“In today’s landscape, people ask a lot of a designer to solve the world’s problems, but I feel like for me, it’s a job. I think of myself more as an apparel designer rather than a fashion designer. I just go to work and I make clothes, and I’m really, really passionate about it,” says Peter Do. A remark so casual and humble that, to those who don’t know him intimately, feels a bit untoward. Peter Do, of course, does not just make clothes. Instead, he is a force breathing new life into American luxury womenswear through his studied technique and innate ability to create pieces that defy the constant need for newness.
Raised by his grandmother on a farm outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Do’s childhood experience was anything but typical for a fashion designer. “I owned five items of clothing, all passed down from my cousins and uncles. Fashion wasn’t a thing for me growing up. There were 20 walls between my existence and the fashion industry, so it felt like more of a fantasy than anything real or obtainable.” It wasn’t until Do moved to Philadelphia to join his parents at age 14 that he was able to explore his love for making things. Enrolling in an art program at his high school, he experimented early on with sustainability by using found fabrics and items to create wearable art, even staging a runway show in order to raise money for the club. After graduation, Do found himself at the Fashion Institute of Technology where he was able to hone in on his craft of construction, and by the end of his senior year was awarded the prestigious LVMH Graduates Prize with a spot in the atelier of Phoebe Philo at Celine.
“I owned five items of clothing, all passed down from my cousins and uncles. Fashion wasn’t a thing for me growing up. there were 20 walls between my existence and the fashion industry, so it felt like more of a fantasy than anything real or obtainable.”
“Moving to Paris without speaking French and working in one of the most beautiful ateliers in the world was like fashion bootcamp,” says Do. It’s there that he was formally baptized into the world of “fashion with a capital F” (as he says) and became indoctrinated into the clean elegance of Old Celine. Learning the mechanisms of the atelier and the European culture around artisanal craftsmanship left Do with a new perspective on not only the operational aspects of the industry, but also a more refined sense of what women want and need from their wardrobe.
Eventually returning to New York City to work for Derek Lam, Do set out to begin laying the foundation for his own brand. Connecting with the original four founding members on nights and weekends in his bedroom and coffee shops, the team spent a year in ideation and development, fine tuning the logo, packaging, and mapping out manufacturing in the city. “We were working two jobs and putting all of the money into the brand,” he reflects. Determined to build a brand of tomorrow, the team focused on a sustainable, made-to-order model for production and leaned into timelessly modern menswear inspirations. “I never wanted to make clothes that only last a season. I still wear my Celine pieces years later and they don’t feel dated,” he tells me.
It was on this ethos in 2018 that Peter Do, the brand, was officially born. Collections of structured jackets, tailored trousers, razor-cut pleating, and subtle nods to traditional Vietnamese dress, such as the áo dài, have defined the Peter Do vision, all hinged on the principle of functionality for the contemporary woman who does it all. As Recho Omondi, the host of our Notre Talk #17, which featured Do as our guest, put it, “these are really good clothes without many bells and whistles.” With dresses that feature pockets, jackets that are lined meticulously for free movement, and generously cut silhouettes, Do displays an intuitive understanding of who he is dressing and, throughout the seasons, has built somewhat of a new lane entirely in her vision. “The bottom line for me is that clothes have to function. There has to be a purpose for this thing that we make,” says Peter.
Collections of structured jackets, tailored trousers, razor-cut pleating, and subtle nods to traditional Vietnamese dress, such as the áo dài, have defined the Peter Do vision, all hinged on the principle of functionality for the contemporary woman who does it all.
Through staying true to this value system, Peter Do has sparked a whole new conversation around continuity in self-expression, but also on the ethics of the industry as a whole. Known for running his company as more of a family, Do weaves these principles throughout all that he does. From cooking team meals, to fostering a supportive and balanced workplace, to making pieces that are intentional in never alienating the wearer, he moves with consciousness throughout the processes of technical development, as well as community development, too.
“Peter Do is not just me. I would not be able to do this brand if I wasn’t supported by my friends. I know my strengths and weaknesses, so I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I do all of these important elements like sales and press. These pillars are being headed by my friends so that I can do what I do.” It’s with this humble self-awareness and honesty that Peter Do has quickly scaled into the position of renowned American designers, engaging in an open dialogue with the women he dresses and using his art as a service to provide avenues for today’s woman to define herself each morning. In an industry that is constantly in flux, Peter Do offers a steady perspective that is thoroughly grounded and never short on integrity.
“Home” is the theme for this season's collection. How has your experience of home growing up in Vietnam shaped your understanding of fashion?
