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.