Meet the DC Artist-Jeweler Who Designed a 100-Pound Runway Dress

Mindy Lam's incredible journey from her family's chicken farm in China to the world of DC fashion.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Lam Couture

A child deemed unlucky by her Chinese culture spent her formative years tending to her family’s chicken farm, 30,000 birds strong. While cleaning pens and mixing feed, she’d lose herself in whimsical daydreams, telling herself she was a princess. Mindy Lam would grow up to leave China, move all over the United States, and eventually settle in DC. She’s still here, creating her own magic in real life. 

Lam, 52, is the mastermind artist-jeweler behind a 100-pound runway finale dress that is set to take the DC stage Saturday, September 28 at the fourth edition of “The Little Black Dress” fashion show at the Embassy of France. Lam is the sole jewelry sponsor for the show, and this is the second year she’s worked on the project. In 2017, she also designed a finale dress, which was worn by Eloise Lancsweert.

Lam requested Lansweert be the model to showcase the last look of the night again this time around. She says she’s honored to be hand chosen, and wearing such a garment makes her feel beautiful and timeless. “I feel her jewelry makes any woman’s inner beauty shine with its intricate and stunning designs,” Lansweert says.

The teal, purple, and grey gown is primarily constructed of metal lace, crystals, semi-precious stones mixed with other metals. Saturday night will be the only time anyone can see it completed, as Lam has incorporated specific jewelry pieces within the dress that will be sold after the show. Twenty-percent of the money will be donated to Alliance Française of Washington, DC

Sarah Diligenti, executive director of Alliance Francaise of Washington, DC, first noticed Lam for her handmade jewelry. Diligenti is a self-proclaimed lover of all things fashion who attempts to highlight women in the industry through her charity fashion shows. Beyond the business deal, the women have become friends. They bonded over personal tragedy, as Diligenti encountered kidney issues.

Her story strikes a personal chord with Lam. In 2010, her heart stopped because of kidney failure. After years on dialysis, her daughter, 19 at the time, donated her kidney to Lam—her daughter is now 26. Illness is how Lam fell in love with designing in the first place. 

In 2001, she became ill with necrotizing fasciitis. She managed to avoid amputations, but nevertheless, the recovery would last for nine months. Her sister gave her wire and crystals to keep herself occupied while bedridden. Before she knew it, Lam was designing jewelry. She was so in love with the pastime, it morphed into a career. 

But it wasn’t until her kidneys gave out that a few years later that Lam realized something was missing. She had become so swept up in creating as much art as she could, she’d lost sight of why she loved making jewelry.

Lam parallels her pre-transplant working style to a machine. She was getting as many pieces done as quickly as possible. When charities would reach out to work with her, she opted to not become overly involved. 

Now, she reaches out to charities she deems meaningful. They include American Heart Association and the National Kidney Foundation. 

Lam often avoided asking for help when she needed it, and now she does, all while making sure she’s connecting with others and learning about the charity she’s helping. “I told myself if I ever relaunched my line, this time I am going to donate my pieces, and if I need to be involved, I am going to.”

Her new mindset is reflected in her craft. Before surgery, Lam admits her designs felt mass produced and simplistic, but now they’re exquisitely detailed. She feels a difference now too, saying she puts all of her love and passion into whatever piece she’s working on. “My design is about how I feel, how I dream of things. It’s very different,” she says. “It’s my own thing. I don’t really follow the trends. I believe if we are who we are and design the pieces that we want instead of following the trends, we can lead the trends.” 

Lam transcends realms through sparkling accessories. Her pieces are often labeled as whimsical, something many told her would not fly in the District. People told Lam that DC was too conservative for her to make any true strides in the fashion industry. She’s found the opposite to be true. 

The people Lam’s met and worked with in Washington are unique, and she believes they’re after something just as different as their interests and personalities are. “I told myself, if I’m talented, no matter where I am, I’m going to get people’s attention,” she says. 

And she did. 

A few days before the DC fashion show, she had another project happening in California. In a few months, she’ll be working with the Kidney Ball in the District. Her name’s been in magazine headlines, and her clientele includes celebs like Diane Sawyer, Jane Seymour, and Jennifer Lopez

Lam is finally content. 

“I am very happy with where I am,” she says. “Through design I can touch so many hearts … I am able to help others, because I get help from others too.” 

Aly Prouty
Editorial Fellow

Aly Prouty joined Washingtonian in September 2019. Her work has been featured in Taste of Home, Milwaukee Magazine, Girls’ Life, and more. She graduated from Marquette University and lives in Northern Virginia.