Labella Green Fashion

This boutique is the darling of discerning Saigonese, expats and tourists. Westerners love being able to look fabulous in Vietnamese designs, available in larger sizes. Labella displays evening gowns, casual wear, accessories and shoes. Featuring both simple and sophisticated patterns and cuts, shoppers of any taste will leave with a full bag and a satisfied smile. Labella is located on Pasteur in downtown HCMC.

Labella carries a fine gathering of silk, jersey, and cotton separates and dresses, as well as silk sleep and loungewear. Some of their designs such as Roman-style jersey dresses, are uncomplicated. If eccentricity is your thing, try a silk wraparound halter and sequined skirt. Women fashion brand Labella began in 2003, originating from brand SxS which was established in 1997. Initially, Labella occupied a small one-floor shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Today its three-floor store in central Saigon draws big crowds.

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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

 

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Ipa Nima HCMC

A colourful arrangement of fashion and function, Ipa Nima Boutique shop is the brainchild of Christina Yu and has been creating accessories full of invention and flair since 1997. Focusing on purses, the design-first mentality leads to pieces that reflect style and symmetry, all steeped in a heavy dose of soul. Their support of Saigon non profits brings social responsibility to the table. In Vietnam they have four locations, two in Ho Chi Minh City and two in Hanoi.

Looking for funky, original handbags with flair? Head to Ipa-Nima in Ho Chi Minh City. There are two locations in the city. Although the Saigon stores are not as big as their flagship shop in Hanoi, you'll still marvel at the selection on offer. Shop amidst a violet, boudoir-esque interior and pick out an edgy handbag designed with vintage flair. Ipa-Nima is open daily from 9am to 9pm.

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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

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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

 

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Diminishing Space for Vietnamese Designers

Why are all of HCMC’s boutique shops disappearing?

In the past, HCMC was a boutique shoppers paradise, hosting hundreds of artisan shops all over what is now the corporate-dominated walking street. But where have all these gone and what is their future amidst the globalisation of this hot spot? In order to find answers I sat down with Christina Yu, founder of the prestigious multinational accessory line Ipa Nima, and Quentin Axlerod, founder of Bliss Magazine. This discussion brought about many thought-provoking topics within Ho Chi Minh City’s rapidly evolving retail market. Since 1997, Christina’s Brand Ipa Nima has been handcrafting some of the best accessories,handbags and wallets for thousands of mid-high end consumers alike.

Although there are a handful of established designers like Christina still finding success in Vietnam’s fashion scene, the numbers are certainly lacking.

“Less emphasis has been put on quality and personalisation by many designers as many just follow European trends.”

Perhaps there is not enough trust from consumers in Vietnamese produced goods, but why is this? From Christina Yu’s point of view this boils down to a shortcoming of education regarding local support, a shortage of affordable and centralised space for local designers’ to promote their work, and an almost non-existent platform for local designers to evolve.

Although the thought that there is not much hope for local designers to compete with the big names leaves us feeling a bit bleak, there is certainly some light at the end of the tunnel.

“There are plenty of young intellectual designers out there taking risks, and consciously crafting new items with first rate materials.”

As a result of iconic designers like Christina Yu, and Ipa Nima’s groundbreaking approach to production, some have come to value and appreciate the importance of using quality materials to meticulously hand make each item. Taking the time to passionately create your own merchandise can be rigorous, time consuming and intimidating in light of major international names.

With little government support towards a proper platform for talented locals to display their work, it seems that we may need to rethink how the boutique shops will manage to be profitable without having a prime establishment that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. In lieu of this insight, there are a handful of innovative artists working to circumvent big brand takeover by utilising retail space in a new way. Considering the price of rent for ground floor space, most shop owners have been forced to move up to the second or third floors. This results in less traffic, as many shoppers will often just stick to the ground floor shops for convenience. Some shop owners, like Floralpunk have been successful in finding alternative locations. Floral Punk strategically placed her small boutique at 40E Ngo Duc Ke, between the famous walking streets of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, making it quite easy for people to stumble upon by foot.

Photo by Lam Minh Khang, Model: Phi Phuong Anh, Fashion designer: Lam Gia Khanh, Stylist: Mi Goi, Makeup: Quan Hoa Nguyen

Ly Tu Trong is one area that is quickly becoming home to various well known fashion names opening shops above ground floors. L’Usine offers a whole different kind of experience as it’s both a boutique shop and restaurant. This duality is the perfect model of how to utilise space in a more effective manner. As people enter for the bistro-style French cuisine, customers are unexpectedly pulled into the boutique shop as well. This kind of arrangement is ideal, and a creative way around the high prices of the centralised shopping locations.

“HCMC is booming with international brands which leaves many boutique artisans at a loss.”

As the industry develops, local designers are going to have to do what they do best - be creative, in order to keep up during this transitional period. Considering the amount of passion, dedication and resourcefulness of Vietnam’s top designers, we hope that they will successfully manage to find their place to compete with some of the world’s most powerful brands. And for you shoppers - don’t be shy. Take a trip up those rugged looking staircases, and open the doors to Saigon’s true fashion scene.

Photos by Lam Minh Khang

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