As a designer of convertible frocks, Joanna Duong Chang is well-versed in the world of flexibility and fit. The Toronto-based design talent launched her dress label Henkaa in 2010, and has been crafting eveningwear and bridesmaid dresses ever since. Duong Chang, who is also a busy mother of two, often sports her own ladylike, flowing creations and found her inspiration in the idea of comfort and convenience.
Recently, we spoke to the Canadian dress designer at Startup Fashion Week in Toronto. Duong Chang chatted with Real Style about Henkaa, which fittingly means “change” or “transformation” in Japanese. Here’s what she had to say about the birth of her rapidly rising label, her most poignant style memory and her experience in the Canadian fashion industry thus far.
Real Style: What originally inspired you to become a designer?
Joanna: At a time when seemingly everyone I knew was getting married, I was asked to be a bridesmaid six times! I never wore these dresses again and on top of that, airlines were just beginning to charge for checked luggage. There were seemingly so many problems with women’s wardrobes so I came up with the idea of convertible / multifunctional apparel. The idea would be that you could do more with less. When I couldn’t find what I wanted in the market with the right design, price or quality, I decided to do something about it and started Henkaa.
Real Style: Describe your favourite fashion memory.
Joanna: I remember my first time debuting a Henkaa Convertible Dress at a friend’s wedding as a guest. I arrived at the venue and as I walked over to my table, I noticed another guest wearing the same color and style dress! We were both in this purple asymmetric one shoulder dress. So I decided to head to the restroom and quickly change my style, since that’s what the dress could do. In that restroom, as I was unwrapping and rewrapping my dress, I had gained a small audience who were wondering what the heck I was doing. Ladies started asking where and when they could get one and talked about how many times they’d wished they had this magically transforming dress! That’s really the moment that I realized that this brand wouldn’t just be about a dress; it would be about solving real challenges and problems that women face on a daily basis.
Real Style: What are some of the biggest design challenges of creating convertible dresses?
Joanna: The biggest design challenges of creating convertible dresses is definitely figuring out fit. We make our dresses in a full size range of 0 to 24 and within that we make each dress fit a size range. This makes our garments easy to purchase without trying on (yay online shopping!) and also means alterations are not usually needed. Size and body inclusiveness has always been important to our brand but obviously means that it takes a lot of fittings and samples to create that perfect garment that can be worn in over a dozen ways. To add to that, no one wants to look like they’re wearing something the wrong way, so we make sure to make design tweaks so that you never look like you’re wearing something “backwards” or “upside down”.
Real Style: How has your experience been working in the Canadian fashion industry?
Joanna: Canada, especially Toronto has a solid fashion community filled with talent, vendors and resources — and being Canadians, we love to help and share so it’s been great. From fashion incubators to startup entrepreneurs to leaders of very big international brands, we have the full gamut here. Our proximity to Montreal and New York definitely helps too,
Real Style: Do you have a favourite design from your Henkaa line?
Joanna: The original Sakura Convertible Dress will always be near and dear to me. It definitely is the most versatile of the bunch and the most flattering. My go-to way to wear it is just the basic halter style; I love how I can pull the sleeves out if it gets a little chilly and I can add a statement necklace to dress it up. My daughter loves how it twirls too!
Real Style: What are your must-have style essentials?
Joanna: Right now they are my comfy Tory Burch leather flats, infinity scarf, my convertible bag (it goes from purse to clutch to cross-body) and of course my Henkaa Sakura convertible dress! I love things that are comfortable, flexible and versatile — you just never know what’s going to come up!