June 17th, 2006 12:56 EST
For Vietnamese Immigrant, Fashion Design Is American Dream By Lauren Monsen
Washington -- When members of a Vietnamese immigrant family settled in Houston in 1979, they were seeking a better life than the one they had left behind, just like countless immigrants who preceded them to the United States.
The Dao family, which had crossed from Vietnam into neighboring Laos and endured a Laotian prison camp to reach the United States, viewed education as the portal to success in its adopted country. The hardworking parents who headed the Dao family raised their eight daughters to aim high, both academically and professionally.
Chloe Dao, the sixth daughter, recalled that she and her sisters were steered by their parents toward careers in medicine or law. But at an early age, Dao developed an interest in fashion design, a field that her parents viewed skeptically. The glamorous but fiercely competitive world of high fashion is powerfully attractive to many clothes-obsessed young girls; in the 1980s the young newcomer to Houston found the lure irresistible.
After discovering CNN's weekly television program Style With Elsa Klensch, Dao became mesmerized by the dazzling couture creations on the runways of New York, Paris, London and Milan, Italy. Her parents viewed her interest as a diversion rather than a potential vocation, but Dao had other ideas.
After graduating from secondary school, she enrolled in the business-marketing program at the University of Houston and endured what she describes as 18 months of acute boredom. Dao abandoned marketing in favor of the design program at Houston Community College, much to the dismay of her parents and siblings.
With just one semester of design classes in Houston, she traveled to New York and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She completed an associate's degree in patternmaking in 1994 and then worked her way through a series of jobs in the fashion industry. She learned from seasoned professionals about the details and techniques of haute couture and, perhaps as important, learned to run a small business.
Dao returned to Houston, where she began to design her own line of clothing and made plans to open her own boutique, having demonstrated to herself and to her family she had the requisite talent, determination and discipline to succeed in a relentlessly cutthroat profession. Her boutique -- named "Lot 8" for the eight Dao sisters -- opened in 2000 with the full support of her family. The shop quickly gained popularity.
In 2005, Dao entered a competition sponsored by the cable television channel Bravo. The contest, televised as Project Runway, was hosted by model Heidi Klum and featured the creations of 16 young designers. Each week their efforts were judged by Klum and other fashion experts, with the least successful designers eliminated each week until only three contenders remained. Those three faced off once again during New York Fashion Week in February to determine the winner of Project Runway.
Throughout the competition, Dao earned praise for sophisticated creations that blended an urban sensibility with fluid, graceful lines. Her expert draping and tailoring drew raves from the judges, and the drama of the competition kept viewers riveted. Through it all, Dao remained unflappable, good-naturedly sparring with her fellow contestants as she continued to win fans with her polished daytime ensembles and her sinuous evening gowns.
As a finalist, Dao competed for a new car and $100,000 in seed money to develop her own line of clothing. In addition, the winner's designs would appear in an issue of ELLE magazine, providing invaluable publicity for an ambitious young entrepreneur.
Once the contestants had sent their models down the runway for one final turn, the judges conferred and delivered their final decision: After 13 weeks, Dao was the winner of Project Runway.
For Dao, the benefits of victory likely will be significant. The media attention is fueling consumer demand for her clothing, her business is poised to expand beyond its Houston base, and Dao now fields interview requests as she juggles the demands of a thriving fashion enterprise.
Dao’s new status is already reflected in the growth of Lot 8. “The boutique doubled in size, and now includes a hair salon,” she told the Washington File in a June 15 interview. “We are also opening our online boutique at the end of June,” she said, adding, “I plan to open a few more Lot 8 boutiques/salons around the country in the next couple of years.”
Asked to describe her approach to fashion, Dao said: “My design philosophy is ‘classic trendy.’ I like to make clothes that make a woman look and feel modern, but the clothes will never be dated or go out of style.” The secret to her label’s appeal is that her designs are “young, sexy, and modern, yet timeless,” she said.
Being formally recognized by her peers in the fashion industry and singled out as a rising talent in her field is a compelling validation of Dao's lifelong dream of a fashion career. That dream she embraced as a child, in swirling visions of silk chiffon, is now her daily existence.
Behind the dream job in fashion is the reality of a gifted designer whose work ethic came straight from her immigrant parents: in short, a classic American success story, with a very stylish twist.
For more information about life in the United States, see U.S. Life and Culture.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)