Ao Dai

Before buying an Ao Dai, the traditional clothing of Vietnamese women, you should know  a certain number of things. 

One doesn't have to travel far in HCMC to see woman dressed in long, snug fitting shiny dresses. The form fitting but flowing ao dai (say 'ao yai'), worn over silk trousers, is said to flatter every figure. Ao dai translates to 'long dress'. According to one famous saying, the ao dai covers everything but hides nothing. As the Vietnamese national dress for women, the ao dai is heartily promoted by the national government. It is often called the ao dai Vietnam for patriotic reasons.

- See our photo gallery of Beautiful Vietnamese Women in Ao Dai 

Getting the perfect fit requires each ao dai to be custom tailored according to an individual's measurements. Fittings are precise; one's undergarments and shoes are worked into the calculations. In Saigon ao dai can be created for both men and women though traditionally men wore the outfit less frequently, mostly at ceremonial events. The ao dai is comfortable to wear daily given its synthetic fiber construction and the cut of the design. Even the colour of the garment is symbolic. Young girls wear white; single older girls, pastels; and married women, deep rich colours.

There are several shops where you can buy an Ao Dai in Ho Chi Minh City. We recommend you the following:

Miss Ao Dai in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. This is also one of the best places to buy a souvenir from Vietnam.

Nagu in Continental Saigon Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City.

Gaya in District 2, the first International designer showroom in Vietnam.

Are you interesting in trying to wear an Ao Dai yourself? If you stay in Hoi An, you could register in the Ao Dai Photography Tour in which you are given the opportunity to try one and get professional pictures with them.

GALLERY

Passion for Fashion in HCMC Part 2: Uyen Ly

If you cut fashion designer Thi To Uyen Ly in half like fabric, you’d end up with two parts: one is a trained artist with an eye for concept fashion made with daring, expressive design; the other is a commercial fashion designer working for garment creative collective Asmara International Vietnam. Asmara offers design and production services to clothing brands around the globe.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

On a rainy evening in her kitchen, Ly shows off a drawing of project she’s been working on: a bomber jacket for Zara’s menswear collection.

Artistic Differences

Ly is a trained artist with a master’s in fashion design and a taste for the abstract, but there’s not much on the jacket that belies her practised talents and wilder habits – and there’s no place for it in a mall-friendly outfit like Zara. Her more occult sensibilities are in check on what looks like a standard jacket except one feature: a large rectangle – a “badge”, as designers call it – and a small pocket over the left abdomen.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

It’s size as well as the visual rhyme, parallel to the pocket, makes the eye immediately drawn to it. Even when working with the most conventional product like a simple jacket, “I always think, how can I top it? How can I make people care about it?” Ly said. And that’s her mark.

The typical jacket is seemingly designed to accord with a simple wish: not to cause too much of a stir while keeping warm. But the itch to innovate and improvise is what drives Ly to exercise her talents outside of her day job. By day, she’s a menswear designer. By night, she is Exuvie Gallery, the fashion brand that she created as a bachelor student of fashion design at Reutlingen University in southern Germany.

dishes

Image source: instagram exuvie.gallery

The pieces she makes while in this mode are a strong contrast to her commercial work. While her output for retailers hems closely with classic designs, Exuvie Gallery features designs that don’t immediately connect with existing ideas of what clothing is or should be. Ly shows a picture of what looks like a woman wearing a forcefield. She describes the appearance as “like an astronaut”. The outfit is made of a sheer fabric called organza, an ultralightweight material with a synthetic recipe that has an almost a creamy appearance under certain light.

For Exuvie Gallery, “I only want to do pieces that … you look at them and you don’t know what is it about,” she said. “I would like to make people think about it.”

Pulling the Thread from Both Ends

From a closet she pulls out a the piece that won her an award in an Asmara International Competition. At first glance, it looks like a collar missing the rest of the jacket. She joins the two ends of the collar with the velcro around her neck and the world seems to tilt slightly when she opens a previously unseen slit and out falls a big, black, light polyester jacket. “Exuvie is very free and weird,” Ly says. “Let’s say, art.”

