In February 2018, Salong Namsa started the Instagram account @LaosSupply and posted 26 different Laos-inspired shirt designs. The clothing designer had seen someone on Facebook wearing a Laotian shirt and was inspired to make his own. “It was so easy for me so I just start cranking it out,” Namsa says. “Three designs a day, five designs a day, ten designs a day. The first month, it just kinda went viral to me. It didn't go crazy, but to me it did. I made like I think $500 the first few weeks.”
The Instagram account, and business, exploded. Today, just over a year later, @LaosSupply has more than 18,000 followers. Namsa discovered an untapped market of Laotian consumers who wanted to rep their culture and cuisine through streetwear.
Born near the border of Laos in Ubon, Thailand in 1981, Namsa was the perfect person to for the job. His father is from Vientienne, Laos, and his mother is from his Ubon hometown. “The culture is pretty mixed there,” Namsa says. “A lot of Laos people, a lot of Thai people.” In 1994, Namsa entered Thailand’s Soun Na Pho Refugee Camp with his family to escape the perils of war and communism.The designer has a scar to help him hold on to one of his few memories of life before the US. “The only memory I can kind of think of is running around with other little kids, and I kind of got into a fight with this one other kid, and he cut me on my hand,” says Namsa, today a resident of Ontario, California. “That's why I kind of remember it because I have scars. I see it every day. You know culture like Muay Thai, you know, we started fighting when we were like really young, and our parents would like put the kids together and fight.”
Namsa’s father remembers the scene well, although he doesn’t talk about the family’s time in the refugee camp often. “When [my parents] do, it's about what they did there,” Namsa says. “My dad’s always hustling. He had this little well, so he sold water throughout the camp. He was known as the water guy.”
Other stories from the family’s time in the camp weren’t as uplifting. “There's nothing fun or good about the refugee camp,” he says. “Everyone was outdoors, there was not a lot of food, you know you can't really get out the camp. They let you out sometimes, because my dad was local, he was from around there, he would sneak out, or go out just to visit family and come back in.”
Two years after they entered the camp, Namsa’s family came to the United States by way of the Philippines and started a new life in Fresno, California. Throughout his childhood, Namsa would alternate gravitating toward his Thai heritage or Laotian heritage.
“When I was growing up, my mom took me back to Thailand a lot, so I was more leaning toward the Thai side during that period of time,” Namsa says. “But before I went to Thailand, I was around 100% Lao people, because Fresno is just pretty much Lao people. It’s kinda going back and forth, depending who I'm with, who I'm talking to.”
Namsa started his design career in high school making websites and banners. After he graduated from San Jose State University, he worked in IT while dabbling in clothing design on the side for the owner of Mainland Skate and Surf. In 2012, Namsa was laid off from his tech job and transitioned into a full-time position designing clothes.
Now he’s found a creative outlet to pour his Laotian pride into with the launch of Laos Supply. “Part of my style is trying to figure out what we can relate to,” says Namsa. “If you look at my brand it’s pretty much everything I do. It’s about my life. Every piece of design has like a meaning to it, or a connection to it. Like, a lot of people can relate to the dishes, or the saying or the phrase or the words.”
Namsa takes phrases and words and motifs that capture the shared experiences of growing up Laotian and throws them on items like shirts, slides, hats, jerseys, face masks, fanny packs, bean bag covers, socks, and phone cases.
A lot of the most popular designs focus on the word Laos alone, but food is another big theme for the brand. Sweatshirts proudly display I love Padaek (Laotian fish sauce), or feature illustrations of sticky rice baskets. The image of the clay mortar used to make thum mak thang, or papaya salad, comes up often. So do the words thum mak thang, and keethak, the word for the kind of bowel movement one may have after eating particularly spicy thum mak thang.
These food designs hit home for many Laos Supply fans. "They love the dishes—it reminds them of their childhood. Their mom and dad make some of the dishes,” Namsa says. “It’s just one of the elements where I see that people have the connection.”
By keeping the collection diverse, Namsa has been able to capture the attention of more customers. “I use food, I use phrases. I use the streetwear... I'm trying to mix it up a little bit,” he says. “To me the logic is out of ten people, they will only like one design. Some people don't care about food, but they like the phrase Henny.”
No matter what design people are buying, they’re glad Namsa is making it. Every day the Laos Supply account blows up with messages from happy customers. “It’s nothing but positive feedback and comments,” Namsa says. “They really love it, and it shows through the sales and the engagement—especially with the kids. The older people, they're more about wow, this is another Laotian guy just doing it. Doing something positive for the community. But the kids are just blown away by the shirts and the design.”
The Instagram account itself has become something of an online community center. Namsa posts photos of Laotian-American beauty pageant competitors, chefs and their brightly colored dishes, Muay Thai fighters. Back in January, Namsa posted a photo of his refugee identification card “March 25, 1986 - Soun Na Pho Refugee Camp, Thailand. I am Refugee #T-130655 🙏🏼🙏🏼🇱🇦🐘🇱🇦,” the caption reads. Many of the 92 comments on the post come from strangers with direct ties to the same camp. One person replied with their ID number, and Namsa noted how they were in line right behind his family. “Man we were on the same plane, u were only a few numbers behind me,” Namsa wrote.
For Namsa's next moves, the designer wants to start making his pieces in Laos so that fans in his motherland can buy Laos Supply, too. “They can't buy because they don't have credit cards or PayPal, but they do really like it,” Namsa says. “It's so expensive to ship it over there, so the only way to sell it is just to make it there and distribute it there.”
He also wants to go on a US tour of America’s biggest Lao New Year festivals to sell gear IRL. “There are maybe ten different cities that do huge Lao New Year events,” Namsa says. “They call it Lao-chella, like Coachella. It's like 100,000 Lao people in one place, for like 2-3 days, just going crazy.” He and his sister will set up a Laos Supply booth at festivals in places like Fresno, Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, showing their community their unique Laos Supply style.
“That's the goal,” Namsa says. “Just spread the word about the culture—in a cool way.”
This article originally appeared on Munchies US.