Flourishing forty years after a brave escape

Flourishing forty years after a brave escape

Brian Huynh is the quintessential Melbourne designer for high-end male fashion. Forty years ago his parents got in a boat to leave Vietnam, fleeing the civil war that was also an international battleground. They survived a terrifying ordeal to rebuild their lives in Australia. Their son’s success is one of those stories that demonstrates all that’s great about Australia.


Braving the rough seas to start a new life


In 1981 a young Vietnamese couple Nghia Thang and Kim Thoa decided to flee Vietnam’s communist government and the civil war. They secretly boarded a small fishing boat from Tra Vinh, a small town south west of Saigon. Then began a terrifying 8 day journey, through huge storms. The crew lost the compass in storms and most of their water. On the 5th day they were attacked by pirates who stole everything of value, but thankfully no one was harmed.


On the 8th day they reached a small island in Malaysia where the authorities took them to a refugee camp. Life on the island was very harsh and lacked basic necessities. But after three months there the couple were lucky enough to be accepted by Australia. They moved to Melbourne and began a new life.


Huynh’s parents were among the 43,000 accepted into Australia that year. It was a seismic shift in policy for the country which had been majority white for many years.


In the early years, when Huynh was a toddler, his parents started a clothing business in Melbourne’s Pran Central. Huynh’s father’s first job was working on an assembly line at Holden. After that, both parents established professions, his mother in finance at Telstra and his father in IT.


Fashion was part of the broader family picture with all Huynh’s Aunties and Uncles working as seamstresses.


Drawn to fashion


As a teenager, Huynh found fashion attractive. He loved the creativity and how the way a person dresses forms a big part of someone’s identity and how others perceive them.


“I was a consumer of fashion. I never considered fashion as a career because, like in most families from immigrant backgrounds, there was always a big emphasis on doing well in school, getting a prestigious career. They encouraged us to become a doctor or lawyer.”


Besides an emphasis on job security, there was an appreciation in Huynh’s family for striving for high quality. He explains,


“Mum came here with nothing. If they were to consume things, those things had to last. She knew how to look at a garment and work out how it was put together and whether it’s been done well..”


Following family expectations, Huynh went to study optometry in Melbourne. During his studies, he realised that the degree wasn’t right for him and he dropped out. It was a hard decision, but his partner encouraged him to go for it.


“Initially, my decision wasn’t received very well. My parents wanted me to have a stable income.”


Following a new path


In 2007, Huynh took a year off and travelled. He started his fashion degree in 2009, switching to part-time while working for a men’s tailors building up his skills.


He was 22 when he first touched a sewing machine.


Working at a tailor gave him an experience in the bespoke made to measure sector. He learned to understand patterns and how they correlate to the body. The repetition builds up craftsmanship.


“I graduated in 2014 and by 2016 the feedback I was getting about my graduate collection gave me the confidence to start my own label, MNDATORY”


Taking the entrepreneurial leap


Operating on gut instinct rather than market research, Huynh launched his own vision.


“Looking back, maybe it was fearlessness or naivety, I just jumped in. I felt there was a gap in the Australian menswear market. A lot of the labels I admired hadn’t survived. There weren’t many brands offering the things I was looking for: high quality, uniquely Melbourne, distinctive clothing. That aesthetic or subculture had died out.”


The clothes are pitched at high earning young professionals who care about fashion and creativity. The start was a slow burn. But bit by bit the label is growing organically.


A culture change


“There’s a growing awareness of longevity in fashion. People are becoming more conscious of where their fashion is coming from. They are starting to ask themselves, why is this shirt only $6? It’s better in the long run to buy something that will last. So that even when they’re done with it it can be handed down to someone else.”


Pandemic proof


A year of restrictions has been tough for MNDATORY. Online sales are less likely for a high-end brand where people want to have the in-store experience.


As things have reopened in Melbourne there’s been an uptake in made to measure for weddings again.


Customers have said how much they appreciate the human aspect of physical interactions. Plus Huynh notes, most of us have put on a few kilos, so measurements have changed.


The pandemic brought limitations, and it was more challenging to find something to look forward to, but fashion is an expressive outlet that people are embracing again.

The designer is still deciding what he’ll put forward for inclusion in the Fashion Unites (virtual exhibition?) but it’ll likely be something bold that captures the resilient spirit of Melbourne.


Reflecting on his roots


Today Huynh’s younger sister works in the business having studied commerce at Monash.


While Huynh’s style is contemporary and Melbourne born and bred, his worth ethic stems from his migrant background.


“I definitely have strong examples to follow. I watched mum and dad build something out of nothing, from sheer hard work and determination.” And Huynh brings that determination to his chosen profession.



Watch the Fashion Unites 2021 film featuring Huynh’s work here.

Sara Tiefenbrun writing for Multicultural Museums Victoria, 2021

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