Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, Published July 12, 2016
Van Tran spent three weeks brainstorming and creating a couture-inspired wedding dress in her Brooklyn apartment. After approximately 100 hours of work (Tran spent 4-5 hours a day working on her design), 10 toilet paper rolls, and $80 worth of tape, hot glue, and glitter glue, Tran became the winner of the 12th annual Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest presented by Cheap-Chic-Weddings and Charmin.
“I’m so amazed that my dress is in a museum,” Tran, 25, told NBC News of her dress, which will soon grace the halls of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. “It feels one step closer to achieving my dreams.”
“[It] was the first year touching snow ever,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone got married in a snowstorm?'”
Since winning the contest last month, Tran said her phone has been buzzing nonstop with calls from friends and family congratulating her on her win which made national and international headlines. She’s even had multiple offers from friends asking her to design their own wedding and bridesmaid dresses in the future.
“Someone was like, ‘I can’t believe you made a wedding dress out of toilet paper. It actually looks like a wedding dress,'” she said.
This is Tran’s second time entering the Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest, but her first time showing at the final runway event, held at the Haven Rooftop at the Sanctuary Hotel in New York in June. Entrants were judged on five categories: originality, beauty, creativity, the use of toilet paper, and workmanship.
Before the final show, the thought of a toilet paper dress malfunction or disaster on the runway had crossed Tran’s mind too many times. It took a few minutes to shake off the anxiety and focus on the fact that she had just created a design that she was proud of, even if she didn’t take home the grand prize.
“It was such an adrenaline rush of 20 seconds that I live for in my design career,” she said.
A Non-Linear Path to Success
Born in Vietnam and raised in California (Tran immigrated to the U.S. in 1993, at the age of 3, with her family), Tran said she never knew the value of space until she moved to her Brooklyn apartment, which currently functions as both a living space and her creative design studio — a reminder of her childhood.
“When I was growing up, I had to share small bedrooms with sisters. We had bunk beds,” Tran said. “My sisters would get mad every time I would sew because she would step on pins and yell at my mom and say I need my own room.”
Today, Tran gets creative when she needs space to sew and lay out her dresses on her futon bed, sometimes compromising sleep just so her designs would be free from damage.
“I’m used to the small space I only have and it definitely keeps you a little more organized. I think it gives me more creative thinking when you are confined to cleaning up the space as you continue with each process,” she said.
Growing up, Tran would often get oversized hand-me downs from her older sisters but was always eager to create her own designs.
“I was definitely self-taught at a young age,” she said, recalling her thrill when her mom gave her a sewing kit. Tran bought her first sewing machine after landing a part-time job at the age of 15.
She aspired to attend Parsons School of Design in New York, but even though she was accepted, she chose not to attend because she wasn’t offered any scholarships or financial assistance. The temporary setback fueled her dreams of becoming a designer, and that year, as her friends were preparing for their big college move, Tran was busy creating her own line of accessory and tote bags. She was content with a non-linear path, one in which she could sew and patch her own dreams together.
“After high school, everyone knew their direction and I didn’t,” she said. “I was totally lost and, instead of going directly to college, I got into a design internship with a shoe designer.”
At her first internship, Tran ran errands, processed orders, and did everything she could to learn the ropes of the industry. After six months, Tran landed another internship working for an evening wear designer. She began taking design classes at a community college and later transferred to San Francisco State University, where she majored in apparel design merchandising with a focus on women’s fashion.
She graduated in 2014 and moved to Brooklyn after a brief summer stint working as a sewing instructor at a kid’s camp in San Francisco.
“I was mostly self-taught, learning from going to the internship and going to school helped me do better professional work,” she said.
Tran says she considers herself a “detail-oriented fashionista” and focused on the pattern of her winning dress first before taping the toilet paper together.
“When you are laying out the dress to create a big sheet, you have to tape the whole, entire sheet. You can’t leave a space. If you leave a space and try to cut it, it will start ripping apart,” she said.
When creating her design, Tran envisioned a dress that was not obviously made from toilet paper. The trick, she said, was to use toilet paper the same way she would use any other fabric.
For a more textured look, Tran designed a mermaid dress with a scalloped-cut hem. She glued together each “feather strand” and cut individual toilet sheets to create a layered effect. The cape of the dress was created using tape and cookie sheets.
She also said she got burned by hot glue too many times to count as she waited for her handmade toilet paper pearl buttons to harden and dry from diluted Elmer’s Glue solution.
To complete the look, Tran created a headpiece and veil using silver glitter glue for an iridescent, winter look. The concept, she explained, was to convey the story of a snow queen getting married on her wedding day during a snowstorm.
Tran hopes to continue working in fashion, eventually getting into the costume design industry. (Tran has entered previous design competitions at events such as WonderCon and the International Textile and Apparel Association.)
But, she adds, she considers herself an artist before a designer.
“I don’t see myself doing mass production too much so hopefully,” she said. “I love making garments that feel as though you can’t reproduce [them]. So I’m much more of an artist — like a clothing artist.”