Designing a Happy Ending

Kristy Eckert

Legendary designer Tommy Hilfiger strutted into the middle of the fashion show chaos-his charcoal turtleneck perfectly fitted beneath a crisp navy suit-and hugged his daughter, Ally. Then, he turned to Ally's business partner, fellow designer Nary Manivong (who proudly donned a scarlet Ohio State T-shirt) and embraced him just as warmly.

"Everyone over here!" a photographer shouted.

The trio smiled as paparazzi snapped away.

"This is our moment to enjoy, celebrate," Manivong said. "I'm feeling good. I'm excited. I'm happy."

It was a scene once unthinkable.

Manivong, 28, grew up in the projects on the east side of Columbus, the son of abusive parents who abandoned him by high school.

Still, the homeless kid, who couldn't afford anything but secondhand clothes, had big fashion dreams. A kind-hearted principal, notable teachers and a local stylist nurtured them. So after he improbably graduated from Walnut Ridge High School in 2000, Manivong left for New York City.

He slaved at odd jobs and worked menial fashion gigs for free, spending spare time creating his own collection. Eventually his designs drew enough respect to put together a show for one Fashion Week, then another. He sold pieces online and in three boutiques. But he was still working at a restaurant and boutique to pay his bills. During one frustrating period, he discovered the book "The Secret"-and read it seven times in one week. Slowly, he garnered more and more buzz.

Then, he and Ally Hilfiger, who he had met at a dinner party, decided to create a line of their own, called NAHM. (It's his initials on either side, hers in the middle.) They built a team. They got some press. And they even secured a wow-worthy critique with Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

This past February, the duo debuted their upscale, edgy women's dresses during Fashion Week. It was exciting-electric. But even then, Manivong's Midwest morals are what petite fireball Ally Hilfiger wanted to talk about.

"Nary has one of the most kind souls," she said, loudly, above the noise during the show. "He's one of the most grounded, spirited, driven people I've ever met. …He keeps me inspired."

Her father echoed the sentiment.

"Nary's incredible. He's an amazing talent. He's a very hard worker," Tommy Hilfiger said. "The fact he's done what he's done is really outrageous."

Richard Hammons, Manivong's Walnut Ridge principal, traveled to New York with his wife, daughter and granddaughter for the show. The unofficial adoptive family looked on with pride.

"He has that inner strength," Hammons said. "He doesn't take no for an answer."

Laura Baciu, the stylist who has long mentored Manivong, told a producer friend that the touching tale would make a great documentary. "Dressed" was released in theaters earlier this year.

Now, the proud Buckeye native is relishing his success. He's fielding calls from stores in London, Paris, Dubai and beyond, interested in potentially carrying NAHM dresses, which retail for $495 to $1,000.

And, thankfully, he doesn't have to juggle any other jobs in the meantime.

"It's no longer a dream," Manivong said. "It's this whole endless possibility now."

Photo by: Will Shilling

A chat with Nary Manivong

CS: You put on your first show at age 17 in the Short North. What were the styles like?

MN: It was really just grungy, rock 'n' roll. It was pretty much all over the place. I look back at it now and am like, "What was I thinking?" So I've definitely grown up.

CS: How do you describe your style today?

MN: I like feminine and clean. Some of the designers I admire are Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene, Thakoon, Proenza Schouler. There's a sensibility to their clothing and the way they design.

CS: What was it like meeting Vogue editor Anna Wintour?

MN: I was very nervous. I'm sitting there, and I was like, "Wow." Sitting in her office was surreal. It was just one of those moments when you're taking it all in. (She advised us to) respect other designers, focus on relationships. She was pleased (with our pieces). Wished us the best of luck.

CS: You're working on getting your line into more specialty boutiques. There aren't any Columbus stores that carry it now, but I know you hope that happens eventually.

MN: I even dream of having my own freestanding boutique here.

CS: How is life different now?

MN: I get to enjoy it.