The Cykochik line showcases bold, beautiful, sleek style that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Neighborhood-rooted, it’s globally inspired, bullish as a business, compassionate in every component and boasts beaucoup collaborators and fans. The same can be said for Cykochik founder Nikki Duong Koenig, whose aerodynamic coiffure and polished, color-punctuated wardrobe speaks to fashion lovers. (“Trust me, you want every product I produce,” her personal aesthetics assure.) Behind her relaxed, inviting smile and manner, her mind blooms ideas at breakneck pace. A Vietnamese refugee at age 3, Koenig was an undergrad when she launched Cykochik Custom Handbags. It is more than a corporation, she believes. It’s part of a mission to make the world a better place. Sound idealistic? Take a moment; hear her out. She might make you a believer.
How did childhood experiences affect your level of social awareness, creativity and energy?
I was born in South Vietnam and my parents fled, as political refugees, when I was 3. We were what they called “boat people.” We were detained in Thailand, which is where we lived three years in refugee camps before we were accepted to immigrate to the United States. Since childhood, maybe it was the Buddhist influence, I have had a passion for art, animals, social justice and the environment, and that has grown into my desire to create a more sustainable and happy world for all living beings. I grew up in the Dallas area, studied advertising and art at Southern Methodist University, and in 2003, in my dorm room, I created Cykochik Custom Handbags. After graduation, I moved to Manhattan to work as a commercial art director. After four years, I moved back to Dallas [Lake Highlands] to be closer to my boyfriend [now husband] and my family.
Did you imagine Cykochik would grow into such an enterprise?
I had no intentions of making it the venture it is today. I was making art, expressing myself through handbags and fashion. But, still, while working fulltime at global advertising agencies, and attending the Fashion Institute of Technology part time, I kept working on it. Cykochik became a business very slowly, over a decade. I had no official business education, so I’ve had to learn on the job for the past 14 years. As an entrepreneur, I have to wear many hats at the same time. I now have help with the non-creative aspects of the business so that I can focus on design and development. For me, it officially became a fulltime business in 2013, when I successfully crowdfunded more than $10,000 to launch the Artist Series 3 collection.
What is the Artist Series?
I knew a lot of artists, and I had a vision to turn Cykochik into a social, collaborative community of artists, artisans and art patrons from around the world. So, for example, I chose six talented artists for Series 3 and each was tasked to design a tote bag, laptop sleeve and clutch. Then our Facebook fans voted on their favorite designs, which is how we still narrow down what we produce. Artists Series 4 features all women: Jody Pham, Patricia Rodriguez from Oak Cliff, and Michelle White. I usually work directly with the artists on the design or give them a theme. All of our collaborating artists receive 10 percent royalties for their designs.
And the Causes collections?
Those are our collections that benefit charities we believe are making the world a better place for people, animals and our planet. We collaborate and create exclusive handbags for them and donate a portion of the sales to their mission.
One big cause for you is veganism …
Veganism is a conscientious lifestyle that’s so important right now, to combat the human-caused illnesses, climate change, pollution, water scarcity, species extinctions, social conflicts and many global issues. Cykochik has been vegan, cruelty-free, sweatshop free, eco-friendly, made in America since the onset, before it was a trend. Our philosophy has always been, express individualism without harming others in the process. Every aspect of our business stems from that core value. I feel a responsibility to speak up for the environment and animals that are being abused in the fashion industry. I highly recommend the documentary “Cowspiracy” for more information regarding the environmental impact of our food choices.
How vegan friendly is Dallas?
Since I returned in 2009 I see a city that’s grown physically, economically and culturally. I love how vegan friendly Dallas is becoming, with all the new vegan restaurants, like V-Eats Modern Vegan at Trinity Groves, Nature’s Plate in Lake Highlands … Also, the vegan business community is growing with new businesses like The Harvest Hands, V Market, Kat Mendenhall, and so many others that can be found at the annual Texas Veggie Fair in the fall.
How challenging is it to make a fashion product without using animal material?
It is harder and more expensive to source quality materials that are both animal-free and eco-friendly. And a challenge for us to find manufactures and partners to work with who share our philosophy, but it’s a blessing when we do find them. On the consumer side, we try hard to educate the market about the impact that fashion manufacturing has on people, animals, the environment. I am optimistic that consumers will become more vegan and eco-friendly and demand goods that are too.
Would you say this is a tough social climate right now for those with passions such as environmentalism, veganism, compassion?
The current political and social climate is actually strengthening our company and community in our shared causes. I feel a deeper sense of responsibility to advocate and speak up louder through Cykochik, because we have to be socially and politically active to create change.
I recently visited an ethnic minority tribe in the south central highlands of Vietnam, near where my family is from, to source some of their beautiful handwoven textiles for Cykochik’s next collection. I wanted to help these marginalized women by supporting them, their family and their traditional craft.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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