Fresh Traditions Hmong fashion show joins MNFashion Week

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This Friday Fresh Traditions, the annual fashion-show fundraiser for the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), joins MNFashion Week, offering the only runway show in the Twin Cities that features all Hmong designers.

The event began five years ago when a group of Hmong designers approached CHAT in hopes to create a platform to showcase their work. According to Oskar Lee, who does public relations for the organization, the decision to become a fashion designer is a bold one for someone from the Hmong community. "Our parents encourage us to have strong, successful careers, but fashion is rarely one of those visions," he says. Still, Hmong culture has a tradition of making intricate clothing from rich fabrics. "At a very young age, we are exposed to the arts and culture of paj ntaub, Hmong hand embroidery, often in forms of special-occasion garments worn at the Hmong New Year or for when we marry," says Lee, "but also in story cloths about our culture, history, and traditions."

For the Fresh Traditions show, designers have complete control over their collection's vision, styling, models (all Asian), and runway music, but are also challenged to create one outfit made of five traditional Hmong fabrics: a neon pink, neon green, black velvet, black satin, and a deep navy satin.
While the Fresh Traditions designers are all Hmong, they come from quite a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. Some have design degrees and training, others in art, and some are giving fashion a first try.

Marlena Thao is one of the more experienced designers being featured, having had six runway shows under her belt at venues such as Epic Nightclub, Taj Salon, and the U of M, among others. Thao has been sewing since middle school. She took sewing classes in high school, and was delighted when she found out you could major in fashion design. She enrolled in the U of M's apparel design program, but after two years she decided to transfer to something smaller, attending MCTC for a semester. She then decided that she wanted to branch off and do what she wanted to do: runway shows. She took a year off from school and focused on what she loved doing. Thao had a friend who did Fresh Traditions last year, which inspired and motivated her to apply for this year.

Her line is based on a 1940s pin-up theme. "I wanted to go for more sexiness and sassiness," she says. "I like to work with a lot of feminine clothes. I'm bringing in a lot of different pieces, to show how versatile I am."

For Shai Chang, this will be her first fashion show, although last year she was an assistant to designer Chong Moua. She studied fashion at UW Stout. Chang says that she is very drawn to black and white, so much of her designs will use those colors. "I love the contrast," she says, "even though there's two colors, you can do a lot. The possibilities are endless."

Chang says that aside from the one requirement to design a look using the five fabrics, the designers were pretty much given free reign to do what they wanted.

Chang enjoyed the challenge of creating an outfit out of the traditional fabrics, designing something new out of something old, "without making it look too literal and from the past," she says.

Chang watches Project Runway and America's Top Model in order to learn from what other folks in the field are doing. "I want to be a freelance designer," she says. "It gives me more of an opportunity to be creative. If you work for a company, you have to design for a specific target market. I don't want to be too restricted. I want to be able to step outside the box."

Eventually, Chang hopes to open up an online T-shirt company, because she finds that women's shirts tend to be not as interesting. "Many times the graphics for womens T-shirts are a little cheesy for me," she says. "They say, 'I love farmboys' or something like that. I'm always searching for graphic tees that have cool designs."

Chang is utilizing a number of graphic prints in her line this weekend, on T-shirts, as well as a dress. A lot of her graphics include skulls. "My line is kind of punk rock with an urban edge," she says.

Kao Lee Thao, whose background is in animation and painting, will also be participating for the first time as a designer, though in previous years she has exhibited her body art. This year, she received a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, and had plans to have models go down the runway with her paintings of Hmong folktales. However, she decided that she wanted to bring the paintings to life, and has been giving herself a crash course in sewing in order to create her collections, called Once Upon a Time.

"I just decided to push myself," she says. "I have no fashion background. I'm just an artist using this as a medium." Thao went to the Art Institute (AI). She now runs her own 3D animation company, and paints as well. In the future, she says her dream job would be costume designing for Cirque de Soleil.

In Thao's collection, each of the folktales tells a different story, and she casts each of the models as a character. For example, in Hmong Cinderella, the main character turns into a tree, her kids get trapped in a beehive, and her husband becomes a bird. In the design, Thao turns the model into a black-and-white bumblebee, with an animated beehive hairdo. She uses visual prosthetics, as well in a number of other pieces.

Thao says her training in 3D animation helped her build the designs. "It's more like an art project for me. 3D does help me visualize -- it's basically trial and error."


6 p.m. Friday, October 7
McNamara Alumni Center
200 Oak St. SE.
$15/$20 at the door
For VIP tickets, email

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