But then she visited H-Town for two-and-a-half days, and everything changed.
"It's the most special city in America, (with) the colors, the textures, the culture, the music, the museums, the science, the technology, the space — all together," Tam said backstage before she debuted her collection before a packed audience that included celebrities Christina Milian, Jamie Chung and Sean Young at Skylight at Moynihan Station on Monday night. "It's such an amazing vibrant city."
After her visit in June, Tam began dreaming about Houston nearly ever night, and before she knew it, she had sketched plans to create her entire 43-look collection around the memories that remained etched in her mind. Visit Houston executives put her in touch with officials at NASA, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Rice University and Houston Ballet, all of which gave her permission to use their logos in her designs, and she drew on visits to museums, Buffalo Bayou, restaurants, Comicpalooza, which was in town when she visited, and cowboy stores for inspiration.
"We connected Vivian to all these interesting things about Houston and just stepped back and let her do her thing," said Visit Houston president Mike Waterman, who saw the collection for the first time backstage before the show. "She has done a remarkable job interpreting the magic of Houston, which is this entrepreneurial, very welcoming, open city that likes to do thing differently. And I think it fits 100 percent with who we are."
The result is a funky, fun, and sometimes over-the top collection incorporating patterns of armadillos, butterflies and pink spoonbills, fringe, denim, lace, sequins, embroidery and silver-coated fabric — sometimes all in one ensemble — that garnered largely positive reviews from the fashion press.
Vogue.com noted Tam was the first fashion designer to use NASA's logo in a collection that has a " 'space cowboy meets rodeo' vibe." (Female astronaut Tracy Dyson opened the runway show with a taped welcome from the International Space Station.)
"At times, the mashed-up references felt a little too full-on — it’s hard to picture any woman wearing a tie-dye dress with NASA patches, pixelated Houston Rodeo logos, and armadillos stamped all over it — but there were times when the Western vibe felt fresh," the reviewer noted.
A reviewer for Women's Wear Daily wrote that the "kitschy co-mingling of boho-rodeo and mission-control motifs celebrated all things Houston" in a "cute and playful spring show."
And, writing for Elle.com, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge noted:
The clothes are the kind I would have longed to find in the thrift store back in college. Which is to say, I love them. Pants and jackets made out of the same shiny material that astronaut ice cream comes wrapped in. Short, bright orange gowns embroidered with flowers and bright green tendrils and butterflies. Every third butterfly is rendered in 3-D—an appliqué that pops off the fabric and flutters a bit as the models walk past. The dresses are either fit for an especially feminine skateboarder or are long, floor-grazing gowns that make the model look like the head of a late '70s feminist environmentalist cult—Rachel Carson if she'd said, "Screw y'all for not listening to me" and ran away to lowland Texas, a place no one would ever suspect. This is, the program says, an homage to Houston's flora and fauna. As is, some of these gowns look like they could be in a remix of Lemonade.
Backstage before the show, Waterman and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo president Joel Cowley, wearing his trademark Stetson, touted Houston in interviews with multiple media outlets from around the world, including China, where Tam has a large following. The Houston tourist organization has spent around $200,000 in support of the fashion show, an after-party at Skylark lounge that took place in New York and in making plans for promotions in Asia, Mexico City and Houston, Waterman said.
"We think from a marketing perspective it's going to pay back considerable dividends. With Asia being the fourth largest market (for trade with Houston), we see the opportunity to partner with Vivenne on the fashion side and do projects in Beijing and in Shanghai with her to bring customers and increase the awareness of Houston over in China," he said.
"For us, this in an unexpected but interesting opportunity. We want people who haven't been to Houston to look at this collection and say, 'Wow, we need to go visit Houston to see what this is all about'."
Houstonians on the front row of the fashion show included Houston Ballet chairman of the board Phoebe Tudor, Houston Ballet president Allison Thacker, and Rice University ambassador Y. Ping Sun — all dressed for the occasion in gowns designed by Tam, along with Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo vice president Pat Mann Phillips, Tammy Cowley, and NASA representatives Deborah A. Conder and Melanie Saunders.