On a hazy Sunday afternoon at the M-K-T shopping center in the 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 at her shop on this busy day, and yet she shows no sign of stress. She greets customers, asks if a sorority rush dress has color requirements, jokes about the latest Real Housewives drama, puts eponymous labels on shopping bags. When she senses one customer might be struggling to get a dress on, she asks, “Do you need help? Those straps can be tricky.” The young woman—who was probably in elementary school when Dao competed on Project Runway, a reality series where designers compete for a chance to show a collection at New York Fashion Week—hesitates as Dao steps away from the front desk of her shop. Dao is the picture of Texan casual elegance, in skinny jeans, an airy top with black stitching, and strappy heels. Her ponytail bounces with authority as she walks over to the dressing room, and within seconds the customer’s frustration is replaced with calm. It’s no wonder that Dao won the second season of Project Runway sixteen years ago. She’s adept at making it work.
By the time Dao popped up on Bravo, she’d already made a name for herself in the fashion industry. She’d worked with brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Carolina Herrera, and Marc Jacobs, selling and fulfilling special orders. Her fashion line Simply Chloe had a recurring spotlight on QVC, and her Houston boutique, Lot 8, had been open for four years. After Project Runway, the opportunities got even bigger. “I did a collaboration with Dove deodorant, I showed [a collection] in the Smithsonian museum, I was the keynote speaker for Girl Scouts’ one-hundred-year anniversary,” she reminisces over the phone.
“I still think we should have won that lingerie challenge,” Dao says, playfully feigning bitterness in reference to a Project Runway group challenge in which her designs did not fare well with the judges. I think of the black lace undergarments from that challenge and wonder how many similar looks she’s successfully designed and sold since, right here in Houston. In addition to her e-commerce site and flagship store in Rice Village, Dao opened a second outpost in M-K-T, a trendy mixed-use shopping center, in early 2021. And she’s done all of this from Houston, a city known more for its medical and petroleum industries than for its fashion scene. Despite the opportunities flowing in New York, where the fashion district afforded all the energy and resources (including Project Runway fan-favorite shop Mood Fabrics) necessary for a successful career, Dao decided to return home.
“I’ve covered fashion for nearly twenty years in Houston and I’ve interviewed a lot of designers here,” says Joy Sewing, a former fashion editor and longtime friend of Dao’s. “Most of them went out of business, transitioned to doing something else, or moved to another city. [Dao] is one of the few that have stayed here and made a successful career here.”
Dao was born in Laos and was just eight years old when her family—which includes eight daughters, stairsteps in age—came to the U.S., arriving first in Dallas, then settling in Houston’s north side. Coming of age in the eighties and nineties, Dao was a well-rounded student at Aldine Middle School and Aldine High, and thrived in their diverse environments. “Everyone was smart and talented and popular, and so many different races,” she said. “I was good at school and I got to do cheerleading. It was like a utopia.”
Her mother planted the earliest seeds of Dao’s prowess in the fashion business. “She’s a kick-ass woman,” Dao says. “She came to the United States with no 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 shop.” Dao gets lost in reverie before she adds, with impeccable comedic timing, “Then she went to KFC to do some fried chicken.” Eventually, Dao’s mother began making clothes to sell at the flea market on the weekends, eight small assistants in tow.
Over time, Dao developed her own style. “I’m drawn to clean lines and curves, in nature, architecture, and product designs,” she says. “I’m inspired by the great Balenciaga, Givenchy, Vionnet, Geoffrey Beene, and great old American costume designers like Edith Head.” Growing up with seven sisters created her innate understanding of body diversity. Today, that awareness has inspired her to provide sample sizes for all body types. “I’m working on this collection where a lot of gowns’ sample sizes are 12, 14, and 16, where a real woman can come in and try it on. Because real women are not only size 0 and 2.”
Dao thinks back fondly on her New York days, but she remembers seeing how consuming the fashion industry could be. She recalls working for a boss in New York who was successful but seemed bitter and lonely. “I did not want that life,” Dao says. “My whole purpose for moving back to Houston was to be closer to my family, and to have a life with fashion, and friends, and family. Three f’s, not just one.”
In 2000, Dao moved back to Houston and promptly created a life containing all three of her priorities. “I get to go to my mom’s to sleep over or hang out, hang out with my family, have time with my husband and friends—even though I’m working my butt off all the time.” Moving to Houston helped her achieve the elusive work-life balance, but it also made her dreams financially feasible. At first, she lived at home with her parents and drove their car to save money. “I don’t come from money,” explains Dao. “[I] needed family support and financial support to open the boutique.”
Today, Dao’s M-K-T boutique is a testament to everything she’s built over the past two decades. The store is the physical embodiment of approachable glamour; there’s a table of geometric earrings, delicate necklaces, and statement rings; a row of hot pink and parrot-green skirts and pants paired with floral and firefly-printed tops. In just about every direction, you’ll find meticulously crafted dresses for any occasion. Dao’s design studio is visible from all points in the boutique, welcoming customers to watch alterations, to gaze at mood boards, to see the design process. She was inspired by the “open kitchen” concept that became popular around the time of her Project Runway run. “Food became a whole thing, chefs became rock stars, because you can see the process and why it takes so much to make some dish,” Dao explains. “I think once you see how things are made, you value it more. I personally love watching anything get made. I just love the process and creation of anything.”
It’s advantageous that Dao values the journey as much as the destination, because on any given day she’s a fashion designer, businesswoman, and everything in between. “I talk to my staff, sell to clients, come up with custom designs, strategize about the business, and then probably do some cleaning and organization between the design studio, the Rice Village store, or the M-K-T location,” she says. “So I’m like the cleaning lady and the CEO.” Natalie Besnard is store manager for Chloe Dao and has known Dao since 1999, when they were both starting out in retail. She thinks Dao’s personality is a key to her sustained success. “Being with Chloe is like being with, like, your closest, funniest, most creative friend. She will just make you feel so welcomed.”
No matter how much love for the H one might possess, it’s much easier to be in the business of selling clothes in a town like New York. “I wish I could just go down the street and find the fabric or trimming I need, the fashion culture,” says Dao. “I miss just walking out in Manhattan. I miss the ecosystem of the fashion district.” Ultimately, though, she’s at peace with her decision to design and run her business in Houston, especially since she has witnessed the city investing in its arts and culture scene. “I think we try. There are more fashion boutiques now and more support for local designers,” she says. “Like, literally next door to me at M-K-T is a shop called the Pop-Up Co-Op. They’re local designers and artists, women-owned.”
Back in 2006, when Tim Gunn visited Dao ahead of her Bryant Park showing, he was bewildered at the lack of sketches or a declared collection theme. Unfazed, Dao said, “I’m the kind of designer that doesn’t really think of a theme. I like to think about my customers and what they need this season.” Dao is just as attuned to her customers’ changing needs today as she was during that episode sixteen years ago.