A rare audience with Peter Do, fashion’s hidden genius
On the eve of his SS23 show, the low-key darling of New York fashion is ready to speak
Tuesday 13 September 2022 By Gautam Balasundar Photography by Deon Hinton
In this era of social media-driven fashion, when designers are quick to take the spotlight, Peter Do is an anomaly. Since launching in 2018, the Brooklyn-based label, which the Vietnamese-born designer (whose surname is pronounced ‘dough’) cofounded with four of his friends, has been on a rising trajectory that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. The brand has been shortlisted for the LVMH Prize, counts Zendaya as a fan, and has brought a sense of gravitas to New York fashion. All the while, Do has been quietly working behind the scenes, assiduously avoiding the aforementioned spotlight. But recently, both the label and the man have been experiencing a shift. With interest in the brand growing exponentially and Do’s seasonal shows becoming the hottest tickets at New York Fashion Week, the designer can no longer remain in the background.
It feels like only yesterday that Do was an anonymous figure posting photos of samples and experiments on his Instagram. It was enough to amass a large group of followers drawn to his aesthetic and the technique that he honed at Celine and then Derek Lam. Despite his reluctance to put himself on display – Do tends to cover his face in photos to the extent that his fans wouldn’t even be able to recognise him if they saw him walking down the street – he has always been passionate and willing to share his creative process. ‘In the beginning I was adamant about talking about the clothes only,’ Do tells me. He’s the first to greet me at the door of his brand’s airy, mostly white Sunset Park studio and is immediately affable. ‘I was very annoyed, because no one was talking about the process of making the clothes,’ he explains. ‘There was like a formula in fashion with people turning designers into celebrities, which is more of like, “What do you like to eat? What are you listening to?” And I just didn’t want to talk about that.’
Even though he doesn’t like to expose himself to the world, Do recognises the value of social media in building his brand. It was on Instagram, after all, that people first discovered his stark designs, that were somehow grand in their simplicity. Peter Do quickly became the label for ‘cool girls’, merging wearability with precise cuts and silhouettes that captured the perennially desired look of confidence, ease, and sophistication. Ironically, Do never intended to cultivate mystery; in fact, it was the exact opposite. From the beginning of his career as a designer, he wanted to help shed light on the realities of the fashion world. ‘The core value has always been about sharing; open the curtain a little bit and talk about what’s going on behind closed doors – which was the opposite of what fashion was because there was a lot of gatekeeping, a lot of hush-hush, like don’t tell people where you produce your garments, ’ says Do.
And what garments. Manufactured in Italian factories hand-selected by Do and his team, the clothes are part witchy Rick Owens, part ultra-tailored McQueen at its finest; pin-sharp dress coats with grosgrain peak lapels rub hems with immaculately tailored kilts cut in Do’s trademark black, while heavy-duty platform boots, like the hooves of some dark mystical creature, elevate their wearers in order to make Do’s gown-proportioned duster coats feel wearable. It’s a carefully considered design ethos, a singular approach that’s driven by craft more than anything else happening in fashion. ‘I miss the time of the Yohjis and the Ricks. Rick is still doing it, right? It’s something you really believe in, no matter what happens outside of you, that’s what you believe in.’
The close-knit Peter Do team, of which Do is the creative lead, is made up of a handful of his friends – the brand’s cofounders are An Nguyen, Vincent Ho, Lydia Sukato, and Jessica Wu – and together they launched the label when they were young. That meant thrusting themselves deep into the weeds of business, learning along the way. ‘We all started it when we were [in our] twenties,’ Do recalls. ‘I was 26 when the first collection came out; I was like a child, I had no idea what was going on. We had to Google things, listen to podcasts, like “how to write a business plan”, stuff like that. And then we had to grow up really quickly.’ Do acknowledges how much has changed since the brand started expanding, and that this brings a new set of challenges. ‘I just turned 31, so I feel like a completely different person and our friendship is also different. We’ve become a lot more professional; we have annual reviews. Sometimes you don’t really know whether you’re someone’s friend or boss, right? Is this your co-worker or your friend?’
