Couture in Kenton
Kenton-based designer Anh Mao loves making dreams come true with her clothes.
Anh Mao gets lots of invitations to weddings.
Brides-to-be can be notoriously difficult to please (think Bridezilla) but since she set up her couture business in 2006 Anh’s dresses have made many women very happy indeed.
Anh designs bridal and evening wear for women and many of her clients are so pleased with her creations they want her to witness their impending nuptials. If she can’t make it they sometimes send her photos of the big day.
One of Anh’s design sketches
“Isn’t it fab to make someone happy,” she smiles, surrounded by dresses of varying styles and shades at her home in Kenton.
“I feel great because I feel like I’m working on somebody’s dream and making it happen and that’s something that’s more than a job.
“When somebody smiles at the creation you helped them to achieve that’s what makes it worthwhile – even though I have to stay up until four o’clock in the morning sometimes to finish it off.”
Born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, Anh and her family came to England at the end of the 1970s as refugees from the war in Vietnam.
Arriving in Kenton at the age of 11 Anh didn’t know a word of English and found school life very hard.
She was badly bullied and during her early teens also spent a lot of time in hospital being treated for a cleft palate.
Consequently it took a long while for her English to develop.
“I was very shy with being really badly bullied at school,” she remembers. “You tend to not speak to anyone, because every time you do speak somebody stops you and laughs at you, so then it’s even harder to develop language skills.”
Anh says that because of the language barrier she found more visual subjects, like needlework and textiles, much easier to learn at school.
So her decision to study fashion was initially one of pragmatism rather than passion.
“I wanted to be a lawyer or a barrister, something to do with law, but my English wasn’t good enough. I decided to do fashion because I thought ‘Well, I haven’t got another choice’.”
The decision, however, proved to be a good one. Anh had a natural flair for art and design and went on to study at college and university.
“Setting up in the North East is very difficult because for a lot of things you have to travel down to London.”
Family commitments took precedence for many years after that but once both her children were at school she decided to set up Mao Couture. Now people travel from all over the country to meet her for consultations.
She says a lot of her inspiration comes from these initial chats with clients.
“I spend a lot of time with them. I want to understand what kind of lifestyle they’re living, what kind of social circle they have.
“It’s about creating the right atmosphere to make that person feel good. At the end of the day it’s them that’s wearing the dress.
“A lot of my design is also based on how functional the outfit is going to be,” she adds. “If it doesn’t work it’s not a design.”
Some people want everything on their dress, other people want something extremely simple. Anh’s design is often somewhere in the middle.
Her role is to give them some extra options and ideas – but if someone wants too many flounces and frills she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.
“You need to wear the dress not the dress wear you,” she says, describing her style as fun, flexible and a little bit quirky.
You might not think of Newcastle as being a hub of the fashion world – and you’d be right. But for Anh it’s home and, despite many offers, she wouldn’t consider working anywhere else.
“Setting up in the North East is very difficult because for a lot of things you have to travel down to London.
“But being in the North East, this is my life, this is where I studied. Although I emigrated here it is very much like home to me and with all the experience I have I’m not even scared [of setting up here]. I love being here.”
Anh’s certainly not afraid of hard work and later in 2008 will be launching her own collection in several shops in the region.
“I have determination and faith in the area,” she says. “There’s nowhere better to start from than where you know.”
Photos: Summerfield photography, make-up by Julie Ann Pattition and head piece by Magaret