It might come from her unique upbringing as a Vietnamese woman who spent her teenage and early adult years with relatives in Germany. She returned in April 2016. Ly is a European-trained designer, but her initial inspiration is located much closer to home.

“Since I was a kid, I wanted to be like my mom. Mom was a tailor,” Ly said. “I thought it was very interesting that she made a beautiful dress out of anything. I liked to draw all the time, paint, sewing. It has been following me since I was a kid,” she said.

Fashion, being duplicitous, reflects the metaphor of dualism: it’s both beautiful and useful. The beauty of clothing is in part its use, and seeing or imagining how it would enhance the otherwise naked human form.

fashion designerPhotographer: Mimik Photography  -  Designer: Uyen Ly

Similarly, Ly asserts that Exuvie Gallery and the work she does as a commercial designer are related practices. “I don’t think that Zara is completely away from Exuvie,” she says. In both the conceptual as well as the commercial fashion, “it’s [all] coming from me.”

Speaking about her earliest inspirations as a fashion designer, Ly recounted a bizarre-sounding experience she had while eating prawns. She suddenly took notice of the shells the creatures leave behind when you take the food out.

“They’re kind of like clothes, right?” Ly says in an uncanny observation that seems to register the porous wall between categories: Eastern and Western, fast fashion or high concept, it is beautiful and can you use it.

Banner image source: instagram exuvie.gallery

 

GALLERY

Future of Fashion in Saigon

Fashion has exploded in the last decade. Reality shows like Project Runway and Next Top Model have intrigued young designers, and a design revolution has been brewing for some years now.

Vietnam Fashion Week is in its third year and is incredibly successful. There is a higher demand for quality products. And with the advent of the new Takashimaya mall, international brands have suddenly poured into Vietnam in droves. But is it all sustainable? One of the country’s most recognised young designers, and founder of Vietnam Fashion Academy, Huy Vo, believes not so much; at least, not yet.

Photo: Edi Luong, Model: Kim Nha, Designer: Ivan Tran, Makeup: Minh Chu

In 2007-2010, the boutique fashion scene was thriving. Shops sprang up like wildfire, and the rich Vietnamese found wonderful new clothes to buy. But after the stock market plummeted, sales slowed, and the short burst of success gave way to a more revealing truth: the trendy young designers who started strong now realised they had little foundation to support themselves. Shops began to close, giving way to big name retail spaces.

Big Brand Dilemma

The fashion scene is still growing, but the question still remains: how can domestic designers and brands compete with the wave of big brands jumping on the bandwagon? Huy Vo mentions three crucial factors for any designer’s success in the marketplace: brand identity, customer service and quality.

Photo via Pixabay

The first two - brand identity and customer service - are easy. Many young designers are inherent digital marketers, and naturally use Facebook and Instagram to promote their products in ingenious ways. Serving their customers doesn’t seem to be an issue either. But when quality comes into question, there’s a noticeable gap. What good is a trendy blouse if it doesn’t look great after two washes? Or a nice pair of jeans if they fall apart after six months?

Vendors in Saigon Square kept producing faker fakes for profit, killing themselves in the process. On the other side, many young designers started out curious and ambitious, but without the foundation of knowledge required to build a sustainable clothing business.

True Domestic Quality

With malls you get the surface - the presentation, the brand, the space - but not what people actually want to buy. Where do people actually shop these days? Social media is a powerful tool for young designers, and chat apps and social networking sites like Zalo and Facebook have everyone from teens to middle-aged adults selling their wares. Then there are the corner shops near home, and online Amazon-like sites like Lazada and Leflair.

 

Photo via Pixabay

True domestic quality comes in the form of passionate designers with sustainable brands - thinkers who think forward. Notable names include Antonio De Torres, Lam Gia Khang, Huy Tran, Do Manh Cuong, Adrian Anh Tuan, Li Lam and Cong Tri, among others. Some examples of good fashion boutiques are Nosbyn, Cashew, Wephobia, Ren, The Blue T-Shirt, Thuy Design House and Annacoco.

Huy Vo says the problem with any industry in Vietnam is that many upcoming players think in trends, not sustainability. When the question is posed, will it last in the next 5-10 years? There are blank stares. When asked whether the brand will ever make it overseas, the question is likely dismissed.

