Kenn Smith, Couturier, on Bespoke in HCMC
Kenn Smith is a well-known figure around town with his sartorial elegance and engaging personality.
I caught up with him recently at his soon to be opened Gentleman’s Club, Leo, in District 7 to discuss the finer points of gentleman’s tailoring in Ho Chi Minh City. Kenn is a native of Indianapolis, though years of travel have seen his accent morph into more of a Southern Drawl to my English ears.
A former corporate trainer in Vietnam, he was a team leader for the company involved with bringing McDonald’s to Vietnam. He is a self-taught tailor who learned a lot from a former Versace employee who worked with him for a while. Finding the right people was one of the hardest challenges he faced when starting up his business here.
During the war all the good tailors were employed making suits for high-ranking military personnel. When the war ended most were in a position to be able to leave the country and that is what they did, leaving behind a huge dearth of talent.
Kenn was lucky enough to meet one old chap who stayed and in addition to accepting a job working for Kenn, he trained up other tailors to a very high standard. Even today there are only a handful of men capable of making truly bespoke suits in the country. A bespoke tailored suit involves upwards of a hundred hours of labour and should be viewed differently than made-to-measure items. Made-to-measure takes in a list of measurements and then works with recognised templates. Bespoke not only relies on strict measurements, but also the shape of your body, the angle of your shoulders and many more variables; each customer provides a unique template. Kenn Smith Couturier claims to be the only truly bespoke fitters in Southeast Asia. Tailors came from London’s Savile Row to Shanghai to teach locals, and Kenn decided to go the same route in Vietnam.
What are the main benefits of wearing a bespoke suit?
The main benefit is certainly the comfort, bespoke suits are canvas lined and it breathes. The outer shell is the cloth, there is silk on the inside and in between is the canvas. Even in this hot climate, it’s nice to be able to wear a suit and feel comfortable. Made to measure suits use an iron-in artificial fabric liner than does not breathe.
What do you feel is the psychology, especially in the business sector, to first impressions of a person’s dress or sense of style?
Prior to starting up, I did four years of research, hiring four young women to do market research, trained to get to see decision makers. 500 surveys over four years were aimed at first impressions. They had photos of men and women in different styles and asked the interviewees to choose the ones that gave the best impressions. 95% of every category of interviewee went for the more formal style. Speaking at many events I know that young entrepreneurs feel that wearing my suits does help them to gain credibility and grow their business. When I speak at functions I wear a smoking jacket, which is considered alternative black tie attire. We now see people ordering them in the city.
Do you think that a person’s accessories carry as much weight as the actual clothes?
Not at all. If accessories are gaudy I think they take people’s opinion in the wrong direction. Subtle accessories are almost unnoticeable and in my opinion always preferable.
What makes Vietnamese tailoring stand out when compared to other Southeast Asian countries?
The Vietnamese are more entrepreneurial and seem to work harder. This manifests itself in them being better tailors than most, Not just in tailoring in fact, they are starting to lead the way in many occupations.
You certainly have developed your own style, do you think this is common here or do people tend to go for more mainstream styles?
I think the entrepreneurs want their own style and I tend to spend a lot of time discussing their design ideas. Regular business customers tend to want more of an accepted design.
How easy is it to get good fabrics? Are they made here in Vietnam or imported?
Most of what we use comes from Taiwan. The premium fashion brands from Italy and France are using the same fabrics we source from Taiwan for their off-the-peg wear that they are producing in China and Southeast Asia. Fabrics are made in Taiwan by Italian companies. We use light wools blended with silk and polyester which are particularly great for this climate. We also buy from Holland and Sherry from London, one of the original Savile Row tailors who moved into fabrics.