When the producers of Project Runway asked Chloe Dao, a young designer who does not speak fluent Vietnamese and had only been to the country twice, to be a judge and executive producer of Project Runway Vietnam, she said “sure.” After all, this is a woman whose fame is built on problem solving in high pressure situations on national television. We caught up with the Season 2 winner for a quick chat about the show, which wrapped up six weeks of taping in Ho Chi Minh last month and is airing right now.
So how’s your Vietnamese?
I am not fluent at all. I was born in Laos; I speak at home with my mom sometimes in Vietnamese. It was a struggle. I was allowed to speak English when I couldn’t find the words in Vietnamese; they put subtitles. I don’t speak it well enough to speak fashion terminology; I mean I can show you where to get food and go to the bathroom. As the season went by, episode by episode, I got better. It was very challenging, but I like a challenge. My brother-in-law who was born and raised in Vietnam said I actually was very good by episode three. So I must have improved a lot by then!
How did your taste compare to that to the other judges?
Being an American designer my taste was slightly different, and also because I was a contestant on Project Runway I was a little bit more sympathetic. I actually think they had a harder time than the American designers, because in the U.S. we have Mood fabrics. In Ho Chi Minh you have to run around this huge open market crowded with tourists, and sometimes you are only given 30 minutes. It’s like 90 degrees, super chaotic, really much more chaotic to shop in. And much more limited.
And then I saw things from a different point of view—as an American designer but really judging them based on the international market. The others were well versed in the international market but also in how to dress for the Vietnamese market, which I don’t know that well.
Is the Vietnamese market more conservative?
It isn’t conservative at all, they love fashion—Chanel is there, Gucci is there, Burberry is there, I mean, their flagship stores. But that’s only for the affluent market in Vietnam. The beauty of Project Runway is that it’s fashion for everyone, you get to see how it’s created, it’s not so intimidating. You’re looking at young designers creating beautiful clothes. I think that’s what Project Runway in the U.S. did. Fashion can be for everyone. I know from talking to Tim Gunn that it literally increases the enrollment of fashion school students; enrollment has exploded. I think that’s what Project Runway Vietnam will do—introduce fashion that’s not just for the elite market.
Vietnamese people are definitely problem solvers. You have a problem, you solve it. You don’t whine about it, you fix it. That’s what I notice about the Vietnamese designers, they don’t whine. There was some drama between designers in the work room but you don’t really see anybody giving up, saying, “oh my god, this sucks.” I mean they really fight for their spot. I think they know the opportunity it can give them. It’s shown in 87 million households, its pretty intense. $25,000 is a lot in Vietnam. An 8-page spread in Harper’s Bazaar—you don’t even get that much in the U.S. You don’t complain, you just accept the challenge, you go for it.
What was the advice you most frequently gave?
I think for me it was don’t make it so costumey in the styling and the makeup. Being an American designer, it’s always about the reality of selling the product. Make sure there is a customer for this. That was my main advice, sometimes the styling was over the top and you start questioning, “who is this for?”
Have you gotten any feedback?
I’ve gotten really great feedback buts it’s all in Vietnamese so my mom tells me about it. Like anything else people love you or hate you. I came and I did my job. If they love me they’ll call me back. If they don’t, well, it was a great experience!