Giving Vietnamese fashion designers their due

Tucked behind the Westminster Mall on a recent weekend was a tent, plain white, nondescript.

But inside the 8,000-square-foot structure was a flurry of sequins, tulle, stilettos, jewels and thumping dance music, where 500 people in suits and ball gowns gathered for the third annual Viet Fashion Week, whose mission is to showcase high-end Vietnamese and Vietnamese American designers.

The two-day event, attended by nearly 1,000 people including the mayors of Garden Grove and Westminster, featured seven designers, four performers, more than 80 models and a red carpet.

"Creating this platform has not only opened up the Vietnamese community to seeing fashion in a different light, but also our designers get to branch out into the mainstream," said Tracy Pham, Viet Fashion Week's executive producer.

On the first night, the collections spanned traditional to avant-garde ao dai, the Vietnamese national costume made up of a fitted, long-sleeve tunic worn over wide-legged pants; contemporary business and evening wear; and Western-style wedding gowns.

Son Minh Luong, a Vietnamese designer, showcased his collection of richly colored evening gowns and ao dai made of silk, sequins and rhinestones.

"They're considered traditional because he didn't do much to the sleeves or bodice, just embellished them," explained Pham.

The ao dai in the Son Collection featured bold, contrasting colors — a green tunic over yellow pants, a purple tunic over red pants, and a turquoise tunic over orange pants — with flashy gold rhinestones and sequins around the neck line.

Calvin Hiep, owner of Westminster-based Hyp Fashion and Beauty, also featured ao dai in his Dripping Gold collection — but with an avant-garde twist.

"The idea of modernizing the traditional dress has been around for a while, but American designers took it to the next level," said the creative director of Viet Fashion Week, Viktor Nguyen-Lieu, who goes by Viktor NL. "I feel like this is unlike a lot of other cultures, which keep their cultural outfit very traditional."

Dripping Gold showed off tunics that were risqué and often sheer or sleeveless — one was made of melted-down plastic and painted gold to give the effect of flames — and instead of loose-fitting pants, they were worn over bodysuits to show off the model's entire leg.

"He creates amazing collections that blow people's minds when you see them," Pham said about Hiep.

Viet Fashion Week is the brainchild of Pham, a fashion industry veteran and director of the Huntington Beach-based modeling agency Runway Entertainment.

Pham came up with the idea after seeing that many Vietnamese designers weren't getting the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

"I worked with so many Vietnamese designers that didn't have the advantage of mainstream exposure," she said. "I saw them struggle to create a brand and a name for themselves."

So Pham approached some of the designers she knew about hosting a fashion event to specifically highlight Vietnamese and Vietnamese American designers.

"They all said, 'Oh my god, I would love that,' " Pham recalled.

The first Viet Fashion Week was launched in 2013.

"Our goal was to preserve our culture and art through fashion," Pham said of the ao dai in particular, "and to create that platform for Vietnamese designers. Every time the designers showcase their work, they sell a lot of their pieces, people call to get custom-made designs, and it helps their business a lot."

Even though fashion has long been a staple in the Vietnamese community, the event was the first of its kind in the country, Pham said. Of course, it might not be surprising that Orange County has been a trailblazer since it is home to one of the largest communities of Vietnamese Americans and expats in the U.S.

"This is the first time fashion has been put on a pedestal to showcase its own talent," she said. "It shows the community that we're branching out into so many fields and industries."

This year's show also included more practical collections. Westminster-based Jacky Tai featured his new bridal collection, which included richly embroidered red and gold ao dai and white Western-style gowns.

This summer Tai will open his own bridal boutique in Orange County.

Another featured designer was Yorba Linda resident Yvon Nguyen.

Barely 5 feet tall, Nguyen, who heads a public relations and marketing firm in Anaheim, said she has always had trouble finding trendy, well-fitted business and special-occasion wear.

"Over the years I started customizing, and then I started designing my own," she said. "Then I started to get really good feedback from my colleagues and girlfriends who share the same problem of finding beautiful, fashionable business wear."

Last year, Viet Fashion Week inspired her to launch her own petite line, Yvon Lux.

This year, Nguyen returned to Viet Fashion Week — held May 20 and 21 — but as a designer to debut her collection called Like a Boss.

The collection includes a wide range of pieces, from business wear to cocktail dresses, jumpsuits and evening wear.

"It was a little bit of everything, to speak to the different roles that women play daily," Nguyen said. "A lot of designers opt for that fantasy, really creative work of art, which is entertaining and fun to watch. But I approached the collection a little differently. My end goal was to have any woman walk away saying, 'I can wear Yvon Lux.'"

Nguyen knew her collection would play well with the audience — and not just because of the built-in support for Vietnamese designers.

"We are a petite-tailored line, and there is a big Asian population that fits our brand," she said. "I knew the majority of the audience would be 100% Asian."

Nguyen said she's received incredible support ever since the debut May 20.

"I had people approaching me that night, asking to buy things off the models," she said.

Now Nguyen is focusing on filling custom design orders and scaling the line upward.

"Most of the petite lines out there aren't trendy. They're very dowdy," Pham said. "Yvon makes it fashionable and fun to wear petites."

Additional designers on the second day of Viet Fashion Week included Quynh Paris, Cynthia Bui and Christy Pham.

Tracy Pham is already looking ahead to the fourth annual Viet Fashion Week and hopes it will be even bigger.

"I have a feeling that next year is going to be three days because we have so many designers that really want to showcase their work," she said. "Viet Fashion Week has finally grown beyond Orange County. It has roots here, but it's branching out internationally."

Pham also anticipates the featured designers will soon expand beyond their Vietnamese customer base.

"I can see Jacky Tai being the go-to bridal fashion designer for Caucasians and many others, because his gowns aren't just for Vietnamese, they're for everyone," she said. "I see Yvon Lux's stuff in Nordstrom."

Because the future of Vietnamese American designers is clear, she said: "It's mainstream."

caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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