Where do they live? What are their hobbies?” Nguyen credits Barney’s with carrying designers even if they were not bestselling. “Some designers just will not sell as quickly,” she says, “but they are meaningful to the total.”

From runways to factories, Nguyen’s desire to start her own business grew. “I think I’ve had a business in me for a long time,” she says. “I grew up in a pretty entrepreneurial family, and this is something that’s always been in the back of my mind.”

She calls her parents “formidable people,” who had been forced to flee their native Vietnam for a challenging life in America. Hence they had encouraged her to work hard and focus on finding opportunities. It is why part of her proceeds go to the International Rescue Committee, an organization focused on providing help to refugees. “A lot of strangers helped us on the way,” she recalls. “I don’t feel that is the case right now.” Nguyen praises the IRC for its work helping families, especially women and children, as they navigate the realities of being a refugee, calling it a “wonderful organization.”

Nguyen has an affinity for the color yellow, believing it to represent optimism. Pictured here is the Sutherland Super Geelong V-Neck Sweater.

After decades working for iconic brands, now it is her turn to wow her customers. She took her relationships, knowledge, and innate creativity, and poured it into Semifinalist. “I’ve been lucky in my career to work for really wonderful makers” – family-owned businesses that only make one thing.” “I’m proud to say I produce my shirts from a shirt maker,” she says. “I buy my socks from a hosiery maker. I buy my bags from a bag maker.” The quality of the work is found in Semifinalist’s stunning designs. “This is what they do all day. And it’s really a pleasure to work that way.”

Nguyen, who still wears shirts that are two decades old, assures her customers that once they find their forever favorites, they will be wearing them for the next 20 years too – without them falling apart. How, you ask? Magic? A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a stylish stitch? “I’m not fussy,” she declares. “Frankly, it’s just held up.”

The commitment to excellence is constant. At the outset, when she designs an item for a customer, she describes having to “get into their head.” When she promises they will still be wearing it decades from now, it is because “it’s been vetted for years, through life use and just people constantly tweaking it to make it better.” Even the name, Semifinalist, reflects an earnest integrity. “Everyone seems to say now, ‘We’re the best and the quickest and the greatest.’ I feel like being a semifinalist is really pretty good. And really, Semifinalist is always trying to get better, always trying to make it,” she says, before pausing to consider. “It’s about always striving.”

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Sara Courtney lives in Maplewood with her family. Her style can best be described as “It’s laundry day.”

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