For centuries, the word for “fashion designer” in Vietnam meant nothing more than “dressmaker” or “seamstress.” But a new guard of sophisticated and upscale designers is reinventing the term, putting a creative spin on what has long been deemed a blue collar job.
In Hanoi, the country’s capital, fabrics from French, Chinese and Vietnamese traditions weave together to form a dynamic city that offers unassuming fashion boutiques filled with couture-level quality and modern designs. Sure, Hanoi is no substitute for the couture icons of Paris or Milan, but neither is it trying to be—part of the reason Hanoi is so charmingly raw and more worthy of our wallet’s attention than other, well-trodden fashion capitals.
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Vu Thao is one designer who has made a name for herself with Kilomet109, an eco-friendly brand committed to preserving Vietnam’s rich fashion and textile heritage. Thao’s silk paisley one-pieces, voile camisoles, quilted indigo jackets, hemp frocks, and ’70s inspired high-waisted bell-bottoms are equal parts statement pieces and great basics. Each item handmade by Thao and her partners, women from Nung, Thai and H’mong ethnic minorities. Using traditional techniques, they produce organic dyes, detergents and fibers that are then spun and woven into Kilomet109’s fabrics. Thao uses beeswax to make batik patterns, adds ancient royal embroidery from Ha Thay Province, and employs village artisans to make double-faced silks from their family mills and looms.
“People are looking for something unique, valuable,” Thao says. “Value is not superficial, it’s the culture behind it, the story behind it, the people behind it, the environmental issues behind it.” Indeed, if one ascribes to the traditional definition of couture as custom, hand-stitched garments, then Thao is the couturest of couture in Hanoi. Her connection with the clothes from cotton seedlings to shoulder-shaped wood hangers informs the way she cuts and drapes her pieces, often adding off kilter embellishments like an exposed plastic zipper.
Thao’s use of genderless silhouettes is also channeling a more modern sensibility, along with a wider contingent of young, developing Vietnamese designers, like Ngoc Thai Bao Loan, who supply the city with a more modern approach to design—think clean, asymmetrical lines; color blocking; oversized tops and expert tailoring. Spanish transplant Diego Cortizas, a successful architect-turned-dress designer at Chula, and Mai Phuong, an interior designer with a popular fashion and lifestyle boutique, aN, are also good examples.
aN is a charming little two-floor shop situated on a leafy street nestled between Hanoi’s jam-packed Old Quarter, the capital’s ancient trade market, and the French Quarter, where colonial-style bay windows, clay-tiled roofs and louvre shutters speak of a dramatic history. Step inside and Phuong will offer you a cup of tea while you absorb the store’s traditional Vietnamese tiled floors, dark woods and rich linens. The shop sells everything from vintage Vietnamese art and revamped rice farmer pants to chic leather bags that rival Italy in both quality and design.
The self-taught designer began making clothes, bags and shoes just for herself. Then, two years ago, she decided to start selling her creations, motivated in part to keep local craft alive and to offer city dwellers a more holistic lifestyle design. “Original, basic, natural. I try to work with these concepts in mind,” says Phuong, who says she is inspired by architecture and the simplicity of Japanese design. aN designs, already popular among Hanoi’s community of creatives, are becoming increasingly sought after by Japanese, Korean and European tourists looking for quality leathers and boho-chic linens, velvets and effortless day dresses.
Hot tip: Around the corner from aN, Phuong’s partner, Nguyen Qui Duc, runs Motosan, an artfully designed ramen and banh mi shop, and Tadioto, a well-loved watering hole for Hanoi’s intelligentsia, where steamy nights are best spent sipping wines and whiskies, snacking on charcuterie or a chilled taro soup, and admiring the space’s handmade furniture and art.
And though shopping in Hanoi isn’t an easy stroll down a boulevard of high-end shops, the digging it requires to find soon-to-be-favorite secret spots that offer an array of authentic, custom-made, and locally-inspired designs is worth the effort. As Thao puts it, “Now Vietnamese are travelling more, the internet, social media, everything is exposed! We’ve been asleep for so long, so the excitement is ten times bigger. Other places are already really developed, but here we have so much left open to us.”