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Photo by Tara Massouleh.
Chau McLendon makes adjustments to a dress in her shop.
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Chau McLendon is no stranger to working with winners. Inside her Hoover alteration shop, the walls are lined with photos of her past clients — beauty queens, senators, even Olympic gold medalists.
But for all the high profiles McLendon has worked with over the years, her proudest, she said, was a 103-year-old retired engineer. She displays a signed photograph of Donald Dunham alongside portraits of Olympic bobsledder Vonetta Flowers and former Miss America Deidre Downs.
“I knew him for many, many years, since he was 80,” McLendon said. “It took me 20 years to get a picture with him. He’s the man who lived the longest in Birmingham.”
These types of long-term relationships are not uncommon for McLendon, known to most in Hoover as Ms. Chau. Most of her clients have been coming to her for years, and for some, their parents and grandparents have done the same.
“This one girl she come in and say, ‘Ms. Chau, my grandma is so and so; my mom is so and so, and I’m the third generation,’” McLendon said.
Though it took McLendon 30 years to build Chau’s Alterations into the community institution it is today, she said making and altering clothes is what she was born to do. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, McLendon learned to sew from her mother and grew up altering clothes for herself and her four siblings.
“God put me in a poor family in a poor country, so to survive I make clothes for myself,” she said.
While in Vietnam, McLendon worked as a teacher, but she continued to alter clothes on the side to help support her mother and four siblings. When Vietnam became a communist country following the Vietnam War, McLendon said she knew she had to leave.
“When I left the country, I left communism,” she said. “I wanted freedom, anywhere for freedom.”
In 1981, McLendon joined the 2 million “boat people” who fled Vietnam by sea between 1975 and 1995. She ended up joining her older sister in Alabama and immediately started working to learn about American fashion styles so that she could continue her work as a seamstress.
Four years later, on Thanksgiving Day 1985, McLendon opened Chau’s Alterations on Lorna Road. She started out doing all the alterations herself, and as her clientele grew, so did the business. Today, McLendon works with three other seamstresses and often lets her 24-year-old son run the reception.
“I started from the ground, and I never dreamed that I could get to the mountain in 30 years like this,” she said.
Ten years after leaving Vietnam, McLendon saved enough money to sponsor the immigration of her mother and three younger brothers to America. Now, at 65, McLendon said she has no interest in growing her business. During her busy season, also known as high school prom season, McLendon sees anywhere from 30 to 50 customers a day.
“Sometime if you come in prom season, you have to sit and wait in line,” she said.
After prom season comes wedding season from May through July, and then things finally settle down.
“This is all I can handle, and I’m happy with what I got,” she said.
For McLendon, another huge part of her business and her personal life is her Christian faith. She is a long-time member of Hunter Street Baptist Church, and she has collected secondhand clothes to donate to Hope Street Ministry for the past three years.
“Even though it is secondhand clothes to us, to them, it’s brand new,” she said. “It’s a thing that they cannot afford, and it’s really changed many lives.”
For McLendon, the charity hits close to home and brings her journey from Vietnam full circle.
“When I first came to this country 30 years ago, I remember some ministry gave me five garments, and I thank God that now I can pay back what they gave me many years ago,” she said.