How Chloe Dao turned Houston into her own fashion capital – Texas Monthly
On a foggy Sunday afternoon at the MKT mall in Houston Heights, the Chloe Dao boutique is buzzing with shoppers, many of whom are doing their best to act normal around one of the city’s most beloved fashion designers. Dao is the only person working in her store on this busy day, yet she shows no signs of stress. She greets customers, asks if a sorority dress has color requirements, jokes about the latest real housewives drama, affixes eponymous labels on shopping bags. When she senses that a customer might be having trouble putting on a dress, she asks, “Do you need help? These straps can be tricky. The young woman – who was probably in elementary school when Dao competed on Project track, a reality TV series where designers compete for the chance to show a collection at New York Fashion Week, hesitates as Dao walks away from her boutique’s reception. Dao is the picture of casual Texas elegance, in skinny jeans, an airy top with black stitching and strappy heels. Her ponytail bounces with authority as she heads for the dressing room, and within seconds the customer’s frustration is replaced with calm. It’s no wonder Dao won the second season of Project track sixteen years ago. She is skilled at making it work.
By the time Dao appeared on Bravo, she had already made a name for herself in the fashion industry. She had worked with brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Carolina Herrera and Marc Jacobs, selling and fulfilling special orders. Her Simply Chloe fashion line had a recurring spotlight on QVC, and her Houston boutique, Lot 8, had been open for four years. After project track, the opportunities have become even greater. “I did a collaboration with Dove deodorant, I showed [a collection] at the Smithsonian, I was the keynote speaker for the Girl Scouts Centennial,” she recalled over the phone.
“I still think we should have won that lingerie challenge,” Dao said, playfully feigning bitterness in reference to a Project track group challenge in which his designs did not fare well with the judges. I think of the black lace underwear from this challenge and wonder how many similar looks she’s managed to design and sell since, right here in Houston. In addition to its e-commerce site and flagship store in Rice Village, Dao opened a second outpost at MKT, a trendy mixed-use mall, in early 2021. And it did it all from Houston, a city better known for its medical and oil industries than for its fashion scene. Despite the opportunities in New York, where the fashion district offers all the energy and resources (including Project track fan-favorite store Mood Fabrics) necessary for a successful career, Dao decided to return home.
“I covered fashion for almost twenty years in Houston and interviewed many designers here,” says Joy Sewing, former fashion editor and longtime friend of Dao. “Most of them have gone out of business, moved on, or moved to another city. [Dao] is one of the few who have stayed here and made a successful career there.”
Dao was born in Laos and was only eight years old when her family, which includes eight middle-aged daughters, arrived in the United States, first arriving in Dallas and then settling in North Houston. As an adult in the 80s and 90s, Dao was a well-rounded student at Aldine Middle School and Aldine High, and thrived in their diverse environments. “Everyone was smart, talented and popular, and there were so many different races,” she said. “I was good at school and I was able to do cheerleading. It was like a utopia.
His mother planted the first seeds of Dao’s prowess in the fashion industry. “She’s a great woman,” Dao said. “She came to the United States without speaking English and she had three jobs – one of them was sewing for Macy’s and Nordstrom – then [worked] as an alteration lady at a men’s tailor. Dao loses himself in reverie before adding, with impeccable comedic timing, “Then she went to KFC to make fried chicken.” Eventually, Dao’s mother started making clothes to sell at the weekend flea market, with eight little helpers.
Over time, Dao developed his own style. “I’m drawn to clean lines and curves, in nature, architecture and product design,” she says. “I am inspired by the great Balenciaga, Givenchy, Vionnet, Geoffrey Beene and the great American costume designers like Edith Head.” Growing up with seven sisters created her innate understanding of body diversity. Today, that realization has inspired her to provide sizing samples for all body types. “I’m working on this collection where a lot of sample dresses are size 12, 14, and 16, where a real woman can come in and try it on. Because real women aren’t just size 0 and 2.”
Dao fondly thinks back to her days in New York, but she remembers seeing how consuming the fashion industry could be. She remembers working for a boss in New York who was successful but seemed bitter and lonely. “I didn’t want this life,” Dao said. “My main goal in coming back to Houston was to be closer to my family and have a life with fashion, friends and family. Three F‘s, not just one.
In 2000, Dao returned to Houston and quickly created a life containing her three priorities. “I can go to my mom’s house to sleep or hang out, hang out with my family, hang out with my husband and friends, even though I’m working hard all the time.” Moving to Houston helped her achieve work-life balance, but it also made her dreams financially attainable. At first, she lived at home with her parents and drove their car to save money. “I don’t come from the money,” Dao explains. “[I] needed family support and financial backing to open the shop.
Today, Dao’s MKT store is a testament to everything it has built over the past two decades. The store is the physical embodiment of accessible glamour; there’s a table of geometric earrings, dainty necklaces and statement rings; a row of hot pink and parrot green skirts and pants paired with floral and firefly print tops. In almost every direction, you’ll find meticulously crafted dresses for every occasion. Dao’s design studio is visible from all points of the store, inviting customers to watch the edits, watch the mood boards, see the design process. She was inspired by the “open kitchen” concept that became popular when she Project track Course. “Food has become a whole, chefs have become rock stars, because you can see the process and why it takes so long to make a dish,” Dao explains. “I think once you see how things are done, you appreciate them more. Personally, I like to watch anything happen. I love the process and creating anything.
It is advantageous that Dao values the journey as much as the destination, because every day she is a fashion designer, a businesswoman and everything in between. “I talk to my staff, I sell to customers, I come up with custom designs, I strategize for the business, and then I probably do some cleaning and organizing between the design studio, the Rice Village store, or the MKT site,” she says. “So I’m like the housekeeper and the CEO.” Natalie Besnard is Store Manager for Chloe Dao and has known Dao since 1999 when they both started in retail. She believes that Dao’s personality is the key to his lasting success. “Being with Chloe is like being with your closest, funniest and most creative friend. She will make you feel so welcome.”
No matter how much you love the Hs, it’s a lot easier to sell clothes in a city like New York. “I wish I could just walk down the street and find the fabric or the trim I need, the fashion culture,” Dao says. “I miss just going out in Manhattan. I miss the fashion district ecosystem. Ultimately, however, she is at peace with her decision to design and run her business in Houston, especially since she has seen the city invest in its arts and culture scene. “I think we are trying. There are more fashion boutiques now and more support for local designers,” she says. “Like, literally next to me at MKT is a store called the Co-op Pop-Up. They are local designers and artists, owned by women.
In 2006, when Tim Gunn visited Dao before his exhibition at Bryant Park, he was baffled by the lack of sketches or a stated collectible theme. Unfazed, Dao said, “I’m the kind of designer who doesn’t really think about a theme. I like to think about my customers and what they need this season. Dao is just as responsive to the changing needs of her customers today as she was during this episode sixteen years ago.