Minh Le, born and raised in South Vietnam, does not remember a time when she was not designing and making clothing.
Whenever possible she would use scraps of fabrics to create and stitch by hand clothing for her dolls. Then, at age 17, she was given what became her greatest gift: a sewing machine. Her Vietnamese grandmother, who died in 1995, recognized Minh’s innate gift and saved to buy her a used sewing machine. By watching television and perusing as many fashion magazines as she could get her hands on, teenage Minh’s distinct fashion ideas took shape, and she spent time refining her sewing skills by working at a tailoring store. “And I would always take clothes apart and rework them and sew something else,” she says.
Minh distinctly remembers the first time she watched a clip of a New York City fashion runway on television. A fervor began to grow in her that eventually motivated her out of poverty in Vietnam to pursue opportunities in the United States. It took a while, but 47-year-old Minh’s childhood dream of becoming a legitimate designer with models wearing her fashions on a New York City runway came true in 2017.
Choosing Lexington as Work and Home Base
Minh’s opportunity to move to the United States came in 1994. She first moved with family members to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to Connecticut, where she married and had two children, now both in their 20s. After visiting Charleston, she began to consider living in the South. “Right away, South Carolina reminded me of home,” she says.
Northern cold temperatures, among other factors, were undesirable for a South Vietnamese native who was used to heat and humidity. She researched and learned that Lexington, in particular, had good schools and business opportunities. In 2008 she decided to make the move, open her own nail salon, and continue working on fashions in her spare time.
“My kids loved growing up here. I was able to take them to swim meets and be involved in their school lives. And the people here have always been nice to me,” she says. “While I sometimes miss the excitement of a big city, it is more important to be in a good place to work and live and play.”
As her children grew and as she managed her business, she continued to yearn to see her own clothing creations gracing New York City runways as well as to design and sew fashions for a living. Every spare moment was spent sketching and sewing.
In fact, other than jeans and shoes, Minh wears only her own fashions. She says she gravitates personally to graceful, feminine looks. Her favorite fabrics are lace and silk. Often the fabrics she finds inspire the designs. Fashion work for Minh has always been like breathing.
“I love it so much … it’s never felt like work. The kids would call to me and say, ‘What are we having for dinner?’ and I’d say, ‘What time is it?’ I lose all track of time when I am designing and sewing.”
When her second child was a senior at Lexington High School, Minh decided it was time to focus more of her attention on fashion. Eventually, Minh sold the nail salon business and put all her efforts into 831Minhle, a one-woman shop from which Minh provides custom women’s clothing design and boutique-style clothing. It is from this 800-square-foot space on East Main Street in Lexington, amidst sketch books, sewing machines, large spools of colorful thread, and an array of fabrics, that Minh not only meets with customers individually to determine wardrobe and special event needs but also adjusts and enhances customers’ existing wardrobes. And, she has a selection of her ready-to-wear clothing in a front-of-the-space boutique. Besides stylish, versatile jackets and both sophisticated and casual tops, she makes timeless blouses, skirts, and shorts. She has also custom made a few men’s suits and women’s formal wear. “I also make sure what I make is washable so it’s also practical.”
All the while Minh is dressing a mostly local clientele, however, she is also building collections for upcoming runway fashion shows.
Childhood Dreams Do Come True
Minh’s clothing first graced a New York Fashion Week’s runway in 2017. She had to apply, with photography of her collection, and be accepted in order to secure scheduled and coveted runway time, usually 10 to 30 minutes tops. When she learned her collection of 23 unique fashions had been allotted a full 30 minutes of runway time, she says, “I just went into the bathroom and cried. I still didn’t believe it, but then I saw my name on the schedule so I knew it was real.”
The process of creating fashions for a first-time runway show is only half of the equation. “A few days before the show I had to audition models, fit them, and pay them,” she says. “I tried to choose models who were beginners since I was just starting out in the New York fashion scene, and I know what it’s like. I wanted to give new models a chance, too.” Dressing details were affixed to each item of clothing and hung in the back-of-runway dressing room. Anything that had to be altered after the initial model fitting had to be done by hand in Minh’s hotel room the night before.
She admits the experience of watching models walk the runway in clothing she had sewn in her Lexington sewing space was surreal. “My career took off after that show.”
Her debut collection was described in The Nu Journal as “distinctly feminine, rife with ruffles, embroidery, and textured florals in a palette of nudes and creams.” The publication featured photography of many of her designs as they were modeled on the runway. InStyle and ELLE included her in their September 2017 designer inspiration reports, which are news updates circulated during fashion week.
Minh was asked back this past year to show a new line of eight pieces. “That time they did everything for me,” says Minh, explaining that in the eyes of the New York City fashion world, she had “proven” herself. Currently, she is at work on a 12-piece line that will show in September, if COVID-19 does not sideline the celebrated week.
“Most clothes shown on the runway may not sell, but after that, people can change the designs somewhat to be more practical,” says Minh. “Sometimes what’s seen on the runway is an extreme example of how creative you can be.”
She considers her Lexington location ideal and points out that living in New York City just to be involved in fashion is not necessary. “I can get on a plane and be there in a few hours.”
Her local and global recognition even gained the attention of the directors of the South Carolina-filmed show Outer Banks; Minh has been asked to dress one of the actors for a photo shoot.
But customers visiting her Lexington shop can see, touch, and even try on for themselves her one-of-a-kind fashions that graced a New York City runway. And while she will continue to do runway shows — not only in New York City but places like Charlotte and Charleston as well — she does not want her business to grow so much that she cannot attend to her local customers. “It’s important that I serve the people here who have a desire to look their best and to have something that is uniquely theirs that department stores can’t offer. What I do is work to enhance the beauty of every woman … so they will be happy and confident with what they are wearing.”
She explains further, “Doing fashion shows is a way to build your name and get coverage in magazines and among other designers,” says Minh. “Without that, you’re just a seamstress.”
She also realizes that what she does, especially as a Southern-based profession, is rare — as is designing and sewing clothing in general. “So many young people don’t want to learn how to sew,” she says. “But when someone does want to learn, I will teach them and it feels good to share my skills.”
Her goal, no matter for whom or what reason she is designing, is to focus on quality, value, and service. Each piece is just as finished on the inside as the outside. She intends with every piece to create a lasting look that transitions effortlessly within a wardrobe, regardless of the season. She says she wants people not only to look good in her clothing, but also “to believe in themselves.”
She says she enjoys working with customers almost as much as designing their clothing. “For me it’s about the people and their warmth.” She admits that she feels very much at home because of the people of the Midlands and much more about the area.
“As an entrepreneur and artist, I love our vibrant local arts scene, the comradery of the small business community, and the opportunity to build my dream without sacrificing my family.”