To see what happens next just look at coffee shops: there seems to be a new cafe popping up every day, and another closing the next. Investors pump money into the cafes, the owners sell, the staff are secondary, and eventually the project goes bust. There’s a common thread here.

The Missing Factor

Huy Vo stresses the need for education, how knowledge creates a solid foundation. What if you know how to draw a beautiful piece of clothing, but don’t understand how it’s constructed? And then there is the question of history. Some young designers figure they don’t need to know the history of fashion in order to design - but you ask them what were the styles of the 20s and 40s and they come up with surface-level answers, says Huy Vo. They don’t understand the background of the time, the trends, the political situation, the movements of the era that influenced the style.

World Class

This doesn’t mean the shopping scene in Vietnam, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, is lacking in world-class products. Almost anything handmade in Vietnam is beautiful. Lacquerware, embroidery and textiles are of first rate quality. Items like these have much potential, with enough culture and craftsmanship behind them to create an excellent story. In this case, the brand identity is missing, but the quality (and sometimes even the service) is there.

 Photo: Edi Luong, Model: Kim Nha, Designer: Ivan Tran, Makeup: Minh Chu

Marou chocolate and Vietnamese rice - both quality products that come from Vietnam - have reached international attention because of their quality and outreach. Vietnamese clothing can reach this potential, but there is a lot of work ahead for designers and business owners - mainly in the form of education and planning.

Huy Vo heads the Vietnam Fashion Academy at 14 Ton That Dam, 2nd Floor, Hotline: 09 2303 1188.

Header photo via Pixabay

GALLERY

Passion for Fashion in HCMC Part 1: Sinhtolina

Bohemian Rhapsody

Before To Trinh – better known as Leo – started selling Sinhtolina’s line of expressive and unapologetically fun dresses, she was a young woman cutting sleeves and holes in her clothes to create new and original looks. This cultivated a spirit of liberty that informs her fashion practice today.

fashion designer

“It aims to bring the free spirit culture,” Leo says. “We have a lot of fashion brands here but nobody is actually doing, like, bohemian style.”

Sinhtolina’s dresses tend to have a Coachella, music festival vibe. There’s lots of colour and a lighthearted attitude about the clothes, which would look good with a seashell necklace and a folded beach towel, all on their way to some undisclosed good time. The exuberant patterns are like a wearable good mood.

fashion designer

Leo’s fashions are also distinguished by the liberties they take in revealing the human form. Both Vietnamese clothing brands and customers – at least in polite company, Leo says – shy away from clothing that trifles with modesty. Leo’s designs tend to be open at the reverse and display the wearer’s back, a favourite part of the human body for her.

Cultivating the Aesthetic

Leo is an interior designer by training, a practice that she explains makes her approach oriented to the materials rather than design. Traditionally, the hierarchy is reversed and clothing elements will accord to the design. “And then from (material selection), we will come up with shapes, we will come up with designs, function,” she says.

fashion designer

For her, fashion design is fabric and pattern first. Cotton and silk are her preferred media – “Light fabric, as light as possible because here in Vietnam it’s super hot,” she says. “This [method] is completely opposite of a fashion designer.”

fashion designer

Leo began selling her clothes about three years ago in private sales to customers. Today, the Sinhtolina fashion brand of dresses, tops and bottoms is sold at two stores: D2 restaurant-cum-retailer Kokoïs, and a seller in Nha Trang called LIVINcollective. Leo’s dresses start at $40. For $70, she offers custom-tailored pieces.

Image source: Leo HuynhTrinh - Sinhtolina

 

GALLERY

Finding the Perfect Fit: Expat Shopping in Saigon

As a Western man living in Vietnam, the benefits are well-discussed. However, what is little documented are the hardships we have to endure: sitting on plastic stools that could collapse under our weight at any moment; hitting our heads on hobbit-sized door frames; or having random strangers plucking the hairs on our forearms while waiting at traffic lights (it’s happened to me on three occasions!). But perhaps the biggest difficulty is clothes and shoe shopping. The indignity of trying on a supposedly XL shirt but not being able to get that bottom button to close, or the frustration of finding a pair of shoes you like but there’s no size available over 42, has been experienced by many a “Tay”, or foreigner.

