2011 MUST KNOW: Gaga for Designs by Banchong

The nature of the Northwest inspires this local designer’s unique collections.

The designs of Banchong Douangphrachanh have garnered a great deal of attention in the past few years. Her work has been featured in prominent fashion shows, magazines and even a highly popular music video, (does the name Lady Gaga ring a bell?)

Photo: Allklier

Through it all, she has remained humble, and says she is sustained by both her love of nature and the outdoors, and her desire to create clothing that is both practical and artistically relevant.

“I’m totally anti-fashion,” she told me over coffee at Oddfellows Café, near her Capitol Hill studio. “Fashion shows and trends don’t do anything for me.”

Douangphrachanh was born in Laos in 1977, and though her family immigrated to the United States when she was seven, her homeland has figured prominently into her professional ideology. “I’m from a country that doesn’t have fashion. We wear the same clothes year-round,” she explained. “My mom was a clothes-maker. I saw clothes as a function.”

In 1999, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in technical writing from the University of Washington. However, it was the extracurricular activities of her college days that initially led her to clothing design. An avid outdoorswoman – she lists hiking, climbing and cross-country skiing as her favorite pastimes – Douangphrachanh was a member of the UW mountaineering club.

She noticed the clothes chosen by her fellow climbers were fashionable, but not practical. “The quality was there, but it was not performance-driven,” she explained. “Seattle people are outdoorsy, and they have dual-purpose needs. There weren’t a lot of people filling that niche.”

This desire to create clothes that were both functional and attractive led Douangphrachanh to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Fashion Design in 2009.

While studying there, she experimented with patterns, textures and materials. In doing so, she found an abundance of inspiration from the natural world. “I use a lot of biology and science,” she said. “Floral patterns are good, and I like the microscopic part of nature. I look at a leaf I like, and I want to know about the cell membrane structure. When I design, I’m very conceptual.”

Photo: Bob Toy

The design that first earned her national attention was one such concept, an elaborate jewelry model derived from an unusual source. The design – a transparent chest and shoulder covering, rendered from plastic and fitted with screws – was inspired by the jellyfish.

“[The jewelry] is transparent with wavy movement.,” Douangphrachanh explained, comparing the selection to its invertebrate muse. “The skirt flows and puffs out when she walks.  It’s slippery and shiny, too.”

The striking selection earned her substantial praise; one fan in particular, Lady Gaga, liked the piece so much that she chose to wear it in the video for her hit single ‘Poker Face.’

Despite the nod from Ms. Gaga, as well as features in such shows as the Vagadu Green Apparel Womenswear Chicago Fashion Show 2007 and Seattle Fashion Week 2010, Douangphrachanh cites another achievement as her proudest moment.

“Being featured in Womens’ Wear Daily,” she said, “was a wonderful feeling. It’s the Holy Bible, it’s my Pulitzer.” In spite of her success thus far, she insists she has much more to accomplish. “I’m still a beginner,” she claimed. “I have a very high threshold for success, and I’m still trying to get there.”

Photo: Allklier

Douangphrachanh currently has two collections in the works, slated for release in the coming years. Due out this year, the Regatta line is directly inspired by the denizens of Seattle’s high-end harbor scene. The designs in this collection are created to provide comfort and functionality, while incorporating inventive materials into their composition.

“I’m experimenting with things like neoprene and Gortex,” she explained. “The designs are old, but the materials are new. I want to make one outfit that people can wear comfortably while they’re out on the water, and another for when they’re back on land, and they want to go out on the town.”

Her other collection, the Aviator line, is still in development, and tentatively slated for a 2012 release. Also drawing inspiration from a distinct style, the style of Aviator’s designs is modeled after the flyboys of the early 1900s.

Douangphrachanh is a little more tight-lipped about this one, but ensures it will be unique. “Aviators had style,” she said. “It was all goggles, scarves and leather jackets. There’s a lot to work with.”