Chubby Bunny: Michelle Nguyen's Bows Were All the Rage with Sanrio, Now She's Launching Her New Collection at JapanLA
Michelle Nguyen of Chubby Bunny
See more photos in Shannon Cottrell's gallery "Peek Inside Michelle Nguyen's Latest Chubby Bunny Hair Accessories Collection."
Saturday night at Melrose Ave. shop JapanLA, Michelle Nguyen will debut her latest Chubby Bunny accessories collection with "Bunnies and Bows," a combination art show and fashion event that will feature work from well-known artists like Luke Chueh, Jim Mahfood and Shibuya Girls Pop as well as a special announcement involving popular singer Kerli.
"The show 'Bunnies and Bows' happened very organically. It may seem like a smart business move, but at first, it happened a month ago, two months ago because I wanted to have a birthday party," said Nguyen, who is also one half of the party promotion team Bubble Punch. "I wanted to have a birthday party where I could show off my skills."
Over the course of the past two years, Chubby Bunny's big and adorable bows have made a splash in certain fashion circles, having turned up on celebrities, Sephora employees and even on young women at raves. Nguyen has also learned a lot during those two years. She went from being unemployed to making the pudgy red bows that became a massive hit at Sanrio's Hello Kitty anniversary events in 2009. She headed back to school and started two of her own businesses. Saturday night, there will be a lot to celebrate.
Nguyen is from Pittsburgh, where she developed an interest in comic books, cosplay and Lolita fashion. While she was studying at Penn State, Nguyen and her friends would scour thrift shops for vintage clothes they could turn into Lolita outfits, a Japanese fashion style that was almost completely unknown in the U.S. at the time. They would travel to conventions across the eastern United States, notably Otakon in Baltimore, where she was part of the first con's first panel dedicated to Lolita. Eventually, she moved to Japan, where she lived for a few years before heading out to Los Angeles to work on Tokyopop's English-language version of the popular Japanese magazine Gothic and Lolita Bible.
Six months after making the move, Nguyen was laid off.
"I was applying to ten jobs a day. No one was calling me back," Nguyen recalled. "When you're unemployed for that long, especially when it's someone like me-- I'm like borderline OCD, I need to be doing something all the time-- I felt like I had no worth. Nothing I learned in school was helpful. I had no abilities. I thought by not getting called back, I was kind of worthless."
When times seemed worst for Nguyen, her friend Jamie Rivadeneira, owner of JapanLA, offered her part time work at the store.
"Looking back, that was freakin' charity because I wasn't doing much because I didn't know how to do anything. I'm really bad at working retail. I'm terrible," said Nguyen. "But, she would sit me down and talk to me and stuff."
Rivadeneira helped Nguyen assess her skills, figure out what she could do to move forward.
"I ended up making three or four jobs that I wanted for myself," said Nguyen.
Michelle Nguyen holds the bows that started it all.
Chubby Bunny came into existence when Nguyen was helping Rivadeneira set up a JapanLA pop-up shop at Culver City maid cafe Royal/T. She had made bows for a display. Rivadeneira thought they were cute and suggested that she should sell them. Nguyen laughed off the idea at first, then she decided to open up an Etsy shop. She recruited her friend True Mee Lee, also known as Yume Ninja, to design a logo.
Meanwhile, Nguyen and Lee had been helping friends organize parties around Los Angeles. They quickly realized that they could turn it into a business and started Bubble Punch. Their new company became part of the Hello Kitty 35th anniversary celebration at Royal/T in late 2009. While they were organizing events, Nguyen thought it would be a good idea to make bows reminiscent of the one the famed cat wears for the maid cafe staff.
"I didn't intend for it to be a product for them to sell ever," she said. "I was like I could make five bows and they could wear them and it would be cute because it looks like Hello Kitty."
Chubby Bunny window display at JapanLA
Rivadeneira took the bows to a meeting with Sanrio, whose higher-ups fell in love with the piece. They immediately commissioned a batch for sale. The bows became the best-sellers of the event.
"I thought that was a one time wonder and I was going to save up this money and that's when I decided I was going to go back to school," she said.
Then Sanrio called and asked for more bows, this time in pink. They didn't tell her exactly what the bows were for until about two months after she finished the order. You might have noticed them at the launch of Sephora's Hello Kitty line.
Nguyen ended up going back to school, picking up skills at FIDM that she's applied to her fashion line, events and even JapanLA, where she created the store's latest window display.
The latest Chubby Bunny collection is inspired heavily by Nguyen's friends. She calls one piece covered in flowers her "Julie bow," after her friend Julie Doll, who will also be modeling for Chubby Bunny. Everything black, she said, is inspired by her Bubble Punch partner Lee.
"I thought, True Mee wouldn't wear any of my things, so I'm going to do something that maybe she would wear," she said.
The whimsical collection also features headpieces adorned with glittery shoes, brightly colored ice cream cones and lots of stars and hearts.
"I'm like a little girl, I like stars and hearts and pink rhinestones and roses pearls," she said.
At Saturday night's event, there will also be a very limited amount of Chubby Bunny t-shirts and dresses available.
"I wouldn't call myself a fashion person at all," said Nguyen. "Ever."
She is, however, inspired by Japanese designers like Sebastian Masuda of 6% Dokidoki and his ideas about personal style and self-expression.
"I don't really believe in off-the-rack fashion," she said. "I respect personal style."
With Chubby Bunny, Nguyen is providing the tools for personal style, the things that one can add to an existing outfit to make it unique.
Follow @lizohanesian and @ShannonCottrell.
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