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Vivienne Tam and Jill Biden at a luncheon honouring Chinese President Xi Jinping at the US State Department in 2015.

ProfileChinese-American fashion designer Vivienne Tam on growing up poor in Hong Kong, dressing Jill Biden and empowering women from ethnic minorities

  • By the age of eight, Tam was already making her own clothes and going on trips with her mother to Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok to buy fabric ends
  • She likes to teach the West about Chinese culture and when she travels to places like Yunnan and Mongolia, she tries to give women work to help their families

My parents came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou [in southern China] a year before I did. I came at three years old (in the early 1960s), via Macau, with foster parents and when we went through immigration I was coached to say they were my parents.

At the time my parents struggled; they were from a landowning family and lost everything during the Cultural Revolution. We lived in a tiny Shek Kip Mei flat that only had a bed, which doubled as our table to do our homework and eat our meals on. Next to it was my mother’s sewing machine and I would watch her make clothes.

Mother as muse

By the time I was eight years old I was making my own clothes. For Chinese New Year my mother and I went to Sham Shui Po and Fa Yuen Street (in Mong Kok) to buy fabric ends and make outfits for our family.

A young Vivienne Tam wearing one of her own designs.
I watched my mother make cheongsam. When she put one on, she looked so different, it elevated her personality. She would say, this dress is the only one in the world, so that’s how I learned to be an individual. My mother is my muse. She taught me to be creative.

Made in China

In the mid-1970s I went to Hong Kong Polytechnic and studied design, but after I graduated I couldn’t find a design job. There were only merchandiser jobs because Hong Kong only did manufacturing. At the time people didn’t appreciate Chinese culture; everything was about the West because it represented luxury.

In the late 1970s my family made one or two trips back to China and I was fascinated with Chinese culture and wanted to learn more. Chinese calligraphy was beautiful, the colours and textures opened my eyes.

Tam with actress Julia Roberts wearing one of her designs.

The people there were so poor I thought maybe I could use my skills to promote Chinese culture. But my friends and classmates said, people won’t buy from you, you are Chinese, your inspiration comes from China, made in China. But I thought I could do it.

A bite of the Big Apple

During my internship while at Hong Kong Polytechnic, the Trade Development Council hired me as a fashion show coordinator at a trade fair in Dallas, Texas. I got to know some Hong Kong factories through this job. Afterwards, I made a side trip to New York for a few days and that visit changed my life – and I was determined to go back.

A dress from Tam on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo: Lia Chang

Cold caller

In Hong Kong I had over 20 outfits made in a small studio. I didn’t have money to buy fabric from Europe so I printed my own, which has become my signature. In New York, I cold-called department stores like Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel, Barneys, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue.

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If I got through they said, “You come from Hong Kong, there are no designers there, only manufacturers. Are you trying to sell me cheap T-shirts or cheap blouses?” I said, “No, I’m a fashion designer. Can you give me an opportunity to show you my collection?” Some hung up, others invited me to come so I rushed over right away. Some liked my clothes, others didn’t. Sometimes I would cry in the hotel room.

Naomi Campbell on the runway at a Vivienne Tam fashion show during New York Fashion Week in 1994.

In early November 1982, Henri Bendel had an open day for new designers. I lined up with over 100 others. I wore my spring clothes underneath my Mao green quilted jacket and braided my hair so that I was my own model. Carol Brown, a Henri Bendel buyer, said she’d never seen anything like this, and told me which buyers to call, and gave me an order, cash on delivery, and a window, too.

Putting on a show

I didn’t have my first fashion show until 1993, because they were very expensive. Buyers told me it was time to have my name out and I saved US$200,000 to do a show at the first New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park. Naomi Campbell walked my first show. My clothes were on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily.

Tam at her office in Lai Chi Kok, Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Plastic fantastic

In 2000, HarperCollins published my book China Chic. Editor Judith Regan had approached me about doing a book on my love of Chinese culture, but she didn’t expect a big square one that took me two years to write.

I wanted gold-edged paper, red text and a red plastic cover. But the editors had never done a plastic cover before because the book can’t stand up so how can you sell it? We argued about it for a while. In the end I paid for the plastic cover. Now we’re doing a reprint and I’m thinking of doing China Chic 2.

Cover of China Chic by Vivienne Tam.

Going ethnic

I like to teach the West about Chinese culture. I have a Buddha and Guanyin collection. I used to go to the Buddhist temple with my mother and I thought, Buddha and Guanyin are nice. How can I put them on clothes or products? New York people really liked it. I explained Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy.

When I travel I like going to places with ethnic minorities like Yunnan, Mongolia and Bhutan. I talk to the villagers and find out how we can repurpose their crafts into products. I also want to empower women, give them work like embroidery to help their families. I used fabric from Bhutan to make bags to give out at my fashion show.

Losing my soulmate

In the mid-1990s I met designer Scott Crolla in London through friends. He was the love of my life, my soulmate, and we spent a lot of time together, though our relationship was long distance. He told me to be true to myself.

Tam with Scott Crolla in New York in 2013. Photo: Patrick McMullan

He passed away from cancer in 2019 and I designed a scarf to raise money for cancer awareness. I wish I could have saved him, but he didn’t want chemotherapy and I saw him suffer.

Ladies who lunch

(American first lady) Jill Biden is so gentle and kind. In 2015, her husband, (then vice-president) Joe Biden was hosting President Xi Jinping at the State Department. It was a great honour when she asked me to dress her. One month before the event she came to my studio.
Jill liked all the outfits I picked out for her and asked me which one she should wear that best represented my brand. At the party Jill introduced me to (Chinese first lady) Peng Liyuan and we chatted for several minutes.
Tam and Jill Biden at the State Department luncheon.

For the fans

I’m very happy seeing ordinary people wearing my clothes. When I’m on the street and bump into fans, they tell me they wore my dress on their first date, or wore my outfit to a wedding, during important moments and it makes me so happy and it encourages me to be better.

Mother’s nature

I have spent over a year in Hong Kong with my mother, it’s great. I haven’t spent so much time with her. Before Covid-19, every time I came back I would see her on the weekend for dim sum. She’s 89 years old now and every day she asks me, “What time are you coming back for dinner?”