Ice House

Fashion Figures

Houston does a little turn on the catwalk.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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It was a moment that confused the hell out of Houston. Last September, Vivienne Tam, a fashion designer who splits her time between New York and Hong Kong—and has no known connection to the Bayou City—sent 43 Houston-themed looks for Spring 2017 down the runway at New York Fashion Week, following an introduction by NASA astronaut Tracy Dyson.

The line mixed vintage Western elements—fringe, denim, bedazzled Western belts—with futuristic silver metallic, psychedelic florals, and Houston logos and symbols galore, including those of NASA, Rice and Rodeo Houston. At the time, Tam said the collection was inspired by the “vibrant diversity and energy of Houston.”

It was exciting for us, yes. But, as the perennially ignored Jan to Dallas’s Marcia, at least in terms of fashion cred, it also felt a little weird. Press materials touted the unique partnership between Tam and Visit Houston, also known as the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB), which had cleared the rights for over a dozen Houston logos for her to use.

But what wasn’t immediately disclosed was the entire scope of the role that the GHCVB had played in making the collection a reality. The bureau, working with local advertising agency Asian Wives Club (AWC), had paid $450,000 in expenses related to the fashion show, including a research trip to Houston for Tam and sponsorship of the show’s official after-party.

ABC13’s Ted Oberg first publicized that six-figure price tag, questioning whether it was a good use of taxpayer dollars. Visit Houston president Mike Waterman responded by emphasizing that the number represents less than 3 percent of the bureau’s expenses in 2015, and that Visit Houston’s budget is based on membership fees, though funds raised through hotel occupancy taxes were also used.

It was AWC, which bills itself as a “creative think tank,” that convinced Visit Houston to spend its money on the scheme. “For Houston to be taken seriously as a tourist destination, the solution couldn’t be a typical ad campaign,” says CEO and co-founder Kerry Chrapliwy. “One of the things we talked about was leveraging fashion—it’s a spot that’s very emotional.”

While partnerships between high-end fashion designers and brands are nothing new, making a sponsor the subject of a fashion line might be a bit outside accepted norms. Still, Chrapliwy asserts that the collection is a real creative endeavor, coming from a real place.

“Vivienne is one of those designers that you can’t make her design anything,” he says. “She has to feel it.” On her research trip here, she found inspiration in a chaotic sticker collage at Voodoo Queen in the East End, for example, and the bright flowers for sale at the Hispanic flea markets on Airline Road.

The fashion press, for its part, seems to find Tam’s homage intriguing, if occasionally a little busy and on-the-nose. Vogue noted approvingly of a blouse featuring a traditional Chinese blue-and-white motif embroidered in the Mexican style rather than printed on silk, a new take on Tam’s East-meets-West vibe that the designer has dubbed Panda Cowboy.

In the end, the big question for Asian Wives Club, Visit Houston, and the city is this: Was the experiment worth the money, and the criticism? Chrapliwy says yes, pointing to the 830 million online impressions the collection has garnered, exposure that he values at anywhere between $5 and $10 million—on up to a hard-to-believe $100 million, he says, if you factor in the old industry adage that editorial coverage is worth 10 times that of a standard advertisement.

This month, the collection—which goes from around $100 for T-shirts, to several thousand dollars for dresses—will start filtering into stores. Though it’s too early to know how buyers will respond to it, Chrapliwy says major destinations like Selfridges in London and New York’s Opening Ceremony have expressed interest in carrying the line, which also will be available at the designer’s two dozen standalone outposts in Asia and New York.

For Houston fashion fans who are wondering, yes, there are plans to bring the collection here as well, with luxury shopping center River Oaks District in talks to host a runway show and/or a pop-up shopping event.

“This is Vivienne literally interpreting Houston though her eyes,” says Chrapliwy. “She would call us with an idea and say, ‘Houston is in my blood now.’” But is she in ours?

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