‘There are no boundaries,’ Do continues, on his working relationship with his team. ‘It’s a balancing act, but one that has proved to be fruitful, as the team has figured out the best way to maintain that friendship while striving towards the shared vision for the brand. We have to set those rules ourselves.’ He pauses. ‘It’s really hard to start a label with your friends, and [going into your] thirties together. You realise there are other things happening in your life, too. People have partners, pets, whatever, and you want more things, and can’t just get paid the minimum wage seven days a week, right? It’s just not sustainable. So, I think that’s the challenge.’
Confronting those challenges has had the benefit of providing creative clarity. In the process of expansion, the brand has become more distilled, and the vision sharper. Do has traded the robust collections he was initially producing with fewer looks that better capture the essence of the label. ‘I feel like it’s a lot clearer, because now it’s simplified,’ he says. ‘I think at the beginning we were doing so much because we weren’t confident, or I wasn’t confident. I had a hard time editing ideas. In the first collection there were so many looks, and it was just like a thousand ideas in one collection. It was really chaotic looking back.’
The collections have shrunk since those early days, but only as a result of Do becoming more precise. ‘I’m learning to edit my work more and more every season. I’m trying to say exactly what’s needed and not clutter the space with a bunch of stuff that I’m testing out. During the first two years, I feel like we were testing a lot of things in between, because there was no data and no customer – we didn’t solidify the factory, the fabric, things like that,’ he explains.
The AW22 collection was a turning point, and a manifestation of all of those changes. With 36 looks it was the smallest collection that the brand has produced. To Do, this signified a new direction that the team has continued to expand on – and was the clearest representation of the ‘Peter Do woman’ to date. ‘It’s not so much about specific items, because I feel like there’s an ethos now that we build on. There are certain things that have become the vocabulary of what we design.’ The brand’s reputation comes as much from Do’s design as it does from the quality of the construction. Do’s penchant for meticulous tailoring, structural shapes and a muted palette has earnt the adoration of customers. Do is always looking at how his pieces can integrate into a wearer’s wardrobe and become the kind of garments they want to put on over and over again. ‘No matter how it looks, I feel like I’m always asking the clothes to do more for the person. That’s what I’m trying to do; the dialogue between the customer and the product. The clothes can adapt with you and you can wear them multiple ways – you can take the sleeve off or detach the bottom into a skirt, things like that. That’s what I want [Peter Do] to be known for – compatibility.’
The forthcoming SS23 collection – which will be shown at the close of New York Fashion Week – will take Do’s new mood a step further. He is expanding his world, adding both a men’s line as well as a unisex line. It makes sense, as the womenswear in his collections has been inspired by techniques and philosophies of menswear since the beginning. ‘When we design clothes for women, we look at men’s clothes. So that’s always a starting point. We’ll get a men’s suit and make them in a men’s factory because they have better techniques, fabrics, and constructions.’ Men have also been incorporating Peter Do’s pieces into their wardrobes since 2018, and as such the menswear carries the same DNA as the women’s. When designing, Do approaches both lines as a wardrobe that’s meant to be shared – and for the specific pieces that can work for both, they are ‘automatically going to become unisex’. ‘I feel like by introducing the men’s and unisex lines, it really completes the world in a way where it’s much more inclusive,’ he explains.
Do’s obsession with how his garments are made will continue to permeate his men’s and womenswear lines. More than that, though, with both collections he hopes to re-educate a generation of consumers who have only ever known rapidly changing trends and fast fashion. ‘I do miss well-made clothes. I miss “future vintage”; things that could be vintage in the future. There was a time when we were growing up when you knew that something would become future vintage – like Nicolas Ghesquière Balenciaga, and Raf [Simons], you know.’
Do acknowledges the challenges facing a designer like him, who places so much emphasis on quality, technique, and craftsmanship. ‘Things are moving so quickly, it’s impossible to slow down for a lot of people,’ he concedes. But it also informs the role he wants to take on. The designer’s attention to detail makes his pieces feel timeless, and it’s this that imbues his brand with so much resonance. ‘I want to change the way people dress, not necessarily make the specific product that they will wear, but also inform my generation or the [one that comes after] to appreciate quality. It’s more interesting to influence a generation of people [on] how they think about clothes.’