Amid screeching buses and careening cars, Thu Fashion is an unexpected oasis of all things stylish on bustling Sandy Boulevard. Through the light-filled windows, mannequins boast couture gowns with ruffled collars and thigh-high slits. Wardrobes display colorful handmade garments on one side, customer alterations on another. Bolts of fabric sit stacked on top. Tailor Thu Duong will look up from her sewing machine, push up her dramatic gold-and-black glasses, stand up to reveal her red carpet–worthy outfit, and greet you with a loud, echoing welcome.
Born to a middle-class family in Da Nang, Vietnam, Duong says her life changed when her father, a former government official, was sent to a prison camp. She and her husband fled in 1979, after the war, to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. They settled in Italy, where they lived for nine years and where she studied fashion design. In 1988, they came to Portland to join her in-laws, and later her parents and siblings moved here.
Thu Fashion (1807 NE 42nd Ave) has been open almost 30 years, starting as a custom gown business and later shifting to alterations only. It’s hard not to covet Duong’s outfits, which she designs and sews herself. Think David Bowie angular silhouettes, matched with boots from her collection of more than 200 pairs. On her Instagram page (@thu_n_duong), she posts selfies taken in the shop’s gilded mirror, showing off her outfits. Duong doesn’t sell her custom designs, but you could bring any garment here and come out with a totally refreshed piece. She won’t shy away from telling you what does and doesn’t work for you. You’ll leave feeling inspired and fashionable.
I fell in love with fashion when I was 17, when I went to the cinema by myself. I watched a romantic movie, full of beautiful ladies who’d sit at beautiful coffee shops with their shopping bags. I promised myself, if I had the opportunity for a better life, I would get dressed up and go to coffee shops every day. This job is my dream come true.
When I arrived in Italy, I was a singer with a band of 30 other Vietnamese refugees. We would perform all over Italy during Vietnamese New Year. I feel like my personality is half Vietnamese and half Italian. I talk loud like an Italian, I talk with my hands. They’re very friendly. I love the food, pastries, coffee shops where they say, “Buongiorno, signora!” When I didn’t have anything, my sponsor in a town called Sassuolo di Modena helped me have a better life. I’ve gone back to see her five times. When my husband and I got our first paychecks, I asked if we could buy a sewing machine. I practiced all the time, then got a certificate in apparel design.
I worked at the Pendleton factory when I moved to Oregon. Every Friday, I’d wear a new outfit I sewed myself. I wanted to work as a designer, and I wanted to show my supervisor how good I am. I didn’t get the job, maybe because I’m Asian. They told me they didn’t accept diplomas outside the United States, but a month later they hired a German designer. That’s when I opened my shop. I really appreciate that I left; my life went up a level. But three years later, when my shop was getting popular, my manager at Pendleton called me and asked if I wanted to be a designer. I worked there for one month in the mornings before I went to work at my shop, then quit. I had to show them I can do everything—a pattern maker, designer, sewer.
When I started my Instagram page, I realized, I don’t take photos in my clothing designs very often. I should do that. The first couple selfies I took didn’t look right. I’d see people driving by or waiting for the bus, and they’d look at me while I took my selfies, and I felt silly. But later, I thought, I have to be natural. When I pose, they’ll think, “What a cool pose.” I take selfies each day, better and better.
Most of my designs are timeless. I like elegant, cool-looking clothes that can work for any age. I call it “runway on the street.” Look on my Instagram, you’ll love my boots. I tell my customers, when you wear boots with a funky heel, or cowboy boots, you need to walk a little bit noisy. You’ll look super cool. Boots can really represent your personality.
I make customers happy, but they also make me happy. Last year, my son, who was 40, died suddenly of cancer. He was my best friend; we talked every day. I put a note on my shop’s door when he passed, and my customers called and said, “Don’t give up hope. We love you.” I cut my hours; I’m semiretired now. My customers never complained. We laugh, we have fun, we talk about everything, not just alterations. It’s not just drop off, pick up, and done. Not me.