We had the good fortune of connecting with Kitty Nguyen and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kitty, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
My background frames who I am today. A culmination of life lessons. I was born in Vietnam and raised in France. My family later immigrated to the United States as refugees after returning to Vietnam for a brief period. Integrating different cultures provided me with a broad perspective and context from an early age. Learning a new language and pressing to assimilate as a teenager in the US added another chapter. I believe these experiences have made me a keen and empathetic observer of people. I often joke that I approach fashion as an anthropologist.
What should our readers know about your business?
I launched my business, Semifinalist, in November 2019 based on the concept of sustainability the old-fashioned way – buy less, buy better, use forever – combined my love of sharing favorite go-to items with friends and family. I am a fan of the term “favorite”. I say it a lot: my favorite shirt, my favorite spatula, etc. It implies a relationship, a personal attachment that is valued and beloved; something you would miss if it wasn’t within arm’s reach. Not coincidentally, favorites are usually thoughtfully designed and well made.
Having worked in fashion for decades, the bulk of my time spent at Barneys New York creating products for the in-house label, I learned a trick or two. I am fortunate to work with wonderful makers. Family-owned business who are experts in their field and only make one product, for generations. We are proud to produce shirts with a shirtmaker, socks from a hosiery maker, bags from a bag maker – you get the idea, this is what they do all day, years in.
So launching a business right before the pandemic was less than optimal! Like, who wants to shop right now??
However, after a slow start, the timing proved to be oddly clarifying. When the country shut down, people found themselves stuck at home, surrounded by an abundance of stuff they didn’t use. My vision found an audience prepped to reconsider how we prioritize what we value and realizing we don’t need that much. The things that give you comfort, and you feel good about are what matter. It reminded us that less is more, and that the trusty items we use and appreciate each day are more valuable than the ones we save for limited occasion. Around here we call them “humble everyday masterpieces”- that’s really what Semifinalist is grounded on, time-tested reliable favorite things.
While it is still challenging to get noticed in this noisy world of start-ups, we are quietly gaining loyal customers each day. When people do discover us, they recognize that we are a little different. Palpably our business is a labor of love and each decision is hyper-deliberate. We are slow fashion – telling the stories behind the products, their makers and their provenance. I think what sets us apart is that we care for and believe in our products – so much so that we guarantee them for as long as you own them. We are especially proud to say that we have never had a product returned to us. And lastly, a percentage of all Semifinalist proceeds goes to support The Internationalist Rescue Committee (IRC) and its work around the world to help refugees. Giving back has always been part of my life plan.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Like many people, the basis of my itinerary is centered on food and drink. Luckily, we live 12 miles west of New York City in sweet Maplewood, New Jersey. Fun and good eats are abundant. Here we go!
– Welcome them with a beverage and snacks, thinking a chilled Lambrusco with some prosciutto and melon – perfect to combat the oppressive NJ humid summer. Chit chat a bit before relaxing dinner at home.
Day one: Breakfast at The Bread Stand, a crazy good bakery run by kind people. Also buy provisions from the bakery for a picnic lunch at Storm King, an open air sculpture park about an hour north just over the NY border to ride bikes for the day. Then dinner at The Roundhouse in nearby Beacon NY before heading home.
Day two: Maplewood village hang day. Go for a morning walk and enjoy coffee and scone at Able Baker (two remarkable bakeries in our small town). Then go loiter at [words] Bookstore, one of the best independent bookstores in the country (how lucky are we?). Dish some gossip with the store manager, Lisa, for a good while and get some excellent book recs from the staff. Walk back home to put feet up before an Ani Ramen dinner and Netflix.
Day three: Quick pick up breakfast at home before hopping on train to NYC. Walk to the High Line, an elevated park built on a former railroad, to people watch and chill. Meet friends on High Line for snack and ice cream. Shop a bit in Chelsea. Early dinner at High Street on Hudson and Uber back home.
Day four: Beach day:) Coffee and croissant pick up at The Bread Stand on way out of Maplewood. Go to friends’ home in Asbury Park. Walk to beach from there. Lunch on the boardwalk
then the Pinball Hall of Fame after. Walk back to house for cocktails then Sushi at Taka for dinner. Sleepover party.
Day five: After late breakfast at Purple Haze Donuts, say so long to Asbury Park friends and head back to Maplewood for lazy day of recovery. Card games and Baggo in the backyard with fruit, cheese and charcuterie. Leave rest of day flexible for serendipity and time to plot last day in the area tomorrow.
Day six: Most of the day is left unplanned – the only commitment is a dinner reservation at Via Carotta to top off the visit.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I dedicate my shoutout to my family. Firstly, my formidable parents who are the real heroes of my story. In their lifetime, they were 3-time refugees, starting life over each time and never looking back. They were my example of resiliency and purpose. My husband and kids provide a cozy cocoon for me to live in and make me a better person each day.