Vietnamese American makes art accessible – and makes good business

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Christina Nguyen’s keen eye, a passion for new concepts, and an entrepreneurial spirit have put The Design Collective on the national map

Christina Nguyen has always loved creating concepts and putting those concepts into practice in her many projects. When she was only seventeen years old, she came up with an idea for a bubble tea and loose leaf tea café – she made her way to California to learn how to make a good bubble tea, and six years later, her whole family runs The Tea Garden and has three popular locations around the Twin Cities.

Now twenty three, Christina spends her days at the Design Collective, another of her entrepreneurial ideas that has become reality. The Design Collective, which she started three years ago, is a boutique filled with items made and designed by local artists, fashion gurus and craft-makers. Everything, in fact, save a few of the plain t-shirts on which original designs have been printed, was created locally.

The Design Collective is located on the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 26th, in Uptown Minneapolis, in the same building as the Tea Garden shop run by her family.

Christina is a native of the Twin Cities, “born and raised Minnesotan,” as she says. She is the first generation in her family to be born here, however. Her family moved from Vietnam in the 1970’s, along with the largest group of immigrants from that region.

Why did Christina decide to open the Design Collective, a boutique selling locally designed clothing and accessories? The business and fashion savvy young woman says she had never worked in retail before, but she has always loved boutiques and handmade items. Running the design collective is kind of like running an art gallery. Everything is custom, many of the items are one of a kind. There are a lot of “one-offs,” shirts or jackets or jewelry that have been made by hand and can never be duplicated.

The Design Collective is the only place to find the work of some of these Minnesotan designers. Christina meets with every designer that wants to exhibit their items in the Design Collective, and she is involved in choosing every item that goes on the shelves or hangs on the racks.

“It is a way to support local designers and promote the local design scene,” she says. It is an outlet for designers that might otherwise have a hard time finding a place to display and sell their work. She does it, she says, because she finds it interesting – she gets to see what people, artists in the community are doing, and she has a chance to bring that art to the greater community. The Design Collective makes art more accessible to people. The store is a chance for her and others to see what the art community is doing, to participate in an aesthetic and creative world that is otherwise hard to find.

Christina sits in the minimally furnished room off the well-traversed Hennepin Avenue, surrounded by unique handmade clothing and art, her favorite music making the space a more comfortable, her computer open in front of her. Like any entrepreneur, there is no such thing as a “day job.” Even as she works the Design Collective, she is constantly working on other projects, developing other concepts. “I love concepts,” she says. “I always have lots of other projects in mind. I like to start businesses – this is what I’m doing now, but in the future I would like to do other things.” She is always looking for a good business model and something that peaks her interest.

Christina seems to have entrepreneurialism in her blood. She received a degree in Entrepreneurial Studies from Carlson Business School at the University of Minnesota when she was twenty years old – but that was after she had already started the quickly successful Tea Garden. The degree was useful, she said, but she had already been doing many of the things they taught her at the Tea Garden.

The Design Collective has already received a great deal of attention, both from the local media and even nationally. She was featured in the City Pages magazine as the Best Boutique two years in a row, and an article in Northwest Airlines’ on-flight magazine and in other national publications has led out of town tourists straight from the airport to her shop’s door.

The Design Collective has even helped launch designers from local unknown to nationally known fashion designer. Katheryn Gerdes, for example, started off selling her designs at Christina’s store. Ms. Gerdes has since appeared on the popular “Project Runway” television show and has a successful career in design.

Ms. Nguyen is not sure what is next for her. At the moment, she’s enjoying seeing the fresh and fashionable art of the Twin Cities, taking the occasional trip (when her mom, Diana, can cover the store for a few days), and dreaming of the possibilities. She is doing something unique, giving people something that they want and that is hard to find. The many fans of her bubble tea and hi-fashion are anxious to see what she comes up with next.