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Putting the condom in its rightful place

Lan Phuong, Vietnam's Next Top Model 2013 contestant, poses in a rubber dress designed for a campaign to normalize condoms. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Minh Tuan

A man walked into a drugstore, keeping his head low, as though he did not want to be seen.

He did this although he was already wearing a facemask.

"He looked like he was going to steal something," said Nguyen Minh Tuan.

"Turned out he just wanted to buy a condom," Tuan added, recalling an incident at a pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh City years ago.

Tuan, 26, was sufficiently motivated by that incident to start his condom fashion project, which, in its third and final year now, has won widespread attention and hopefully, achieve his goal of making people less prejudiced about condoms.

The "Normalizing condoms" campaign was initially Tuan's graduation work as a graphics design student at Van Lang private university in the city.

He won an "excellent" grade for a video presentation of model Quynh Trang in a condom costume, which was designed by a friend. He had to buy 700 condoms for the project.

"Many students have done graduation theses about condoms before, but they were calling for safe sex. My message was just that people should see condoms as normal, then other things can come later."

The slogan of the campaign is: "Be normal to live, love and be happy."

Tuan said he had been thinking about how to send out that message and decided that clothes were the best tool, for its visual effect.

He used to work part-time as a correspondent and had some connection with showbiz figures that he used to invite Trang to present his condom piece.

"She was hesitant at first, thinking about merging her image with all the condoms. It took some time to persuade her that she could help bring about some change."

Tuan, now working for a digital company in HCMC, said he wanted to work on a thesis that had real value.

 Nguyen Minh Tuan

"University graduation theses in Vietnam generally have little value in reality, and I didn't want to do something useless."

Far from being useless, his thesis project has went far beyond the confines of his college campus.

In a country where virginity is still a major factor in judging a woman's quality and sex before marriage is bigger than a taboo, a project befriending condoms quickly found its way into the media spotlight.

A press briefing on October 17 at We Lounge café in the city to introduce the project's latest collection, "Condom fashion mix," was attended by many newspapers, television stations and several dozen young people. "So much more than I expected," Tuan said.

We Lounge agreed to provide the venue for the project's fashion shows free of charge, including a 15-minute parade at the briefing, where models including Lan Phuong, prominent contestant at Vietnam's Next Top Model competition, introduced seven costumes designed by Quy Cao, a Van Lang college student, made with 25,000 condoms of Japanese brand True-X, courtesy sponsorship from the product's HCMC-based distributor.

The celebrities also showed off the condoms for free.

Last year, only one costume design was made, with 2,000 condoms, and it was worn by Tra My, first runner-up of Vietnam's Next Top Model 2012.

Phan Thi Mo, who was among the top 5 finishers at Miss Vietnam 2012, and several actors and actresses also posed for photos, wearing different graphic condom costumes.

Huong Giang, who was in the top four spots at the Vietnam Idol contest last year, and had earned fame after coming out as a transgender artist, joined the project this year by bringing back last year's dress.

Giang told Tuoi Tre she has had no hesitation in joining the project. She said some people would look on it as a crude modern thing, "but it's also a civilized one."

"I think people should stop feeling shy when talking about these (sex-related) issues, especially when it helps educate young people, make us more responsible."

Tuan said he tried to multiply the number of models this year as it is the last stage of the project and he wants it to end on a high.

He has applied for a Vietnamese Guinness record for a fashion collection using condoms.

The collection will be introduced widely to the public at a Runway Condom Fashion Show 2013 this November, and is also scheduled to show up at several universities in HCMC.

A musical performance featuring the collection will be held to raise money for ethnic minority children in the Central Highlands, and a photo book covering three years of the project will be published later this year with part of the proceedings going to HIV-infected children.

Le Tu Phuong, deputy director of Thanh An Company, which distributes True-X in Vietnam, said he had heard about Tuan's project since its first days in 2011 and was aware of its potential influence on the community.

"Many people in Asia, particularly Vietnam, still regard condoms as a sensitive, embarrassing topic. So ideas like Tuan's are very necessary."

Phuong said Tuan's is the first project of its kind that his company has partnered with. He praised the integration of condoms into fashion, saying it's the fastest way to make people comfortable with the image of condoms.

Tuan said he aimed to make people think about condoms as a daily thing, "just like you look at a fashion collection and see it as beautiful."

He said he knew about similar condom fashion shows in the US and China, but their messages were set in different cultures, and "normalizing condoms" is something uniquely Vietnamese.

He said his friends, though supportive of his initiative, have questioned his long-term commitment to the project. "I told them I wanted the project to burst out as big as it can."

Tuan said he will turn the project into a different direction in 2014, as people would have got bored with condoms after three years. Details will be announced during condom fashion events later this year, he said.

The migrant from the central province of Quang Binh said he received a lot of encouragement from home, especially his mother.

His recent press briefing was held while typhoon Nari called on Quang Binh, which was also the hardest hit province during the landfall of typhoon Wutip two weeks earlier.

"I had double anxiety, about the event here and things at home. Then my mother told me on the phone it's not a big deal, that they've got used to typhoons.

"She asked me to stay focused and make people get used to my work."

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