April 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Obituary: Vann Chen, 52

Vann Chen, a longtime D.C. resident and self-employed tailor and clothing designer, died March 31 at his Dupont Circle area apartment. He was 52.

Danny Aviance, his close friend and roommate for 17 years, said Chen died in his sleep. He said the city’s Medical Examiner’s office was still in the process of determining the cause of death.

Aviance said Chen was the youngest of nine children born and raised in Vietnam to Chinese parents. He said Chen arrived with family members in the U.S. in 1979 or 1980 on the West Coast. Aviance said Chen initially moved to the D.C. area to help his sister operate a family-run restaurant in Falls Church, Va.

During the years that Chen shared an apartment with him on 16th Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle, Aviance said Chen established a following as an acclaimed clothes maker who enjoyed making a living sewing.

“He had a style like nobody else,” Aviance said. “He did everything from wedding dresses to throw pillows. He literally threaded his way into people’s lives.”

Aviance and Chen’s friend Eileen Rappoport said Chen also was well known in the 1990s and early 2000s as a popular figure at D.C. gay nightclubs, including Tracks and later Velvet Nation before the two clubs closed to make way for real estate development.

Rappoport called Chen an “icon” in the D.C. area to those who were regulars at some of those clubs, especially Tracks.

“When Vann arrived, it was a party,” she said. “His talent in bringing life and light to anywhere he went is legendary.”

Rappoport added, “He was also a talented designer and seamstress. Many a bride walked down the aisle in a Vann Chen original. And like his work with fabric, Vann weaved himself into my life and the life of many creating a family that celebrated the best of life and grieved when the worst occurred. He was there to support each and every one of us and made us better people along the way.”

Aviance said he remembers Chen as “the funniest, kindest, sweetest person” he ever knew.

Chen’s friend David Delatour said Chen excelled in interior design as well as clothing design and the term “tailor” by itself wouldn’t do him justice.

“Vann was a high-end artist. His canvas was the human body and the home, and his paint was fabric and the needle,” said Delatour. “I have never seen anyone do what he did with his craft.”

Delatour and Mark Lee, a nightlife advocate and former owner of the gay nightclub Lizard Lounge and other venues, said Chen was also a generous supporter of community fundraisers at the clubs, especially those for AIDS- and LGBT-related causes.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, April 28 at 9 p.m. with midnight toast on Chen’s birthday, at Townhouse Tavern Upstairs (next to Cobalt), 17th and R streets, N.W. In accordance with his wishes, Chen was cremated, with his ashes to be sent to Vietnam, where they will be buried at the site of his parents’ interment, Aviance said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Less than fifteen minutes ago, when calling Van’s apartment to check on him and Danny (roommate of 17 years) like I had every month or so and was informed that Van Chen had passed away approximately two weeks ago. I am in utter disbelief. I have had a friendship with Van more than 20 years that has never waivered or diminished with time. He was one of a kind and though distance separated us over the last 7-8 years, we still saw each other a few times a year in person and talked on the phone many times a year. The memories of him stretch from attending a Chinese wedding in Philadelphia (more than 20 years+ ago) (with a pit stop at Tracks New York) to him designing vests, shirts, pants for me and stretching as far as him designing window treatments, accessory pieces for residences from New York to Miami Beach. He even made custom (one of a kind) jackets for my dogs! I am literally heartbroken and in a seeming state of denial. A truly talented individual was lost on that fateful night of March 30-31, 2012 and he will never be forgotten! I WILL LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER VAN TRAN (CHEN) AND MISS YOU TILL THE SUN STOPS SHINING. YOU AND YOUR TALENTS AND KINDHEARTED NATURE WILL BE WITH ME FOREVER! YOU WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN! HIS DEATH IS A LOSS TO EVERYONE’S LIFE HE EVER TOUCHED (AND THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE IS INCALCULABLE)! LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER, BARRY (CUDA).

  • Icon, is not a word I use very often when talking about people, but that is exactly what DC lost with the passing of Vann. My he rest in the great peace he deserves.

  • So sad. He designed my bridesmaid dresses and I just rememeber his as being a funny, kind, generous (always packed me food to take home!) person who just brought a smile to your face. RIP Van.

  • What a special human being! His great talent was so obvious . Beautiful Style , anything he touched . He made my drapes so beautifully. I remember knocking on his door a couple of years back to pick up a cake he made for our good friend Doug. The cake was so big and Heavy ,and the flower work on top was incredible , obviouly a master baker . It was raining and i had two blocks to walk with the cake. Vann gave me an umbrella to protect his work and me! Style is the word that comes to mind when i think of Vann , but more than that , Gentle, He was the most gentle and kind of human beings. Small in size, but a GIANT among men!

  • The times that I spent in the company of Momma Vann are some of the most vivid memories I have of gay DC night(and morning)life. Fierceness is always welcome under the mirror-ball where the dearly departed and eternally loved angels of our community continue to dance among those who remain. Shine on, Vann.

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