Chloe Dao enters her Heights studio wearing a wide smile. Her brown hair is pulled back and she’s wearing a black shorts jumper. She quickly launches her arm forward for a warm but firm handshake. A now internationally renowned fashion designer, Dao skyrocketed into the collective American consciousness in 2006, after winning Bravo’s Emmy-nominated Project Runway 2. She promptly fills a gargantuan mug with water before plopping into a folding chair.
“The biggest project I’m working on right now is Fashion Houston sponsored by Audi,” said the out- of-breath Dao. She’s referring to the Nov. 12–15 event featuring some of fashion’s hottest stars, such as Monique Lhuillier and Zac Posen. Dao’s show is Nov. 14 at Wortham Center.
Mannequins, in various stages of dress, and tools of the trade are scattered about the room. Dao is hard at work on this particular day cleaning and organizing the studio. One would assume this sort of drudgery is the hardest thing about being a fashion designer, but she is daunted by something else.
“The most challenging part is trying to balance the creative and the business,” she said. “[It’s about] understanding trends, understanding your customers. It’s not just pure designing.”
Since her Project Runway days, she has kept busy with the boutique Lot 8, which opened in 2000, and was renamed DAO Chloe DAO. In 2011, Dao launched a bridal collection. Another highlight of the past six years was a showing at the Smithsonian.
“It was all about Vietnamese heritage,” said Dao. “It told our success story. It was nice to be represented in that way. It shows you can come from nothing and be something. I actually had one of my gowns featured in the exhibition.”
Oh, and let’s not forget her three-year stint designing her Simply Chloe Dao line for QVC and a gig creating laptop cases for Nuo Tech.
“I’m launching my new print for Nuo,” she said. “It comes out [next year].”
Somehow, amidst all of that creating, Dao also found the time and energy to meet and marry her husband, Ken Pursley, with whom she enjoys playing tennis and going to the movies and the theater.
Then, there’s her guilty pleasure.
“I am really pathetic. I really love the Scrabble App.” Dao’s fans will be happy to learn, however, that all-day Scrabblethons won’t deter her from spending time doing what she loves.
“I guess my fave thing about being a fashion designer is making a woman feel beautiful,” she said. “It sounds so common, but it is the best moment when you see someone put on a dress and it makes them feel so wonderful. When it fits right and it looks right. The joy.”
The sixth of eight girls (hence the former name of her boutique, Lot 8), Dao emigrated with her family from Laos in 1979. They lived in Dallas briefly before coming to Houston in the early ‘80s. After high school, she went to New York to study patternmaking at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Upon completion, Dao solidified her fashion street cred in the Big Apple for eight years and then returned to the bosom of the Bayou City.
Mentoring and philanthropy are both important to Dao, who is an active supporter and mentor of LGBT youth. Most recently, she has been working with the Alliance for Multicultural Community Service to help establish its tailoring program and product designs. Also, Dao is a partner to local charitable organizations, including Dress for Success and Think Pink.
“Every year I design a scarf for Think Pink,” she said. “The good thing about that is it is international. The director of Susan G. Komen wears it all over the world.”
In the past, Dao has also served as a judge for Houston’s Gay Pride Parade. These days she makes it a point to take time out to mentor young men and women as they enter their careers in fashion. For her, it’s not only about mentoring them on design, but also how to showcase themselves in the best way. Dao recognizes how much of a struggle it is for any young person, but especially for gay youth, so she tries to offer a little extra guidance.
“The younger generations of lesbians and gays here are more loud and proud,” she said. “Even if they are out, they are still finding themselves. Being straight, you never have to struggle with coming out. There is so much to do with acceptance. It’s tough.”
For Dao, the stage was set when she was a young designer entering her first job working with designer Mitchell Gross in New York. She worked for the designer for a year before learning he was gay. From him, as well as her eight-year stint paying her dues in New York, she learned about the business and about the important relationship between a designer and those coming up behind in the industry.
“From them I learned the struggle of their journey,” Dao said. “I am more sensitive and drawn to helping out the younger gay generation because of them.”
She said the biggest piece of advice she offers to those she mentors is, “You be you. Just be who you are.”