in her shoes

The Activist Who Sees Fashion As a Source of Power

Photo: Gabriela Herman

Amanda Nguyen thought she’d be an astronaut. But then, while studying at Harvard University, she was raped. When Nguyen tried to navigate the legal system, she found countless ways that it failed survivors. Not only would a trial be long and costly, but her rape kit would be destroyed after six months if she didn’t file an extension that would force her to relive the traumatic experience.

The experience inspired her to start Rise, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of survivors. It also drove her to lobby for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which was passed in 2016. The legislation closes one crucial loophole, mandating that evidence from rape kits must be preserved without cost for the duration of the statue of limitations.

Nguyen has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work, but she’s far from done. This past September, she held a town hall during the United Nations General Assembly where survivors from around the world, including those from the Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar, and R. Kelly cases, came to speak about their experiences. And while they’ve successfully passed 25 laws across the country, Nguyen and her team are working to get survivors’ rights bills passed globally, too.

One look at Nguyen’s Instagram page confirms that fashion is a major hobby for her — and, she’d argue, a tool that allows her to do her job better. Below, she talks to the Cut about the art of self-presentation, the power of clothes, and why she still wants to go to space someday.

Photo: Gabriela Herman

On fashion and social justice: Fashion could be criticized as being irrelevant and frivolous, but I disagree. It’s always been something I’m passionate about. It’s armor, it’s art, it signals how you want to be seen. Former secretary of State Madeline Albright used fashion to show how she was intending to negotiate at meetings. Hillary Clinton’s white suit signaled an homage to the suffragette movement when she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. Clothing is interwoven into our everyday lives. It is a utility — something we cannot live without. That’s the opposite of frivolous.

On the dual meanings of “What were you wearing”?: During Fashion Week, one of the most common questions that you hear is “What did you wear?” It’s a fun, empowering statement. This same question, however, is inappropriately asked to survivors after an assault. As a survivor who loves fashion, I’ve heard this question in both contexts. The exact same words create drastically different meanings and feelings. I want to use fashion to empower survivors, and everyone who feels like they may not belong.

On dressing for her days: I like to plan my looks accordingly, especially if I’m running from meeting to meeting. I won’t make outfit changes. That said, I do dress depending on the venue and event. If I’m speaking in front of Congress or at the United Nations, I’ll be more formal but still representative of my personal style, like when I wore this pink tweed blazer and matching skirt.

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On who she dresses for: I like to describe the type of image I want to project as “civil rights astronaut.” I interned at NASA and I’m still deeply engaged with the science community — I go to rocket launches every year! I hope to someday be in a space mission. For now, I’m working to raise awareness and fight for sexual-assault rights. And to do that, I dress for myself. Fashion provides agency. I choose my outfits to make me feel confident. I’ve been really lucky to have the support of brands like Gucci, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Jonathan Simkhai.

On traveling: I’m almost always on a plane headed to a speaking engagement, so I’ve gotten good at consolidating everything into one carry-on bag. I’ve learned to do laundry on the road rather than pack for multiple weeks at a time. During my long-distance flights I usually wear a flight suit onesie because I LOVE SPACE.

On her everyday shoes: My favorites are by United Nude — I love their innovative styles. They’re the ones I reach for when I’m at speaking engagements or when I’m fighting for rights in Congress or at the United Nations. If I’m dressed more casually I’ll reach for my Allbirds — they’re extremely comfortable and help me get through full days of travel across the country.

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On the things that bring her joy: I never have a normal 9 to 5 schedule, so instead of traditional weekends I incorporate the things that bring me joy into my day. It could be anything from visiting a museum between meetings to finding time to write on the plane. You don’t have to sacrifice your joy to work in this space — if Elon Musk can do Tesla, SpaceX, and PayPal, then I can run my company and still love fashion, art, and space!

On her biggest challenge: When people see me, they perceive a young woman of color — not exactly in line with their perception of what a successful lawmaker or even CEO should look like. But this is what a CEO looks like! We’re seeing people from all backgrounds in higher office because society is becoming more equitable.

On the last three things she bought: I got Lucas PawPaws Lip Balm, an antique lighter for my candles, and a custom wax seal.

On the item that gives her confidence: I definitely still get nervous before big presentations! But courage isn’t about having no fear — it’s about having fear but plowing through it regardless. There are two bracelets I wear that survivors have given me on my travels. They remind me how important this work is to them, and to millions of others too.

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The Activist Who Sees Fashion As a Source of Power