Dusk is approaching and dramatic clouds darken the bitter British winter sky. Two assistants are lighting up the face of Nga Nguyen as she swishes around in an Armani emerald-green cape and our photographer snaps the final shots of the session.
We’ve had a full day of shooting in the woods, on the outskirts of northern London, glamorous outfit changes done next to trees and bushes. Nguyen has been a trouper, barely fighting off the biting wind in tall Fendi boots.
Our 28-year-old cover girl, a London-based Vietnamese heiress, fashion VIP and influencer, has just launched her first independent business, NGA – an accessory and wellness collection “for the future”. She’s been helping her family, who made their fortune in real estate, with their business in London. But the step to becoming a young entrepreneur with her own company has been full of challenges and rewards.
“The name Never Go Alone (abrievated to NGA spelling her name) relates to my experience contracting the Covid-19 virus and wanting others to feel safe and protected,” she explained as we sipped hot tea in a quiet corner in the heart of Mayfair three weeks before.
Cities around the world are still adapting to the new normal of social distancing and mask- wearing in public, sanitising hands and surfaces, and avoiding crowded areas. NGA’s newly launched key products are very much part of this new lifestyle: they include a sanitising skin treatment; a perfume; hand cream; specific wipes for hands, around the home, and for tech devices; a technical face mask, and a candle with the brand’s signature scent.
“While recovering I wanted to create something positive. That’s where my brand was born”Nga Nguyen
In March as the first wave of Covid-19 hit Europe, and just after attending Paris Fashion Week, Nguyen garnered unwanted fame when news spread that she’d fallen ill with the novel disease. Hysteria followed from fashion-week crowds who are typically packed in at shows like sardines, a few hundred to a room. Online and social-media bullying ensued as she was being treated in hospital.
She says she hasn’t been back home to Vietnam since then. Instead, and even as she lay in her hospital bed, Nguyen has been intent on turning that misfortune into something more positive, focusing on wellness. “While I was recovering, I wanted to create something positive, and that’s where my brand and collection were born,” she says. “It’s really about supporting others on the journey to the new normal … As I was being treated, all I could think about was how to turn this terrible situation around and create something that raises awareness and protects people.”
First and foremost was a focus on the ingredients, Nguyen explains, when her core team of four – all communicating virtually – developed the products. The aloe vera and ginseng extracts are ultra-moisturising and offset the smell of disinfecting alcohol that must be contained in any formula labelled “sanitising”. The scent of the range is a rich unisex mix that uses a base of earthy sandalwood and cardamon.
“And rather than a standard antibacterial gel, I wanted to make a treatment in the form of a mist. It smells as luxurious as a perfume and moisturises the skin, rather than leaving it dry or sticky,” Nguyen says. Aiming her brand at a premium market, Nguyen and the small team she put together towards the end of 2020 adopted a multi-sensory approach during development – taking in practical concerns as well as creating something that would feel, and look, good.
The NGA range is impressively sleek in packaging and branding, which she worked on with the London design agency, Layer. It all aligns with the affordable-luxury segment that Nguyen is targeting. “I’ve always had a passion for design and in my line of work I’ve come to realise that though the product itself can be great, people always appreciate quality design,” she says as she handles one of the palm-sized, smooth grey hand sanitiser cases. “It needed to be sustainable, eye-catching, aesthetically pleasing, but all the while practical, on-the-go with great all-day performance.”
This isn’t completely out of the blue, as Nguyen has worked in the beauty and skincare industry before. After earning a master’s degree in luxury management at the INSEEC business school in Paris, she had an 18-month stint as a marketing assistant for LVMH’s heritage perfume brand Aqua di Parma. “It really helped me learn the ins and outs of marketing and how retail works … and how marketing for fast consumer goods is so different than for luxury products,” she says. “And I’m obsessed with hygiene myself, constantly wiping everything down everywhere I go.”
With the beauty industry crowded with key players, that experience helped to strengthen an overall knowledge of how such brands operate, and especially how to captivate consumer attention with good PR and e-commerce strategies for NGA. Her international upbringing and education (she speaks Vietnamese, English and French, and is learning Russian) means that she’s been comfortably global in her approach.
