Editor’s note: Project Object’s brick-and-mortar shop closed Jan. 27, 2019, but they are still operating an online store. Visit their website for more information.
Seeking a unique gift for your favorite feminist? Look no further than Portland’s Project Object. Located on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, the pleasantly pink storefront reflects the shop’s aesthetic: distinctive, hip and fiercely feminine. Inside, shoppers peruse a chic collection of subtly subversive clothing, accessories and home goods. Expect “GRL PWR” tees, vagina-shaped rings, “cat lady” pins and zines about famous activists like Sylvia Rivera and Vandana Shiva.
“We carry pieces from badass people who empower within their own community, and who make things that also empower whoever sees them,” says T Ngu, founder of Project Object. Ngu knows a thing or two about empowerment herself — without it, her inspiring shop probably wouldn’t exist at all.
T NGU & UPPER METAL CLASS
Ngu was conceived in a Hong Kong refugee camp and raised in a series of diverse neighborhoods near Los Angeles. “I grew up around drugs and violence and shootings at night,” Ngu says, “but we also had a community of really awesome neighbors. We were all just trying to survive.”
As a young adult, Ngu studied fashion design and pursued jobs in a series of related industries — first clothing design, then wardrobe and styling, followed by a stint selling designer handbags. She was working at a production studio when she began making jewelry as a hobby.
“I started making things for myself, just for fun,” Ngu explains. “[My boss] was like, ‘Hey, can you make me a pair of these?’ After a while, people started asking me for more and more things, and it became a business.”
Shortly after moving to Portland with her husband in 2010, Ngu founded Upper Metal Class. The name of the minimalist jewelry line plays off her family’s middle class aspirations. “I wanted to make something that was affordable and beautiful at the same time,” explains Ngu.
Upper Metal Class features an array of earrings, necklaces and rings in the shape of skulls, snakes, lips, lightning bolts and even breasts. The “little boob rings,” as Ngu sometimes refers to them, began a theme that Project Object would later expand upon: celebrating femininity.
Opened in April 2017, Project Object showcases a selection of Upper Metal Class jewelry alongside items by talented artists across the country. “I decided to open a shop that encompasses all the things that I believe are important,” Ngu says. To that end, she specifically curates the shop to feature work made by women, people of color and LGBTQ+ designers. Pieces sometimes get political: past wares have included Planned Parenthood tote bags and ceramic cups with “Fuck Trump” written in 22-karat gold. But that’s to be expected; as the shop’s website explains: Project Object is “a project that stands up against issues we object to.”
In addition to its selection of retail goods, Project Object acts as a rotating pop-up gallery for female artists. Paintings and prints hang above shelves of stylish bags and patches. Meanwhile, the shop’s back wall functions as a canvas for a series of temporary murals. The ephemeral nature of the art installation means that there’s always a reason to return to the shop. Lucky visitors might even catch a featured artist’s opening reception, which may feature food, drinks and swag. The space hosts other events as well, including zine release parties, publishing workshops and celebrations for holidays like Día de los Muertos.
From Ngu’s perspective, these events are one of many ways that she gives back to the community. She also donates 5% of Project Object’s profits to domestic violence shelter Bradley Angle. Another 5% of profits is dedicated to a series of projects promoting — you guessed it — female empowerment. She even spends a few hours each week as a hospice volunteer.
“I think it’s very important to give back to the community,” Ngu explains. “My family were refugees in the Vietnam War, so they went through a lot just to stay alive. If it wasn’t for the people in America that sponsored our family to come here and helped my family learn English, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”
PLANNING A VISIT
Ready to visit Project Object? Ngu only has one employee, so chances are good that you’ll be able to meet the founder herself. “I’m here all the time; it’s like my home,” says Ngu. “I want people to feel welcome here.”