Zen and the Art of Handcrafted Goods

shopping - Saigon/HCMC: June 12, 2017

As I pay my Grab bike driver and walk away, I almost miss my destination, Authentique, which seems to be a hole-in-the-wall shop with glazed ceramic bowls in the window and a translucent, floor-length drape fluttering in the doorway.

As I walk through the thin drape, suddenly I’m in a different world.

The street sounds of Le Thanh Ton are replaced by what seems to be the soundtrack to Amelie. Textile products – bags, cushion covers, wall hangings – line the walls and, while this shop is certainly different from other shopping experiences in Ho Chi Minh City (think: shop girls looking at their cellphones, and stacks of clothes, almost impossible to sort through, piled wherever you look), dare I say that Authentique seems... authentic?

Living the Zen Life

As Thao Ho, director of all three Authentique stores in HCMC (besides the flagship on Le Thanh Ton, you can find them in Takashimaya and Mac Thi Buoi), says as we walk through the three floors of the largely vertical store, cultivating the feeling of a different environment and, further, a different way of life was entirely intentional.

handcraftedImage source: Authenticque

“[Founder Doan Minh Phuong] wanted to have a house in Saigon, and she couldn’t find any good products. Products that made her feel at home. So she basically decided to make all the products that would make a home a home,” Thao says, pointing to a simple, elegant wall hanging portraying a single chrysanthemum.

This desire to create real, quality homeware products – a passion that began when Phuong moved back to Saigon from Germany in 1976 – led her to develop three separate workshops for woodworking, ceramics and textiles in Thu Duc District.

For 22 years, some 60 artisans employed by Authentique have been making handmade products, with a quality and durability that is rivalled only by their beauty.

Luxuriously Premium

With beautiful and high-quality goods, Authentique has carved a niche as the go-to place for tourists and expats to bring back their own piece of artisan Vietnam. However, this desire for premium goods has been a harder sell for the local Vietnamese market.

Thao admits, “I think about 80 percent of our customers are tourists. But we are increasing our Vietnamese customer base. It used to be solely tourists.”

While Thao is reticent to admit it, it seems the Zen, minimalist lifestyle promoted by Authentique has not been adopted with open hands by a culture currently embracing an increasingly materialistic lifestyle.

As foreign brands, fast fashion and the concept of “more for less” have become ingrained in Vietnam, Thao’s lifestyle of “just bringing home the most essential products to highlight the true beauty of Vietnam” seems at odds with the environment a few feet outside Authentique’s doors.

However, Thao is happy to report that, while the going is slow, the culture of “more” has been shifting, especially among her Vietnamese clientele.

Telling a Story

For Thao, the hardest part isn’t so much creating products that Vietnamese like – it’s more a question of convincing customers to come in the first place.

There’s no doubt that the products at Authentique are beautiful, ageless and durable. Oddly enough, this might just be the problem. When I ask Thao if she would consider Authentique a luxury brand, she hesitates, a bit uncomfortable. “For me, I wouldn’t say it’s luxury. It’s not luxury because we don’t overcharge our customers. [ our products aren’t cheap] because everything is made by hand.”

handcraftedImage source: Authenticque

With this assumption that “luxury” means “needlessly expensive”, penny-pinchers in Saigon might turn away from a quality item in preference for a cheaper, less durable version.

However, Thao holds fast about Authentique’s commitment to timeless craftsmanship. For her, it’s all about communicating the company’s message. “The hardest part of the business is just raising awareness,” she nods. “We’re bringing excellence at value to our customers, and we have to make them understand that.”

Introducing the Unique

A bit further down from Authentique’s Le Thanh Ton location is Catherine Denoual Maison Boutique (CDM) on Hai Ba Trung. Founded and run by Catherine Denoual, a Paris native who came to Ho Chi Minh City in 1995, Denoual has been running her premium linen brand in the city for 20 years.

Entering Catherine Denoual Maison Boutique is an experience – everything from the knowledge the employees have about the Egyptian cotton bedsheets to their legendarily comfortable pajamas and camisoles make an impact.

Even the packaging when you buy a CDM product gets special attention: unwrapping a bedsheet has the fanfare of Christmas Day as the customer unfolds layers of ribbons and silk tissue paper.

But like Authentique, Catherine Denoual Maison is quick to point out that it is not, in fact, a luxury brand. As Louise Doan Viet, CDM’s Business Developer, says, Denoual is taking steps to make sure that customers can enjoy what previously might have seemed unattainable:

handcraftedImage source: Catherine denoual

“We just launched a collection this March that’s 20 percent cheaper than all products we’ve sold before,” she tells me. “We changed our cotton sheets to a 400 thread count rather than our usual 500 thread count. It’s cheaper, and after three or four washes, it feels exactly the same.”

Finding the Premium Middle Ground

For Catherine Denoual Maison, this is the constant struggle – keeping the Vietnamese handcrafted quality and french design style that customers love while avoiding the dangerous pigeonhole of being deemed ‘too luxurious’.

While CDM enjoys a great network of B2B accounts (mostly hotels in Vietnam, Cambodia and America), it’s the B2C relationships that require the most work. For Louise, it’s all about making every customer feel special, whether through a bi-monthly newsletter (“We want to be present, but not obnoxious,” she says) alerting fans to deals and events or even in-store invite-only soirees to celebrate the launching of a new collection.

The bottom line: “We do lots of little things to make our customers feel special and inform them about what we do.”

As the minds at Catherine Denoual Maison plan for the future – one that will involve opening a shop in Hanoi – for Louise, the trick to successful growth is not losing touch of what makes Catherine Denoual Maison special. for CDM , it’s all about the hand-crafted touches like tasteful embroidery and premium materials imported from all over the world.

handcraftedImage source: Catherine denoual

These are best experienced in person, not through a computer screen, making the logical expansion to e-commerce a bit tricky. “The thing about bed linen and table linen, it’s very much something that you feel. especially something this high-quality, it’s hard for people who don’t know us to buy something online.”

As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow and fill the pockets of more Vietnamese customers, we’ll soon tell if quality will win.

Banner image source: Authenticque