Mai Lam

A continually evolving boutique underneath Saigon's Hotel Continental, Mai Lam features pieces made with passion and dedicated to her family and the history of Vietnam. The designer is inspired by her culture and background along with the energy of Ho Chi Minh City. Her work is a poignant reflection of her extraordinary life that takes sad reminders of the war and transforms them into something exquisite. 

Mai Lam started making and designing clothes for family and friends out of her own interest. Things evolved and in 2006, she opened Mai's in the Hotel Continental on HCMC's stylish Dong Khoi. Mai Lam is recognized for her intricate combination of ethnic influences within the scope of Vietnamese fashion design. With her keen look into Vietnam's history, Mai Lam makes use of materials from all subcultures embedded in Vietnam's larger culture. A fair portion of Mai's clients are expats. The Saigon fashion shop also receives a lesser amount of locals.

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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.

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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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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

 

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Nosbyn

Ladies fashion shop, operating since March 2013, product lines mainly focus on simplicity and minimalistic styles. Top selling items like crop tops and basic pants are aimed at young trendy female fashionistas with an eye for the cool. Nosbyn also operate two other outlets in the city.

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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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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.

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