Young Houston designer toils to make the most of her moment of fame Behind the fashion scene with Chloe Dao, post-Project Runway JEAN SCHEIDNES: STYLE & SUBSTANCE Austin American-Statesman Thursday, July 06, 2006 First of all, I want to congratulate myself and colleague Sarah Lindner, because Chloe was our favorite. We didn't think Houston designer Chloe Dao was going to win "Project Runway," because the show always portrayed her as an underdog. But win she did. And we were rooting for her all along. I found most of her designs quietly chic, cleverly detailed and flattering to the female form. And I felt she was likely to succeed on the basis of her business acumen and lack of personal drama as much as for her visual creativity. Dao says her life has been a maelstrom of media engagements and public appearances since she was crowned the winner of Season 2, which culminated in a runway show at New York Fashion Week in February. I caught up with her last week. Her vaguely defined "mentorship" with Banana Republic, part of her prize package, has not yet begun; because Banana isn't sponsoring "Project Runway" any more, I get the feeling that it might not, ever. It doesn't entail working for the company, just receiving guidance and information from it. Dao says she has been too busy to make use of this option. She has had precious little time to design or tend to her store, which are the things she thrives on, she says. "It's a bit stressful sometimes, but as a designer right now you have to be a marketer. You have to be in the spotlight, be a personality. It's a multitask job description. You can't just design," she says. "I don't mind. I'm definitely not a shy person." Dao was all smiles and ebullience last week at the Art Institute of Houston, where she was the guest of honor at an event that also drummed up interest in Season 2 of "Runway." She wore a shimmery blazer and skinny jeans, natch. She took questions from the (mostly) young, fashionable and cocktail-swilling audience. Someone asked if there's anything she wishes she had done differently. "No, because I won," she answered. Earlier, I made a pilgrimage to Dao's boutique, named Lot 8 because she comes from a family of eight daughters and located in Houston's Rice Village. The store continues to receive a big boost in sales and foot traffic from the "Project Runway" publicity, Dao says. Lot 8 has a warehouse-style interior, but it is bright and comfortable, with seating and magazines for tired shopping companions. Pieces from Dao's spring collection, priced around $100 to $500, hang from one rack. Her designs are only a fraction of what she carries. She supports several womenswear startups, mostly from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Prices are about 40 percent to 50 percent lower than those of Austin's higher-end boutiques, as the labels are less familiar. Shoes, bags, belts and jewelry are trendy and inexpensive, as well. Men's clothes — again, indie labels — hang along one wall. They include Adam's Apple, a Lot 8 exclusive that is designed by her store manager. In the back of the store is an entrance to the Lot 8 Salon, owned by one of Dao's sisters. Another sister helps with clothing production. And yet another, Sydney Dao, is her business partner and publicist. Part of Dao's popular appeal is her back story, a version of the American dream. Her family emigrated from Laos in 1979. When Dao attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, she thwarted her parents' hope that she would study medicine or law. But her passion led to her current national renown. The End? Not likely. The fashion show at the Art Institute (a culinary, art and design school) showcased some of Lot 8's current offerings, including pieces from Dao's past collections, mostly cocktail dresses and a signature item, a backless satin halter top with a sash wrapped around the waist. One of the models carried a leather bag Dao designed with a strip of leather embossed with the words "carry on," and containing a makeup pouch that says "make it work," borrowing catchphrases from Tim Gunn, the debonair adviser on "Project Runway" who is the show's breakout star. The leather bag is for celebrities only — lame! — but a canvas version will be available to the hoi polloi for $95 at projectrunway.com. The show's last eight looks, all dresses, showed off Dao's latest efforts, part of a future collection. She used chiffon, lace, ruffles and a palette of nudes and dusty roses. The finale was a white chiffon number with vertical ruffles. "My Fashion Week collection was jewel-toned and so strong colored, I wanted to do something softer," she told me later. "It's the designer eye. Once you do one thing, you go to (its opposite) because you're over it." One gown had a floral print, another a floral embroidered overlay. Dao wanted to flex her muscles and do something more ornate than what people have seen from her on TV. "For me, ruffles are ornate," she says. To conclude the show, Saturn representatives, towering over Dao in dark suits, at last handed over the keys to her silver 2007 Saturn Sky roadster. It was part of her winnings, along with a spread in the August issue of Elle magazine and $100,000 seed money to put toward her business, upon which she is anxious to refocus. "I love the process of creating and producing and shipping," she says. She relishes real world, real market, real customer demand for her products. "I'm dying to get a warehouse and sample room and not do everything myself. And having the funds to do (fuller collections.) And hire an assistant." Once Season 3 kicks off, she expects to have fewer publicity demands. But she hopes to stay close to the limelight indefinitely. Her involvement in Season 3 is limited to a where-are-they-now segment in the first episode, which airs Wednesday on Bravo. Carry on, Chloe. We still like you best. firstname.lastname@example.org; 445-3974 http://www.statesman.com/life/content/life/stories/style/07/6dao.html Photo captions for photos below: At a fashion show at the Art Institute of Houston, a model carried Dao's leather bag embossed with the words 'carry on.' A canvas version will sell for $95. Chloe Dao's flattering designs are modeled in a recent Houston show. Dao owns the store Lot 8 in the city's Rice Village shopping center.