Nary Manivong and Ally Hilfiger: Fashion’s It Duo

Lara Stone
Photo courtesy of NAHM
Nary Manivong and Ally Hilfiger are collaborating.

One’s a former TV star, the other’s a soon-to-be movie star—but together, they’re a design duo that has in-the-know fashion followers buzzing about their début season.

Nary Manivong has designed his eponymous fashion line for the last two years, but for Fall 2011, he’s strayed from his namesake brand to create NAHM, a collection designed and produced in collaboration with Ally Hilfiger, former MTV darling from the show Rich Girls and, yes, daughter of Tommy.

Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different: While Hilfiger grew up fashion royalty, Manivong spent time as a homeless person living in Columbus, Ohio—a history explored in the new documentary Dressed, which opened in New York on February 4

The two met at a dinner party in 2008 and forged a quick friendship, with Hilfiger going on to style two of Manivong’s collections. Working with Manivong, she said, sparked a passion for another side of the industry.

“I never really realized how much I wanted to be in design until I started working with Nary,” Hilfiger said. “I’ve always wanted to design, and I think it’s always better to work with someone else so you can both bring something to the table. I’m really strong business-wise and conceptually, and Nary’s really good technically.”

NAHM, an amalgamation of the duo’s initials, was born.

For their Fall 2011 collection, the team focused on the shirtdress as a starting point. “We wanted to go to one basic item,” said Manivong, “like Diane von Furstenberg, who had the wrap dress.”

“We wanted to create a new classic,” added Hilfiger, although she was quick to point out the collection is far from a lineup of the same. “Really, we’re just using shirt details and incorporating them into designer dresses.”

The idea to start with one item came from Hilfiger’s father, who, while not technically affiliated with the brand, has been generous with his advice to his daughter and her partner.

“He’s an amazing business advisor,” Hilfiger said of Tommy. “He definitely pushed us to focus on one type of item instead of a whole range of different clothes.”

On deck for Fall is a collection of dresses inspired by the raven—both the bird and the Edgar Allen Poe poem. “Nary and I are very attracted to nature,” said Hilfiger. “It all started out with the black bird.”

From there, Hilfiger dove into research, visiting libraries and checking out books on the raven’s different cultural significances.

“The raven is the creator of light,” she explained. “The raven was the protector of man, the keeper of prophecies, and also represents the black void. It traps energy and transforms energy back into space in different forms and shapes. That’s exactly what we’re doing with our shirtdress. We’re taking the attraction of energy of the shirtdress and transforming it into different forms.”

Despite the bird’s sometimes sinister connotations, “I always look at the positive in things,” explained Hilfiger. “I’m not a dark person, so in everything that I read, I highlighted the positive notes.”

That attitude seems to be mirrored in Manivong; Dressed, after all, recounts how the designer’s poverty-stricken past became his successful present. (Manivong’s eponymous line was nominated for the Fashion Group International’s Rising Star award for women’s ready-to-wear in both 2009 and 2010.) “He’s really turned a negative, hard thing into a positive thing to inspire people,” Hilfiger said. “He goes to homeless shelters and helps kids. He’s a mentor.”

“It took six months to get me to open up,” Manivong said of his time being filmed by director David Swajeski. “Once I did, I let it all come out. It was like therapy.”

As for the future of NAHM? “We want to let the line grow organically and see what the universe has in store for us,” said Hilfiger. “We believe that this brand will be in people’s lives for a long time.”

“You can’t predict the future, but we want to open the doors and let it take us wherever it’s going to take us,” Manivong added. “Give it up to the universe.”

Sounds zen? That’s about right, the duo says.

“He’s a Buddhist, and I’m a—whatever I am. I’m everything,” Hilfiger said. “But we definitely have a strong faith in the universe, trusting that it will do what’s best for us.”

NAHM’s Fall 2011 collection will be presented at Milk Studios in New York City on February 11.