Elements of Style

Four Fashion Designers Redefining Houston’s Style Scene

"The mood board that people are striving for exists here."

By Danielle Wright Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Meet Clarence Lee, R’Bonney Nola, Chloe Dao and Joshua Allen.

Image: Ahmad Sweeney

“Opportunity,” emphasized Joshua Allen Springer when asked to define what “new Houston” means to the up-and-coming designer. Springer’s designs have made their way across the Bayou City to the Big Apple -- and back home again -- exuding a sanguine, yet apropos response. The Richard & Grace couturier details how his reverse back home due to the pandemic, greatly disrupted his aura to design. Per contra, an awakening was worth more than living in New York could ever offer. “I recently taught myself art history to where I’m so much more appreciative of the fine art community that Houston has to offer. So when I think of new Houston, I think of a rebirth.”

Joshua Allen gained popularity through social media with his abstract designs.

Image: Ahmad Sweeney

The thought of a rebirth carries the essence of what the future holds for the city’s fashion community. A future where opportunity may become reality for the auxiliary featured designers. One where they may witness Houston architects R’Bonney Nola and Clarence Lee, side by side with Chloe Dao and Joshua Allen. These designers cultivate a diverse representation that both have, and will impact, Houston’s forthcoming place in the fashion industry. This is new Houston. Both New York City’s Garment District and Los Angeles’ Fashion District are designated to foster fashion communities, whereas Houston hasn’t appointed an area for its creatives to voraciously thrive. The common issue designers face is unknown contingency, which forces dreamers to make a move to NYC (the historical mecca of all thing’s style) for a chance to become the next “it” label.

Chloe Dao became the season two winner of the popular fashion series, Project Runway, launching her into the spotlight.

Image: Ahmad Sweeney

Dao, an established Asian designer, and Allen got their start in New York City, making reputable pit stops along the way. Allen’s Beaumont Collection and abstract compositions turned him into a social media phenom. Dao became the season two winner of the popular fashion series, Project Runway, launching her into the spotlight. She went on to create a dress in honor of the Crazy Rich Asians film premier at The Austin Asian American Film Festival and also opened a Rice Village boutique in her namesake.

“I’m just lucky to do what I do and I’ve always acknowledged that it’s rough. It’s hard to be your own business owner of everything, but it’s also a big blessing,” Dao says humbly. “There’s not many smaller designers there like myself that have been in business this long.”

Along with her sustainability label, R'bonney Nola also offers classes at Houston's non-profit design house  Magpies & Peacocks.  

Image: Ahmad Sweeney

As Houston slowly opens itself up to opportunity, it’s breaking down doors for local designers like R’Bonney Nola and Clarence Lee to create withstanding collections. Nola’s sustainability label – R’Bonney Nola Designs, was brought to life in Houston’s vibrant east downtown. Working partly as a sewing instructor at Houston's non-profit design house Magpies & Peacocks and head producer of her own brand ignites the burst of excitement Nola feels whenever a sketch idea is born, all while making sure that the ultimate foundation is up-cycled fabric. “Fashion is one of the largest polluting industries in the world, and everyone plays a part in fashion. Whether you’re a designer or you’re a consumer, everybody buys pieces,” Nola informs. “I feel like it’s my duty as a young designer today to educate people on the issue and help push the fashion industry into a more environmentally friendly direction.”

The same originality standard can be said for emerging designer Clarence Lee. An alumni of The Arts Institute of Houston, Lee currently designs women’s ready-to-wear apparel for Inclan Studio. What makes up the blueprint of his illustrations is the art of observing how the clothing of a stranger conveys a louder message. “Seeing how people interpret fashion in their own way, I can definitely spot those that are all about the trends and what’s happening now, and then see people that know what they like and aren’t worried about what’s happening,” Lee reveals. “When designing, I keep in mind that people have real day-to-day lives, and fashion needs to coincide with what they do.”

Emerging designer Clarence Lee is an alumni of The Arts Institute of Houston and designer at Inclan Studio. 

Image: Ahmad Sweeney

For years, Houston’s fashion forward areas like River Oaks and The Galleria have been brimming with distinguished luxury lines, but as of late, displayed a “new” interest in the city. Louis Vuitton opened a second store in The Galleria in sole dedication to menswear, whereas Gucci and FENDI are hosting pop-up events and exclusionary previews of upcoming collections through season changes. Maybe the root of the change grows from artists and content creators like Megan Thee Stallion, Travis Scott, Wisdom Kaye and Teezo Touchdown, who persistently add hometown flavor to every project released. Megan and Scott are tied to lux labels like Dior, Jordan, Coach and Nike. With Scott opening a Rice Village flagship titled Space Village, it’s not a wild idea for fashion to turn its attention to the south.

It does bear some questions, however. Could this newfound pursuit create dream job opportunities for Houstonian designers? Or, Are brands now noticing Texas’ abundant resources and money-making residents as a financial gain? Each answer will immensely shape the way Houston envisions fashion and what’s to come of its destiny. Lee imagines an emerging designer takeover and a closer coupling of consumer and brand. Dao believes a boom of support for local designers will allow the city to reach new heights, while taking carbon footprints into consideration. Nola visualizes notable labels becoming more involved with start-up brands, and for Allen, Houston’s future of fashion is already in front of us. “It’s just us having to believe that we can actually make something come from Houston a trending factor on the internet that gets us to the corporate conversations,” Allen concludes.

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