`Runway’ success: Designer Chloe Dao had work cut out

July 12, 2006

  Posted on Sun, May. 07, 2006

By Nerissa Pacio
Mercury News
There is one piece of advice Chloe Dao would give to aspiring Asian-American artists: “Don’t listen to your parents.”

That is, after all, how the 34-year-old Vietnamese-American refugee became a successful fashion designer, entrepreneur and winner of last season’s “Project Runway,” the Bravo channel’s popular reality series that takes place in New York’s fashion world.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Dao, whose traditional parents urged her from a young age to become a doctor, despite her call to fashion, “I love my mom and dad. But you have to follow your dreams. You have to live for what you want to do.”

Dao, who lives in Houston, was in San Jose recently making an appearance at the Museum of Quilts and Textiles’ opening of its latest exhibit, “Ao Dai: A Modern Design Coming of Age.”

Wearing a layered green chiffon cocktail dress and open-toed platforms that boosted her 4-foot-11-inch frame to just over 5 feet, Dao toured the gallery of traditional Vietnamese garments with her mother, Hue Thuc Luong.

A crowd of about 50 people, mostly from the local Vietnamese arts community, eagerly greeted Dao, who later took center stage for a Q&A about her stint on reality TV and her flourishing career. Many of the guests, dressed in colorful ao dais, snacked on fresh spring rolls and took photos of the guest of honor.

“I’m the superstar of the Vietnamese community right now, the golden child, and it’s very cool,” says Dao of her newfound role model status. “When I talk to young people, I tell them I’m living proof that this is what it’s about in America. There are so many career opportunities here — you should let your passion lead you. My mom jokes around saying, `You literally defied my wishes, and now look — you’re popular!’ ”

Dao not only followed her dreams, but she’s also living them with her win on “Project Runway.”

The victory gave her $100,000 in seed money toward her own clothing line, an apprenticeship with the design team at Banana Republic, a spread in Elle magazine and a $24,000 Saturn Sky Roadster. It has also presented a flurry of national media attention and increased traffic into Lot 8, the Houston boutique that carries her designs, co-owned by her sister and business partner, Sydney Dao.

“Things haven’t drastically changed, but they’re not exactly the same,” Dao says. “People recognize me now. I have to brush my hair when I go out of the house.”

The cult show, which is now casting its third season, is a behind-the-scenes look into the fashion industry. It follows a group of aspiring designers in various creative challenges. In each episode, a panel of industry insiders — including designer Michael Kors, supermodel Heidi Klum and Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia — deems who did the best job and eliminates the weakest contestant.

Dao’s memorable designs and professionalism kept her in the running week to week, Garcia says. “She was very consistent with her work. It was always impeccable and always delivered. I don’t remember one episode where she didn’t make a good impression.”

The show has attracted a loyal following because “it’s about genuine talent,” Kors says. “It’s not about eating bugs.”

It also mimics the fickle and harsh reality of the fashion business, he adds.

“It’s really about each challenge. You could be floating along doing well, but if you do something that’s just not right — then it’s goodbye.”

Since the series ended for the season, Dao has been hard at work creating an online sales business for her boutique, negotiating a pending deal for a line of special-edition jeans with a yet-to-be-named premium denim company, and making rounds on the press circuit.

She has appeared on the “Today” show with Katie Couric and has been featured in Women’s Wear Daily, People, Forbes and Lucky magazines, among others. Still, Dao has made it a point to stay true to her roots.

The weekend after her appearance in San Jose, she spoke at a conference on women in leadership at the Vietnamese American National Gala in San Francisco.

“Vietnamese people aren’t afraid of hard work,” Dao says. “It’s how we have succeeded in this country. Ultimately, it’s why our parents came.”

Born in Laos, Dao, her parents and seven sisters fled the war-torn country and spent time in a Thai family prison before moving to Dallas in 1979 with sponsorship from an uncle. A year later, the family settled in Houston, where her parents owned dry cleaning, food service and tailoring businesses. Seeing her parents’ example instilled a solid work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit in her, she says.

So far, Dao’s drive has paid off. What began as an after-school hobby of making jewelry, Barbie outfits and her own prom dress evolved into a full-fledged fashion design career.

She opened her boutique, named after the eight Dao sisters, in 2000 and is already planning for an expansion. She’s also working on more of her own designs, which she’ll sell in Lot 8.

But even after racking up accomplishments — from a degree in pattern-making from the Fashion Institute of Technology to an eight-year run working at fashion houses in New York to her “Project Runway” win — Dao says she still has a ways to go.

Everything is next,” Dao says. “I’m working on my next collection. I’m dying to do a sportswear collection. Eventually I could do menswear. You’ll definitely see me in fashion for a long, long time.”

Contact Nerissa Pacio at npacio@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5827.

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