March 5 marked a historic and significant milestone in Disney when the entertainment conglomerate introduced its first ever Southeast Asian Princess — Raya — at the premiere of Raya and The Last Dragon. But instead of the usual red carpet premiere in Hollywood, the event was held virtually (even the film industry is being disrupted by this global pandemic), and was live-streamed for the whole world to see.
At the event, the stunning cast Awkwafina, Sarah Oh, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong all shone bright. But the star of the night was Kelly Marie Tran, the voice behind Raya and the epitome of Southeast Asian artistry. Kelly is a Vietnamese-American actress.
She “arrived” at the red carpet in a fantastic ensemble consisting of a Vietnamese traditional ao dai designed by Thai Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American designer, who took inspiration from the image of a “phoenix rising from the ash”, as well as many other traditional elements from Vietnam’s culture.
The magnificent black and gold ao dai is full of beaded details that were meticulously hand-embroidered. It also has an exaggerated back flap that turns into a long train, creating a regal look for Kelly. Along with the ao dai, this look is completed with a beautifully made khan dong (headpiece) that, according to Thai Nguyen, represents power.
The story of the iconic ao dai
Kelly’s final look is the result of Nguyen and Kelly Tran’s collaboration that took just 48 hours to make. As happy and curious as we were, we reached out to Thai Nguyen and asked him about the story behind this iconic outfit.
What brought you and Kelly Marie together?
The first time we worked together was to create Kelly’s look for the premiere of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. After that, due to the unwanted attack from some Star Wars fans, Kelly decided to stay low and we didn’t quite catch up with each other until lately.
Could you describe how 48 hours of making Kelly’s ao dai went?
Not until three days prior to the premier, Kelly reached out to me and asked if I could design and make her an ao dai. She had tried a few options with other brands but they just didn’t work out for her. So of course, I said yes immediately as I’d always wanted to have a representation of Vietnamese traditional dress at an international event.
I believed this was the right chance and was determined to make the best ao dai for Kelly, no matter what it would take. And after a meeting with Kelly to exchange inspirations and get her measurements, my team got all hands on deck and spent 48 hours on sewing, cutting, and embroidering every single detail of the outfit.
This ao dai was completed at 3 AM, 8 hours before the first fitting. And surprisingly, it fitted her like a glove that we didn’t have to fix anything else! Everything from the tunic, the trousers and the khan đong were perfect. Kelly was really impressed while I couldn’t believe we made it just in time.
I also told Kelly that “I promised you that I would make this ao dai for you at all costs! This is such an important event for both you, me and the Vietnamese people. I know our mothers will be so proud!”. Then we both hugged each other and shared a good laugh.
What does the “phoenix rising from the ash” represent?
Although the character Raya is a princess, Kelly told me she wanted to dress like an empress, with a full on ao dai and khan dong look. That’s why I took the inspiration from the emperors and empresses of old in Vietnam, whose outfits always had dragon and phoenix motifs.
But instead of painting a literal phoenix, we decided to embroider lots of Vietnamese traditional patterns on the tunic. The khan dong is made of details resembling the phoenix’s tail surrounding a lotus motif attached with a beautiful jade in the center.
On top of that, the image of “phoenix rising from the ash” definitely represents Kelly’s journey in her acting career, with Raya and The Last Dragon as her next milestone.
What does this ao dai mean to you and Kelly?
Both Kelly and I see this as a big celebration of the first Disney’s Southeast Asian princess from Vietnam. This opportunity is not only meaningful to Kelly as a remarkable achievement in her career, but also a dream comes true for me as a designer.
I believe it is such an inspirational moment for our Vietnamese community. Since the premiere, I have received so many messages from young Vietnamese people expressing their pride when seeing an ao dai on the red carpet, and even told me they would wear ao dai more often. It’s not just about how gorgeous my creation looks like, to me, this is a truly meaningful event that will go down in history.
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The journey of the Vietnamese-American actress
During the virtual premiere of Disney’s latest animated film, Kelly couldn’t hide the joy and pride on her face. This event was the first time she re-appeared in the media after a long “hiatus”.
The world started to notice Kelly Marie Tran thanks to her role as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, making her the first Asian-American to play a lead role in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly is also the first Asian woman on a Vanity Fair’s cover.
Despite the recognition and success, Kelly started getting harsh criticisms for her acting, her appearance and even her origin. This unfortunate turn not only caused Kelly to remove all her Instagram posts and withdraw herself from social media, but was also an embarrassment in Star Wars fandom.
However, being a resilient woman as she is, in 2018 via an article that she wrote herself for the New York Times, she spoke about the experience of becoming a victim of online bullying. On behalf of the Asian community, Kelly truthfully shared her concerns about racism, sexism and her hope for a better world.
“[...]I know the opportunity given to me is rare. I know that I now belong to a small group of privileged people who get to tell stories for a living, stories that are heard and seen and digested by a world that for so long has tasted only one thing. I know how important that is. And I am not giving up. [...]”
Kelly’s words still resonate nearly three years on, and adds weight to the #StopAsianHate, a movement fighting for equality for Asian people in the world who are victims of racism everyday, out on the street and on social media.
With Raya and The Last Dragon, Kelly continues showing the world what she is made of as she officially becomes the first Southeast Asian princess of Disney. This is not just a significant milestone for the studio, but Kelly herself also sees it as “an absolute miracle.”
“I’m really proud to be part of that change in terms of making movies that honor people from those parts of the world. But there have also been a lot of anti-Asian hate crimes recently, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.” Kelly told The New York Times.
This article is translated by L A M