The events of early 2020 no doubt focussed Nguyen on personal health, both physical and mental well-being. She takes brisk morning walks around her Mayfair neighbourhood, hitting 10,000 steps before 10am “regardless of the weather or how busy I am”. She does pilates three times a week and exercises for 30 minutes before bed each night. Her daily supplements include vitamin D, and fish and peppermint oils.
“The whole experience really taught me to live slower,” she adds. “And it gave me plenty of time to do deep research into protective products.” Although she’s not that into skincare, Nga Nguyen tries “to focus more on hydrating. But one secret is that I use coconut oil for everything – make-up remover, moisturiser, hair mask and so on. But, most importantly, I make sure to get a good night’s sleep. Rest is key!”
“I’m definitely more Zen now, I take time to appreciate the little things.”Nga Nguyen
Her lifestyle now focusses on organic and unprocessed foods, with only occasional alcohol. But the goal is to do things with a sense of balance. So while there’s exercise, intermittent fasting and cold-blast showers, she’s also a pleasure- seeking foodie who regularly indulges in Michelin-star delights at the restaurants of Claude Bosi, Adam Handling, Enrico Bartolini, Michel Roux Jr and Heston Blumenthal, or character-filled venues such as the Woodspeen Restaurant, which is located in a converted 19th- century English farmhouse.
For someone who lives in the social-media limelight, the issue of mental wellness is pertinent, especially after her health crisis in March. Hers is a story that highlights the pros and pitfalls of all that – and in an unusually compacted timeframe.
“I really just focused on my health and made the decision to avoid social media for 10 weeks during my recovery,” Nguyen explains. “I do love social media, because it allows me to share my life with people who care about me. But you can’t let it control you or take over your time. There’s so much fake news that it can really distort your world view. It almost encourages you to react quickly, rather than take the time to think things through.”
But with her health restored, Nguyen can focus again on her great love: fashion. Gucci, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Amina Muaddi are her go-to shoe brands, but she also has a fondness for sustainable labels such as Nanushka, Gabriela Hearst and Commission.
“I love sharp tailoring with a twist; and I love crystal embellishments, bold colours and lots of accessories,” she says. But now, with our lifestyles changed, she’s veering towards comfort – more tonal luxurious loungewear and trainers over heels. But perhaps this isn’t a bad thing.
“I’m definitely more Zen now,” adds a thoughtful Nguyen. “I make sure to take the time to appreciate the little things and look after myself better mentally and physically … I practise deep breathing daily.”
Like so many around the world, living in varying cycles of lockdown has given her a renewed appreciation of nature. Living between the two expansive, green spaces of Hyde Park and Green Park has aided those early rises and fresh walks that recharge her body and senses.
When London is its usual hive of activity, Nguyen is often found at colourful outdoor markets, pastry shops or organic grocers in Notting Hill, Primrose Hill and Holland Park. Her Mayfair neighbourhood is alive with new restaurants and social spaces. As one of the liveliest areas of the West End is on her doorstep, she has no shortage of “little boutiques, high-end shops, and cute cafes” to keep her entertained.
By the end of photo-shoot day, bundled in a huge furry Balenciaga coat, Nguyen bids warm goodbyes, walks to her car and drives off into the cold night. The scene is a far cry from life when she’s back in Hanoi. There, her routine is slow and homely: tropical weather, swimming in the pool and enjoying gorgeously fresh local fruit. She usually hangs out with family, particularly her grandma, with whom she tends a sunlit, organic garden in their big backyard.
Her grandmother is Nguyen’s hero, a woman who started off selling groceries roadside to soldiers during the Vietnam War, biking through the night to pick up fresh produce from the local markets. “Eventually she built this into a big produce-centred business,” Nga says. “She even has a photo with Ho Chi Minh.” It all allowed her father to kick off a white-collar career and build a family real-estate business. With Nga starting her own brand while only in her twenties, albeit with far more resources than her grandmother had, that entrepreneurial spirit is clearly in her genes.
(Hero Shot: Outfit Fendi; Jewellery Nguyen’s Own)
STYLING JING ZHANG / PHOTOGRAPHY OLIVER YOAN / PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT ANNA LOWRY / MAKE-UP AND HAIR REVE RYU