Growing up on a farm in Vietnam, I had very little clothing and all of it was passed down from cousins or uncles. The concept of shopping wasn’t a thing. We didn’t go out and shop for new things, but instead my grandma taught me how to fix a zipper if my pants were broken or patch fabric into a shirt. So for me, this season, I wanted to take a moment to look back on my experiences in order to move forward. I was thinking of all the women that came before me, like my grandma, mom, and aunt, and how their influence is why I’m here today. The (NYFW) runway show for this collection was so big; it was a real “coming out” moment for us as a brand, so before the explosion of everything that follows such a big debut, I wanted to take a moment to think about where I’m from and what I’m building with my new family here, now.
How do you think your adopted home of New York has shaped your understanding of fashion?
New York is an interesting place for fashion right now. I feel like the Peter Do brand is situated in fashion with a capital F, but I am continually inspired by the city and the people I see every day. My favorite thing to do is sit around the subway or in a coffee shop and observe how people dress. The privilege of being in New York is that people are free to use clothing as a form of expression, and I’m not just referring to the luxury labels or logos. I’m inspired by everyone from the raver to the art student to the lawyer - there is something for everyone in the city and the culture is accepting of you making your own rules. In fact, half the time there is so much going on that no one ever even looks your way! For us to be located here is very special and welcoming. We can be ourselves every day and there is so much liberty in that.
This recent collection feels softer compared to previous collections. What story are you telling this season and how have you treated the evolution of the Peter Do woman?
Personally, I’ve always liked things to be very structured, but over time I’ve felt like I’m creating pieces that have something to prove; like I’m putting up a wall, or armor, around me with these designs. I value strength and at times I have had to build walls, but as I look back on all of the women who raised me, I realize that there is strength in softness. My grandmother, who is one of the strongest women I know, can wear a silk dress. My mother can wear delicate pieces and it doesn’t subtract from her strength. As I’ve reflected, I’ve realized that these women have also softened me. I have less to prove and instead of putting up walls, I’m leaning into vulnerability.
As for the evolution of the Peter Do woman, we don’t want to alienate people, you know? We are trying to make clothes that work with the way the body moves and feel wearable, and I know when it’s right. It’s very essential that I see the clothes on a woman in the fitting process so that I can see the movement and the way she feels in the piece. It’s a very honest process and a continuous collaboration between design and feedback.
"Personally, I’ve always liked things to be very structured, but over time I’ve felt like I’m creating pieces that have something to prove, like I’m putting up a wall, or armor, around me with these designs. I value strength and at times I have had to build walls, but as I look back on all of the women who raised me, I realize that there is strength in softness."
The Peter Do team is known for operating as a sort of adopted family. How do your community values intersect with your art, and how do you think those values come to life in your garments?
There’s a level of trust within the team that has allowed us to grow into the position we are in as a company. Several of the main team members actually started as interns, like our Head of Production and Sales Manager. We’ve created a place that helps each other out, very much like a family. We don’t want a quick turnaround or for anyone to go into a position where they aren’t passionate, so we nurture each other here. I think those values bleed over into our art because, much like we’re building a team that lasts, we are also making clothes that last.
You’re designing luxury womenswear with function, which to many may seem like an oxymoron, but to me seems appropriate and prophetic in terms of what it means to be a woman today and what the future holds for womanhood. What was the impetus for this? In your mind, who is the woman of the future?
I always say that I’m inspired by women, but I don’t want to impose my fantasy onto other people. I think that’s how I approach the design process; by asking a lot of questions and listening with honesty. It’s more than just making a piece that fits; it’s also about how you feel in it and what else you need from it. The design needs to be able to take you places, which opens a whole new conversation. How do you stay warm without wearing a puffer? Is this pocket necessary? Does this lining allow for movement? For me, these are the most important elements of making clothes because success is measured by how wearable the piece is. I’m happiest when I hear a woman say that our pants are the best ones she owns and she’s been wearing them for five years. I love to see that connection between a woman and her pieces and how the relationship evolves over time. There is this ability to have a dialogue between a woman and her clothes when she’s getting dressed, so if I can design something that sparks that conversation and presents opportunities for her to define herself for that day, then that’s exactly where I want to be as a designer. And as for the woman of the future, I think she is able to have it all. She doesn’t have to choose either function or beauty, but instead there’s a sweet spot in Peter Do collections where you don’t feel alienated by the clothes.
"I love to see that connection between a woman and her pieces and how the relationship evolves over time. There is this ability to have a dialogue between a woman and her clothes when she’s getting dressed, so if I can design something that sparks that conversation and presents opportunities for her to define herself for that day, then that’s exactly where I want to be as a designer."
You’ve said before that if you weren’t a designer, you’d be a cook. What is the connection between food and fashion for you?
