If as the famous saying (and song) goes, every picture tells a story, so too should every piece of clothing or object we surround ourselves with. At least that’s the philosophy with which Avril Nolan and Quy Nguyen approach both their life and business.
To meet them or spend any time in their thoughtfully arranged Brooklyn brownstone apartment, is to understand that it’s not just lip service. “Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee believed you should have so few objects that when you’re walking around at night you know where your objects are without tumbling over them,” explains Nguyen while pointing at a circa 1880 Shaker chair which hangs upside-down over a Joseph Hoffmann brass hook in their living room. Though Nolan and Nguyen don’t relate to the religious connection of the Shaker’s idolization of tidiness (they believed that since there wasn’t dirt in heaven, there shouldn’t be dirt on earth), they certainly appreciate the notion. “We’re not religious but the spiritual sentiment behind that, of having less is more, resonates,” he adds.
To be a minimalist and also a dealer of vintage and antiques would seem to most a contradiction in terms, but it’s at the heart of what Nolan and Nguyen believe and are trying to build with their joint venture FORM Vintage, a roving pop-up shop that, this year, hosted stints at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel and in Montauk, a popular New York weekender’s beach enclave. Their vision is a meticulously edited one, and purposefully so. “You go to a store like Celine and they hang only twenty pieces of clothing because they believe in each one because it has a point of view,” says Nguyen. “We wanted to do the same with vintage.” FORM is the antithesis of the sensory overload that usually comes with vintage shopping, and their commitment to having less has resonated with customers. “I personally love combing through things but I can imagine for someone else who’s not into that, they might be exhausted before they even get started,” adds Nolan. Their credo is that every piece of clothing or home object at FORM has been selected not just for its singular appeal, but for the story behind it; and the story is often what sells the item. “It’s ironic to say this but FORM is about stories more than objects, almost like the folk music tradition, we’re continuing this lineage of telling and sharing,” says Nguyen. “People scroll through images very rapidly on Instagram, but no one really knows the origin or the history behind what they’re looking at, and we want to offer that.”
“People scroll through images very rapidly on Instagram, but no one really knows the origin or the history behind what they’re looking at, and we want to offer that.”
It was a shared love of vintage and antiques that was one of the first things the pair bonded over after meeting at a friend’s rooftop party in Williamsburg; it’s a passion that stretches back to each of their childhoods. Nolan grew up in Ireland, where there was a notable dearth of resources for a budding vintage obsessive. Old films were one window into proper, glamorized worlds (and the wardrobes that came with them) unlike the one she knew. “I was always trying to set up film clubs for me and my friends to watch old Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe movies and they would fail miserably because everyone was just interested in the latest chick flick,” Nolan laments. Trips to London, where the street style and thrifting opportunities were plentiful, offered another window. “For my 16th birthday my mom took me to see the Vivienne Westwood retrospective there,” she says. “I had long been interested in the history of fashion and would devour fashion magazines but it was the first time I’d ever seen couture pieces, and the construction and craft that goes into them, up close. That definitely changed me.” For Nguyen who grew up poor in Texas, his education about clothing and design from decades past came by virtue of necessity. “My family bought everything used, whether it was furniture, a refrigerator or clothing, so we spent our lives at thrift stores,” he says. “Because of that I was automatically exposed to 50 years-worth of ideas and color palettes and styles and patterns and materials. So, by a young age, I’d already learned how to look at things with a discriminating eye but a very open mind.”
Translating a personal passion for vintage into a vintage business can be a challenge, but it’s one that, because of their diverse backgrounds, Nolan and Nguyen were uniquely equipped to take on. Since moving from Ireland to New York, Nolan has logged time at some of the city’s most forward-thinking public relations firms, working closely with burgeoning brands (and major vintage clients like the Manhattan Vintage Show) on everything from store openings to marketing efforts to campaign brainstorming. “People always joke that PR is the best way to learn on someone else’s checkbook,” she adds. While Nguyen, who first landed in New York to study sculpture, photography and Super 8 filmmaking at Cooper Union, has held a string of jobs at some of the most prestigious design titles (Martha Stewart, Architectural Digest, and Elle Décor) and is currently still the style director of interiors for Ralph Lauren. The idea for FORM was born quite organically. Both avid travelers (“I think we went to maybe 20 places in the first two years we were dating,” says Nguyen), they began to, on the urging of friends who were always enthralled with the treasures they returned with, shop with a different intention: to sell what they found. They share a sharp editorial eye and a knack for resisting the urge to be compulsive consumers and simply buy, buy, buy. “We have a conversation before each purchase,” Nolan adds. That their sensibilities are similar helps too. “It’s our specialty to focus on things that others aren’t and our visions coalesce nicely,” explains Nguyen. “But we’re lovers first and foremost, and business partners second. And having that chemistry romantically is so important to the creative chemistry. After all, when you fall in love you start to dream again.”
For further information on FORM Vintage, see their website and Instagram. Interested in other stories from New York? See our varied interviews in the city here. Thanks Quy and Avril for showing us your home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
This portrait is part of our collaboration with USM Modular Furniture. See more of Avril and Quy’s home and other unique individuals we’ve profiled on the Personalities by USM website.