If you are lucky enough to find something that fits, it’s usually the wrong colour or a terrible design.

men clothesImage source: Men Clothes

I am 185 cm tall (6’1’’) and 85 kg (187 lb). I wear size 44 shoes and my waist size is 34 inches (86 cm). I’m not huge by Western standards, but in Vietnam, I’m a giant. From asking fellow ‘giant’ friends and colleagues, the general consensus is that people wait till they go home or to other countries to do their clothes and shoe shopping, or they go to a tailor and have shirts and trousers made to fit. However, I’m determined to find everything I need in shops here in HCMC at affordable prices, and have been on a mission to scout out what is available for the broad-shouldered, (slightly) portly-bellied, big-footed ones among us.

Shirts, Professional and Casual

For work shirts, An Phuoc (Pierre Cardin) or Viet Tien are popular choices. There are branches all over the city and large sizes are available. Prices usually start at VND 600,000. However, Vietnam is a producer of clothing for a wide range of international brands and some of these find their way into local clothes markets or shops. Two of the larger markets are Saigon Square (corner of Le Loi and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1; and 176-181 Hai Ba Trung, D3) or Taka Plaza (102 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1). There is a wide selection of brands and prices are negotiable; however, the authenticity is often questionable.

men clothesImage source: Men Clothes

If you do not fancy facing the crowds, there are some factory outlet shops that offer the same or better. Garment Factory Outlet sells brands such as Gap, American Eagle, Old Navy and Seidensticker, from around VND 300,000 to 500,000. It has four branches around the city: SD23, Sky Garden 2, D7; 8 Thai Thuan, D2; Imperia An Phu, D2; and E2 0.14 Him Lam Nam Khanh building, Ta Quang Buu, D8. Another option is MQ Shops at 164 Vo Thi Sau, D3. It specialises in shirts from Dockers, Strellson, American Eagle and Zara. But be warned: this website doesn’t have an English language option.

Trousers

Finding work pants seems to be a challenge for all. What were advertised as large can end up cutting off circulation to parts that traditionally require a lot of blood flow. As mentioned earlier, tailor shops are one option. As with work shirts, An Phuoc (Pierre Cardin) has work pants and khakis from VND 700,000, although finding waist sizes over 36 inches is rare.

men clothesImage source: Men Clothes

Shoes

Vietnam is one of the world’s top manufacturers and exporters of shoes.

And yet, finding a pair that fits and does not look like clown shoes is a challenge.

Factory Outlet Store sells clothes, but mainly deals in shoes. Prices can be a little high, but it offers a deal of two for the price of one if you recommend it to three friends on Facebook. There are three stores in HCMC – 212B/D90 Nguyen Trai, D1; 540/30 Cach Mang Thang Tam, D3; and 117/3 Tran Ke Xuong, Phu Nhuan District – and one in Vung Tau. Giay Xau Gia Cao is a small shop at No. 158 in the middle of Saigon’s shoe street, Ly Chinh Thang, D3. It offers big sizes from Eur 44 to 47. Prices start at VND 500,000. Brands such as Clarks, Skechers and Caterpillar are available.

Banner image source: Men Clothes

 

GALLERY

L'Usine

HCMC's L'usine is a haven for everything the rest of the world forgot. A loft cafe, vintage racing bike and Lomo heaven, L'usine also sells clothes to go along with your espresso. Don't know what Lomo is? Visit L'usine. The Champs-Elysees meets Bleeker Street in classic Saigon style. While away the hours or buy some hip gear. Whatever makes your day go easier is sure to be found at L'usine. Brands found at L'usine include AIAIAI, Baxter of California, BoAime, Clae, Moleskine and Yumaki among many others.

More than just a fashion boutique, café and art gallery, L'usine is a contemporary Vietnamese experience in the heart of Saigon. L'usine's founders have designed a space that not only showcases global fashion but celebrates modern Vietnamese creativity, inspired by the timeless elegance and enterprising industry of the Indochina era. The boutique's bricks and mortar physical space suggests a 1930s French garment factory. Enjoy freshly cut sandwiches and home-style cakes made with quality ingredients.

GALLERY

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