For our first show I was thinking about my dad who passed away ten years ago. Him and I had nothing in common because I wanted to be the art kid and he had other expectations of me, but the one thing we connected on was cooking. He was a chef in the army and one of the things he taught me was how to make pho. It was a ritual every Sunday in our home. We didn’t speak, but instead he just sat me down and was like, “Okay, you do this.” My dad cooked the way I design; by doing the actual work through trial and error and asking questions in order to improve the next time. He never blindly followed recipes, but instead did things that intuitively made sense and overtime developed, in essence, an art form that could be passed down. It’s where my love of cooking comes from; this soft place in my heart of those memories and the way I bonded with him without many words. It’s also why I connected with the fashion and apparel world - because of the physicality of actually making a garment. I come from the background of constructing and draping and the old-world way of making clothes, and much like you can’t be a chef who has never worked the line, I can’t direct the designs if I’ve never done the work. It’s a rigorous process, but you have to do the actual work in order to gain the experience. A dish isn’t made in five minutes; instead, you spend all day prepping, cooking, plating, and then serving the food. This is very similar to a fashion show, where you spend months preparing fabric, colors, draping, imagery, music, lighting, and then within ten minutes it’s all over. That’s it. There’s nothing else. Your outcome is determined by how well you prepared.
"I come from the background of constructing and draping and the old-world way of making clothes, and much like you can’t be a chef who has never worked the line, I can’t direct the designs if I’ve never done the work. It’s a rigorous process, but you have to do the actual work in order to gain the experience."
Luxury fashion has been historically exclusive and gate kept, and you’ve spoken about your time at Celine reaffirming that. Now that you’re in a position of influence, how are you working to open the door to more diversity in talent and thought work?
This talk with Notre is a great example of how I’m trying to approach the elements of the industry that no one talks about, like where garments are produced, what that process looks like, and how many years you have to invest to get to this point. I also critique the MFA program at Parson’s because I feel like there is a ton of value to add at that stage in a designer’s career. Once they graduate, designers are kind of on their own and left to navigate the industry, so I try to be of service while they’re still in their programs and can quickly adapt their approaches based on feedback. My ultimate goal, though, is to create a true atelier in New York. I was very privileged to work at Celine in Paris and absorb the culture of the atelier, where garment making is not seen as blue collar work. Instead, the seamstresses take great pride in their craft and are viewed as artisans. I want to create a space where this is possible in America; where people may not want to finish college, but instead learn a trade and actually get paid well to do it. This is how people in Paris learn how to create menswear - by studying the craft and then staying with an atelier for 50 years mastering their skill. In America, we require a shift in the narrative. This is a skill just like any other job, from becoming a chef to working in tech, but there needs to be an environment that nurtures talent and allows people to make a career from the trade. There are already examples of this existing all over Europe, so hopefully in the future we can bring it to life in New York.
"I was very privileged to work at Celine in Paris and absorb the culture of the atelier, where garment making is not seen as blue collar work. Instead, the seamstresses take great pride in their craft and are viewed as artisans. I want to create a space where this is possible in America; where people may not want to finish college, but instead learn a trade and actually get paid well to do it."
If you could tell younger Peter one thing, what would it be?
The other day I was on the phone with my mom and I was venting about how stressful running a business can be, and in a true “mom” fashion, she told me to just quit - don’t do it anymore. But then she brought up how her friend had sent her an article from Vietnam about me and how proud she was that I was an inspiration back home. This conversation reminded me of why I can’t just stop, even in moments of stress. I feel like I’ve opened a lot of doors for people who look like me and never in my younger years did I think that could be possible.
Last year I was nominated for Womenswear Designer of the Year at the CFDA Awards and at the ceremony I was seated with Anna Wintour and Demna Gvasalia. It was so surreal and, honestly, as an introvert, it was a bit overwhelming to be in that environment. Then, during the dinner, the waitress came up to me and said she recognized me from a different event. We began chatting and I was telling her how uncomfortable I felt sitting at a table with such recognizable people, and she looked at me and said, “No, you sit there because you deserve that seat, and people who look like you and me, who are here waiting tables, feel honored to have you here. You make us proud.” I’ll never forget that moment. It was powerful and reaffirming and inspires me to proudly sit in these rooms hoping that there are young people who look like me thinking to themselves, “Okay, I can do that, too.”
So, while there is no success without hardship, and this journey hasn’t been a fairytale, today I’m able to recognize that it has all been worth it. Ultimately, I would tell my younger self to continue to follow those gut feelings and to make decisions on your own, because even if they don’t make sense to yourself or others at the moment, they will take you to exactly where you’re supposed to be.