Cicily Kong stitches hip cocktail dresses.

Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

Hmong-American designers ring in New Year

  • Article by: CHRISTY DeSMITH
  • December 10, 2008 - 1:23 PM

They don't have their own fragrances. They haven't cracked the Minneapolis fashion establishment. But making clothes is an important part of their heritage, so some Hmong designers are prepared to show off their skills at an unusual runway event.

The premiere Origins Fashion Show will be a small component of the 10th annual Hmong American New Year, a large event at the Metrodome this weekend. The festival expects to attract upwards of 15,000 visitors with traditional dancing, singing, beauty pageants and, of course, plentiful cuisine. But organizers wanted to lure more college-aged folks. In July, they struck on the idea of an urban fashion show, after the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) sponsored the Fresh Traditions Fashion Show at the Varsity Theatre in Minneapolis. This "Project Runway"-style event challenged seven clothing designers to incorporate traditional Hmong stitching and textiles into artful, modern looks.

One of the Fresh Traditions participants was Mai Moua, a designer whose work draws heavily on vintage dresses and romantic detailing. Event planners from the Hmong American New Year asked her to help spearhead the inaugural Origins Fashion Show.

According to Moua, a Minnesota native who spoke by phone from her new home in Los Angeles, this will be an ideal setting for fashion: "The Hmong New Year is supposed to be about getting together, but people really want to show off their new outfits," she explained. "People wear these beautifully cross-stitched outfits. It's all handmade."

Moua asked participating Origins designers to weave customary Hmong elements with their contemporary, often edgy outfits. Some draw on the palette of the Hmong New Year, including hot pink, emerald green and royal blue. Others demonstrate serious sewing prowess by using difficult Hmong techniques -- most notably, cross-stitching and reverse appliqué. The sole menswear designer, California-based Vam Moua, takes a novel approach: He uses graphic design to bestow his funky, urban tees with screen-printed renditions of traditional Hmong needlework.

Seven designers -- four of whom live in St. Paul -- will present sophisticated, urban wear with these ever-so-subtle Hmong flourishes. We got a sneak peek at the local designers' funky frocks and wonderfully whirling skirts.

Oskar Ly

A spunky 24-year-old with an asymmetrical haircut, Ly works in a carpeted basement crammed with pincushions, silk flowers, colored pencils and various textiles. In one corner of the room, a garbage bag spilled with tulle; another housed a single bolt of leopard-print cotton. When she's not tossing textiles about the floor, Ly splits her time as a makeup artist, clothing stylist, hip-hop musician and University of Minnesota student.

She proudly wrapped a dress form with the signature outfit from her collection, Hybrid Couture, a line of clothing that draws from Hmong, Victorian and contemporary American influences. While we marveled at the three-piece outfit's long, fitted mermaid skirt, we were most enamored of the blouse: a slinky silk tank with a cutout back. Best of all, a few strips of translucent purple fabric had been appropriated from a Hmong turban wrap to give the bodice a lacy embellishment.

Linda Thao

A 26-year-old designer who also works in retail, Thao goes for "an elegant look that's still funky." Her signature party dress is made from silks in hot pink and green, the colors of the New Year's costume. She also incorporates the painstaking pleats of a traditional Hmong skirt.

Cicily Kong

Stylish, energetic and just 19, Kong learned to sew from her mom and two grandmothers. She's destined for Crown College in the fall. Meanwhile, she's hard at work stitching an array of structured cocktail dresses she describes as "hip, modern and trendy."

Pa Thao

Thao, 35, is the only professional, full-time designer of the bunch. She calls her company PFT Couture and specializes in custom wedding dresses and other bridal gowns. On this occasion, she showed off a duchess silk-satin number that exuded glamour ("Architecture" goes for about $1,500; check for details). This couture dress doesn't have any overt Hmong influences, aside from what Thao calls "the old, meticulous ways of construction." But she promises plenty of Hmong detailing from her other runway looks: One dress has a layer of coin fringe; another is made from the deconstructed fragments of traditional, brightly colored skirts.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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