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Teen designer hosts charity show

Update: December, 24/2015 - 10:00
Good cause: Designer and UNIS student Zeke Edwards poses with attendees at the debut of his collection Rouge by Rambutan. The show, Zeke's third, raised over US$1,200 for the Kid's Sun Group's work with children living with HIV or AIDS in Viet Nam. — Photos courtesy of Zeke Edwardsby Annalise Frank

Sixteen-year-old fashion designer Zeke Edwards says the hours leading up to the premiere of a new collection are unbelievably nerve-wracking.

"It's dreadful actually," says Zeke with a laugh.

"Just because it's stressful and things need to come together like that," he snaps.

There's a million things to do before tides of guests start rolling in – handling sponsors, getting the venue ready, and working with event planners and models, to name a few. But when his charity fashion show Rouge by Rambutan finally began on November 21, Zeke says he was in his element.

"It's very surreal, actually, because it goes by pretty quickly and it's sort of like, your two hours that you're recognised for something you did," says the US-born UNIS student.

"The event is really fun, the process is fun, but at times it's super stressful."

Rouge wasn't Zeke's first experience in the whirlwind industry of fashion, either. His first collection debuted in 2013, when he was 13, and his second in 2014. He moved to Ha Noi about seven years ago with his mother and brother. But he was interested in fashion and design ages before that.

"He was definitely the most stylish kindergartner at his school," his mother Ramona Anne Byrkit, 51, wrote in an email.

"He enjoyed sketching and designing many things, from pet hotels to beach villas, and has always been very detail-oriented."

A few years after Zeke settled in Ha Noi, when he was 11, he started baking cakes and cupcakes with his family's maid. He saw it as a commercial project, drawing in orders from expats around the neighbourhood, and his family began to notice he had a flair for business.

"Learning from (the cupcake venture), I definitely realised that Viet Nam had all this opportunity that wouldn't be accessible in the US, so I wanted to take advantage of it," Zeke says.

Taking the plunge: A model walks down the catwalk past onlookers in a red silk gown, one of designer Zeke Edwards' favourite looks, at the charity fashion show Rouge by Rambutan on November 21.

He'd been putting outfits together for years, and was Byrkit's reliable "fashion adviser", as she wrote.

Inspired by teen clothing choices in Ha Noi and the styles he encountered on a trip to Hong Kong, he decided his next foray into business would be fashion.

It was easier to break into the Ha Noi fashion scene than it would have been in the US, he says, because the community is smaller and more close-knit. His family already knew people in fashion, making it relatively easy to network his way in.

One such influence was Dutch fashion designer Danielle Gaanderse-Rustwijk, 53, who moved in next door to Zeke's family when Zeke was about 12. She mentored the young designer through his three shows.

When she first saw Zeke she was impressed by his original style, she wrote in an email. His talent was obvious to her as soon as he began creating his first collection. Gaanderse-Rustwijk gave him advice on tailoring, helped him choreograph the models' poses and worked backstage on his shows.

While most designers hire entire teams to work on their collections, Zeke has done nearly everything himself for his shows.

"He is in charge of each and every step of the process," Gaanderse-Rustwijk wrote.

"He never loses sight of the end result. To be honest, Zeke does not need much help. He is very capable of handling any fashion project that comes his way."

Being in Ha Noi also meant Zeke had immediate access to a variety of tailors to make the clothes. His plans progressed quickly, from initial designs to meeting with tailors to planning his own show.

"I didn't really know anything about fashion at that point," he says.

"I was just sort of putting these outfits together, there was a lot of color. But it was basically what helped me learn everything that I needed to know going into the next shows."

His more recent show Rouge by Rambutan – Rambutan being Zeke's brand – was Zeke's first time combining his creativity with a cause. He chose HIV/AIDS awareness.

The idea to collaborate to create a charity show came from his school curriculum.

"It's called the personal project and you just choose, you create a product and it can be anything you want, and it should have somewhat of a community service aspect to it," Zeke says.

After his 2014 show he wasn't sure he wanted to continue, because of the stress and how it interfered with his academics. But this personal project allowed him to fuse the two – fashion and school – and he had the summer to let the concept grow.

The 21 eveningwear looks he debuted as Rouge were inspired by the HIV/AIDS red ribbon. Five models – also students at UNIS – strode down the catwalk at Art Vietnam Gallery, 24 Ly Quoc Su Street, showing off low-necked red designs with black accents and ribbons throughout.

The show raised over US$1,200 for the Kid's Sun Group, which works with children living with HIV or AIDS in Viet Nam.

Behind the designs

Asked several days after the show, Zeke says his favourite Rouge looks are two velvet gowns with black lace embroidery.

Zeke pulls out the 21 outfits, which hang on a bamboo rack in his home. Some of the pieces will be sold to interested buyers, but the rest will go back to the models, he says.

Asked what look gave him the most trouble, Zeke pulls out one of the dresses with the embroidery, which isn't hand-sewn into the fabric – each oval of lace is adhered as a whole onto the dress.

"These (two dresses) were probably the most difficult… it's really important that the embroidery is all lined up and equal, it mirrors each other," he says. "We had to constantly take them off and reapply them."

Small details like these – symmetry, the colour of the zippers, the shape of the neckline, the size of slits in the side of a dress – it all matters, as Zeke has learned. An idea is one thing, but creating a physical object out of that is another job entirely. It requires attention to detail, improvisation, a heap of patience and a willingness to compromise.

"It's not always going to be what you imagined it to be," he says. "So, you know, you gotta be flexible." — VNS

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