"Orange is the Houston color," Vivienne Tam tells me, her voice quiet but thoughtful. "I used orange so much in this collection."
We're sitting inside Baanou in River Oaks District, where 50 or so Houstonians are about to assemble for a luncheon in the designer's honor, the banquet table running the length of the boutique and flanked on both sides by Tam's much discussed Houston-themed Spring 2017 collection, which is available in Houston at Baanou exclusively.
Tam herself is wearing an orange-red Western shirt from her collection, decorated with a pair of embroidered egrets for a touch of Eastern influence, as well as a flouncy lace skirt and a bedazzled black belt that screams Texas—one of the accessories that defined the runway collection. "I love them," she says of the Western-inspired belts, while also directing me to pay attention to the slide-on sneakers with their jumbles of Houston-ness.
Having followed the collection since its debut last fall, seeing its evolution from the runway to the racks is enlightening. Many of the logo patches that were front and center on the runway have been excised or minimized in the retail selections, allowing subtler references to Houston to shine—as in a dress where the Rodeo Houston logo has been flipped into star-like patterns and laser-cut for form an unlikely black lace layer on a background of white. If you're looking for the outline of the signature H wearing a cowboy hat and boots, you'll find it, but its not obvious or jarring, just unexpectedly pretty.
Before the luncheon begins, Tam changes into an even more boldly Houston-inspired piece—a boxy, bell-sleeved sheath dress with logos, armadillos and other Houston ephemera repeated in colorful horizontal stripes. It's in some ways the opposite of the black rodeo lace dress—shiny and bright, it packs in so many elements that from afar they all meld to create a unified cacophony of shape and color.
"The mixed embroidery is like the mixed languages," she says. "When I'm thinking how to represent the city's spirit, I thought to maybe combine all the logos. I made it into a print, I made it into stripes, I made it into patches. ... The prints, the colors, the arts and crafts—it's all mixed together."
Tam points out a comparatively simple dress on display in the front window, an orange v-neck with oversized floral appliqués rising from the hem, noting that even it meshes three distinct cultures in one. The fabric is classic American denim, the flowers are Mexican and the style of the embroidery is Chinese.
For a collection that felt at times confusing and overwhelming with symbolism on the runway, I'm surprised how wearable it seems in person. Tam points out a pair of white jeans with a ruffled take on a bell-bottom and notes that they are a major seller. I personally cannot stop eyeing a thin, gauzy bomber jacket (the perfect layer for Houston) that's decorated with blue and burgundy florals, both embroidered into the jacket and attached as three-dimensional appliqués. There's lots of bright florals and tiers of ruffles, not to mention a few tie-dyed tees with pixelated versions of the logos, which are still kind of over-the-top but in a fun, youthful way.
And while Tam references her visits to Comicpalooza, NASA and the Rothko Chapel as major inspirations, what she most took away from her H-Town explorations—for a collection, it should be noted, that was sponsored in part by Houston First as an unconventional marketing campaign for the city—was the people that she met here.
"The immigrants and their stories of how they came over here ... the people, the way they speak in all different languages, they inspire me. The whole feeling: the color, the culture, and then you look at the technology, its so exciting. It's a new city because it's inclusive of everybody. They can express themselves; they can make it here. The people make the city so exciting and interesting. It's a city of the future."
The words "vibrant" and "energy" come up a lot—which, come to think of it, do feel like very orange words. Power, too—it's written in orange on the back of show-stopping black tank dress covered in sequins, more pixelated logos and the word Houston written in different languages.
"I just love it, the energy," says Tam. "That really represents the city. Hopefully people here feel the same."