By Wil Peterson
Impeccable style, effortless sophistication, and flair to spare are hallmarks of the Aquatalis brand. Over the past seven years, Vietnamese creative duo Alex Nguyen and Quan Pham have amassed devoted followers and dedicated repeat customers by offering a breathtaking array of doll fashions, faces and, most recently, their very own magnificent miniature muse, the stunning Lam. Along the way, they’ve earned a reputation for envisioning and executing ideas bearing a signature aesthetic that is both classic and contemporary.
Marty Jones of Caledonia, Mississippi, has been addicted to Aquatalis designs and repaints for several years. “I love Aquatalis! The guys are so nice and very talented! Clothes are very stylish and well-made. The faces are exquisite,” she said. “I found them on Etsy when I saw a beautiful dress covered in flowers, a style I had been wanting for a while. I’ve admired their designs and repaints, and have been buying for years now. At first I was buying the lovely clothes, but I started noticing their repaints and was smitten. I’ve got quite a few repaints now!”
“Dalat is one of the most beautiful destinations of Vietnam, located 4,900 feet above sea level,” Pham said. “It’s known as a gift of nature since it has four seasons in a day — yes, in a day! You can have spring in the morning, summer at noon, autumn in the afternoon, and winter at night. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? And Dalat is also where Lam was born.” Lam’s outfits for her return to her hometown include an oufit made of blue brocade with gold embroidery by Hoang Anh Khoi.
While their friendship was instantaneous, Nguyen and Pham — who collect and are inspired by Barbie, Fashion Royalty, 16-inch, vintage, porcelain, and Asian ball-jointed doll (BJD) beauties — initially weren’t focused on doll-scale artistry as a profession. “We met each other nine years ago at a doll meet up. We were best friends in the beginning, and after one year, we started our relationship and opened our bridal store in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “Our brand was started as a wedding service. I made the gowns, and Quan was the makeup artist. The business was quite good, but when customers came to our store, they wanted to buy our displayed dolls, also. So we decided to expand a little, and our doll career started that way.”
Transitioning from full-time work on bridal gowns to their own eventual fashion BJD line seemed inevitable for the duo. “Collecting dolls is our hobby, therefore, we got into the doll world very naturally,” Nguyen said. “Making doll fashions, makeup, and hair styles was just like our work routine. And we are all self-taught, to be honest. After one year, seeing the potential of selling dolls and collectibles, we decided to close our bridal store and concentrated on selling goods online worldwide.”
For Aquatalis’ second Lam BJD release, she visits Phu Quoc — The Jade island — “the largest and most beautiful island of Vietnam,” Pham said. She stays at a resort at the edge of Khem Beach, and came prepared with swimwear, beach wear, and other outfits and accessories geared towards the tropical sunshine.
Their company name, Aquatalis, incorporates elements of both designer’s names. They launched the line by selling lavish, intricately designed fashions created by Alex, while Quan produced startlingly realistic repaints. Word of mouth among collectors quickly spread. “In our early years, we used social media for the new customers to get to know us, mostly by images,” Pham said. “After a few orders, we had our loyal buyers, and luckily, we had new collectors’ friends, as well. We tried to sell everything that we could actually make. It was a very good start, we believe.”
Aquatalis regularly offers one-of-a-kind (OOAK) fashions and full-service repaints of various-sized dolls via Facebook, Instagram, and Etsy. Pham can complete a repaint in two to three hours. Meanwhile, Nguyen constantly amasses material for potential designs. “I get my fabrics and other materials everywhere that I go, like the local market, from vacation trips, even from the online stores,” he said. “I have a storeroom to keep all of them. I love collecting them, to be honest, and it’s very convenient for sudden designs. Usually, it takes from hours to days to finish a fashion, depending on the design.”
“In our Asian culture, red is a symbol of luck, happiness, and prosperity,” Pham said. “Especially on New Year’s Day, we use a lot of red color as a prayer for the best to ourselves and our family. Therefore, we want Lam to represent the wish through her bright red outfit.”
After years of designing for and repainting dolls from other lines, Nguyen and Pham were increasingly determined to create their own high-fashion BJD. They spent three years designing and fine-tuning their collective vision until both were satisfied. The stunning result is Lam, a 16.5-inch resin doll with more than 19 points of articulation. Lam’s debut version, Dalat Holiday, was released in October 2020, and the limited edition of 15 gift sets immediately sold out. Another version, Phu Quoc Lam, followed shortly afterward, and a third is scheduled to appear in March 2021.
“Lam means ‘blue’ in Vietnamese. The color of clear water under the sky represents peace, serenity, freedom, and inspiration. That’s the reason why we chose that name for her,” Nguyen explained. “Lam is the most special face which keeps recurring in our mind, and luckily, she is now a reality from the sketch. We don’t mean to specify any character for Lam, though. We’d love to see how the collectors think about her — isn’t it more interesting? We will keep working on our dolls to make them better day by day.”
“This is Lam’s first debut look in the concept The Spring of Youth,” Pham said. “Lam is just like a goddess spending the afternoon wandering around her secret garden and playing with the water of immortality.”
“Thinking about the height and proportions was the hardest part of her creation, besides the sculpts and details,” Pham added. “But after all, we decided to follow our imagination about our dream girl.”
Other characters are on the duo’s radar. Tweaks and upgrades to the current physique they favor also are viable possibilities. “We have new faces, too, but they are currently in process,” Nguyen said. “The ideal standard of beauty changes frequently, and we’d love to keep our doll updated because we know that the collectors love the new.”
In addition to the doll sets, Aquatalis has released a variety of fashions for Lam. Click on any image below to open a slideshow:
One constant for Nguyen and Pham is the gratitude they feel toward devoted collectors who helped make their doll-centric dreams a reality. “Dear customers and friends, you are the reason for us to keep moving forward and trying our best to create,” they said. “We’re sending all the love to you through our works!”