Hmong fashion show brings “Fresh Traditions” to the Varsity Theater

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On Saturday night, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) will present the second annual Fresh Traditions fashion show at the Varsity Theater, featuring five of the region’s most talented Hmong fashion designers.

Now in its second year, Fresh Traditions is one of the most successful among the many events that CHAT, the only arts organization specifically dedicated to fostering Hmong artists, presents every year. Kathy Mouachuepao, CHAT’s executive director, cites the growing importance of the fashion industry among the younger generations of the Hmong community—influenced in part by pop culture fashion phenomena like Project Runway—as one of CHAT’s main motivations for producing the event.

In making Fresh Traditions relevant specifically to the Hmong community, Mouachuepao was driven by the question of what distinguishes a Hmong fashion designer from a non-Hmong fashion designer. Her answer came from the clothes traditionally worn by Hmong community members, and especially the five predominant colors found in those clothes. “I started thinking about why these colors were used, why these fabrics were used,” she told me outside of CHAT’s offices in St. Paul.


Designers in Fresh Traditions must work with a specific set of colors and fabrics: a black heavy velvet, a black satin-type velvet, a satin-type royal blue, and then fluorescent green and fluorescent pink chiffon-like fabrics.


When Mouachuepao failed to find out any substantial information on the meanings behind these fabrics and colors, it opened the door for the designers to make their own sense of them. Designers in Fresh Traditions must work with a specific set of colors and fabrics: a black heavy velvet, a black satin-type velvet, a satin-type royal blue, and then fluorescent green and fluorescent pink chiffon-like fabrics. “It’s not a palette that anybody would use otherwise,” said Mouachuepao.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it comes from fellow CHAT staff member Tou Saiko Lee’s group Fresh Traditions, in which Lee and his grandmother perform the Hmong art of rhythmic chanting (kwv txhiaj), similarly balancing innovation with ancient art forms.

The five designers for this year’s show are Mai Moua, Linda Thao, Oskar Ly, Dawn Thao Lee (from Milwaukee), and Annie and Susan Vue. They were chosen from a pool of applicants selected by a community of CHAT staff and board members, as well as members of the Hmong community.


Over a hundred people are involved with the show in one way or another.


Each designer works with their own team of models, assistants, and hair and make-up artists; over a hundred people are involved with the show in one way or another. Everyone involved in the event participates on a volunteer basis. Sponsors will donate up to five yards of fabric, but other than that, the designers and others involved pay for their own materials and expenses.

The potential payoff is exposure: last year, more than 800 people attended the inaugural Fresh Traditions at the Visage nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. Mouachuepao aimed to make this year’s show even more explicitly career-focused.

“I’m hoping that this will be a springboard for what they plan to do with their careers,” she told me. It is also a direction that the multi-disciplinary arts organization, the only one of its kind, is working towards for all of its artists—who work in genres and media ranging from spoken word to hip-hop, rock, visual art, video, poetry, theater, and performance art. In future years, Mouachuepao hopes to offer stipends for designers’ work with Fresh Traditions.

Mouachuepao maintains, however, that regardless of any changes from year to year, the essential theme of Fresh Traditions will stay the same. “I like the challenge. It’ll be a different show, with different designers, but it will be interesting to see how far they can go with this.”

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Justin Schell on Tou Saiko Lee.