Arts and Culture

Fashion show from international Hmong Thai designers premieres in St. Paul

Four people pose for a photo
Toua Xiong, Latda Lig Xiong, Clare Huttman Yang and Nou Vang pose for a photo after arriving in the U.S. ahead of the Hmong Thai Fashion Show on April 29, 2023 in St. Paul, Minn.
Courtesy of Vanh Thao

A fashion show in St. Paul on Saturday will showcase international Hmong Thai designers, including one who has flown from Thailand to the Twin Cities to be in the show.

The Hmong Thai Fashion Show is the first international show St. Paul’s Center for Hmong Arts and Talent is hosting. Six brands will be featured in the show, which is expected to draw about 400 people.

“This is the first time that we're actually bringing Hmong Thai designers to America. So this is one of a kind, unique show,” said Steve Thao, the executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, or CHAT.

The Hmong Thai Fashion Show is furthering CHAT’s mission “of connecting the Hmong community here with the Hmong community in Thailand, and exposing what they have with us and then to create dialogue and communication.”

It’s estimated there are more than 94,000 Hmong people living in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Compass. The Twin Cities metro has by far the most Hmong people of any metro in the country, according to the American Community Survey of 2019. Minnesota has a long history of accepting Hmong people. Hmong people began arriving in Minnesota as refugees in 1975.

“The Hmong community is about connection – we are dispersed around the world in different countries like South America, France, China and Thailand, but we're connected through language, history, culture and our fashion, our textile arts,” Thao said.

“It's really an opportunity to celebrate Hmong art and Hmong fashion but celebrated from a different part of the world. That, to me, is very, very unique. And it's the first time that I know that's happened to show specifically, and entirely of Hmong Thai designers and especially at this caliber.”

“These designers are not only acclaimed in the Hmong community but the Thai community, the larger mainstream community – they support these designers also in Thailand.”

The fashion show will also include an intermission performance by Latda Lig Xiong, Miss Hmong Thailand of 2020, who will perform a Hmong song and a Thai song.

The Hmong Thai Fashion Show is at the Union Depot in St. Paul on April 29. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the show begins at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $60. There also will be a small market with vendors selling apparel, crafts and food from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. that is free to attend and open to the public. 

A dream to bring Hmong designers from Thailand to the Twin Cities

The idea for the show started about six years ago when Thao met Clare Huttman Yang from Era Brand. The two kept in touch through Facebook until last year, when CHAT suggested Clare and her team come to America for a show, “because the Hmong Americans would be really curious to see the Hmong Thai designs,” Thao said.

They started a planning committee and decided to invite more Hmong Thai designers for a total of six. But getting them to the U.S. has been no easy task.

“To bring Thai nationals to America … it's not a slam dunk to get a visa,” Thao said. 

Two models pose on the runway
Era Brand is one of the six brands that will be featured in the Hmong Thai Fashion Show in St. Paul on Saturday, April 29, 2023.
Courtesy Center for Hmong Arts and Talent

Earlier this month he learned three people were denied visas, but four others planned to fly from Thailand in their place. A few days later, Thao received an update that three of those four were also denied visas. Of the six brands, only Era Brand will be represented in person, by Yang.

But the show will go on. Yang and Xiong brought the 65 outfits when they flew into Minnesota on April 20, Thao said, so all six brands’ clothing will still appear this Saturday.

Also, CHAT will have the other five brands on Zoom after the show to meet the public. 

“We want to delve into the dynamics of the idea that, you know, the woman or the wife is maybe the main source of income for the family, and how that has affected the dynamics of Hmong society because these designers are successful,” Thao said. “In Thailand and Laos, there's few opportunities for Hmong men to get well-paid jobs. And so, this is a great way for Hmong women to help their families create income, have a career and then also do something that they love.”

Six brands, 65 designs and 65 models

The six brands in the show are: Era Brand, Closet Hill Tribe, RMY Shop, Iris Hmong Dress, ATiTA Style and Nxtoo Clothing.

“In Thailand, the Era Brand is very well known. Not only for Hmong but also for the Thai community. Their styles are often copied. So that’s the mark of success – when people copy you,” Thao said.

Hnub Thoj of ATiTA Style dressed Miss Hmong Universe and makes a lot of evening gowns, Thao said. The designs span from formal wear to streetwear, and from men’s wear to women’s wear to children's wear.

Yaj Muas of RMY Shop “designs for men – have cutoffs, shorts and maybe a little bit sexy. That’s their certain theme.” 

Iris Hmong dress uses “a lot of pink and bright colors. All of these have different variations of the basic Hmong style. If you pay attention, you can notice the subtle differences.”

The traditional core colors are red, green and blue. A few common symbols are squirrels, mountains, and triangles in Hmong designs.

He’s excited to see the crowd be in awe from seeing “designs that are a little bit different from what they're expecting from Hmong American designs.”

“There's going to be similarities. But if someone who is experienced and has more knowledge, they can tell the subtle differences between designers who are from Thailand, designers who are from Laos and Hmong American designers.”

“If you show the different clothing, side by side, Thailand and the United States, you can tell that there's a drastic difference in the color scheme and some of the designs. What we're trying to do is connect more of these fashion designers in Thailand with the retailers in America, to import and to share more of their designs here.”

The 65 models in the show are from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, Thao said.

‘Be loud, be excited’

The Hmong Thai Fashion Show is the first of its kind, but this is not the first fashion show CHAT has hosted.

“Our main show, which has been happening for 16 years is called Fresh Traditions,” which exhibits Hmong-American designers, said Thao, who has overseen five of those shows. This year it will take place on Sept. 23.

“I think most of the American designers are probably maybe the most eclectic, because they probably take Western ideas and influences from Laos and Thailand, and incorporate everything into their modern interpretation of our cultural designs.”

The fashion show is not only about showing the designs to the American market. “It's really about people coming to celebrate art, coming to celebrate fashion and if people who are interested in learning more about Hmong fashion.”

Thao shared advice for anyone attending one of CHAT’s fashion shows for the first time.

“When you come, be loud, be excited. I think that builds up energy for the models, they put in quite a bit of time and energy to practice and to rehearse. And so when they see that, that loud energy, it only makes them happier.”

“This is not an occasion to be silent and observe. We want people to be rowdy, in a good way, to show their appreciation of the model, their work and of the design.”

The crowd can help make the show great.

“The people that are supporting it, they're supporting the idea of Hmong fashion and celebrating and discovering what Hmong Thai designs are. So, it's a testament to the Hmong community here that they are supporting this fashion show.”