A stitch down memory lane

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Vu Van Gioi (R) showing imperial robes displayed at his workshop in Dong Cuu Village, Hanoi, to a visitor

At his house in Hanoi, senior embroiderer Vu Van Gioi still keeps the 20 "ugly, crude" royal robes that enabled him to mature from an apprentice into a master.

In the 1990s he had got an order to make imperial robes from a Vietnamese living abroad. It was a virtually dead art, and he was the only one he knew who was still working on royal robes.

"The client first asked me to make a ceremonial costume used in pagodas and worn by traditional musician, and later for imperial costumes of the Nguyen Dynasty," says Gioi, who was born into a traditional embroidering family in the craft village of Dong Cuu. Le Cong Hanh (1606-1661) was the founder of the art.

The 42-year-old Gioi, the fifth generation of artisans in his family, began learning embroidering at the age of 10.

But he knew nothing about royal costumes.

"I was overjoyed to get the order but did not know how to fulfill it." He traveled to several places, including the northern province of Bac Ninh and the ancient seat of kingdom in Hue, looking for information about these costumes.

He also met senior artisans in the village to learn about old styles of embroidering and borrow garments made 70-80 years ago.

"It took me and my workers three years to complete a robe, but we failed for the robe looked fake with crude stitches and inappropriate colors.

"Whenever I found a new document, I found my work was not appropriate and had to start again, over and over.

A pattern of dragon sewn on one of robes for royalty displayed in Gioi's workshop

"We finally succeeded in our 21st attempt, making a prince's red robe with an embroidered python, in 1995."

Since then, he and his workers have successfully created more than 20 royal robes, including lookalikes of those worn by the ninth Nguyen Dynasty king, Dong Khanh (1864-1889), his successor Khai Dinh (1885-1925), crown princes, first-born princesses, and queens.

There are strict rules in making clothes for royalty, he says, the first one being that both the garment and embroidery are made of silk.

The longer Gioi has been at the work, the more interesting he has found the royal garments, especially the pattern of the dragons to be sewn depending on the status of its wearer.

The mythical creature is a benevolent symbol, representing royalty, wisdom and power, usually with many magical abilities. Dragons are also depicted as wise and helpful entities.

An emperor's robe must have nine dragons. The one on the chest is the biggest and stands upright to manifest the sovereign's absolute power. The others are in the front, back, front flap, bottom, and reverse side.

The robe must be represented by earth and heaven: clouds and bats represent heaven, coral and tortoise represent water, and three mountains stand for the earth.

The patterns are surrounded with auspicious Chinese characters and other patterns representing the king's authority.

Only small dragons appear at the collar, Gioi says.

The robes worn by princes only have pythons, symbolizing that one day a prince will become king just like the python will transform into a dragon.

Lady's robes are decorated only with phoenixes, flowers, and butterflies.

It took Gioi and his eight assistants 15 months to make a robe similar to the golden yellow one Dong Khanh wore to his court. The least elaborate one took them five months.

Of the 20 robes in his shop is a king's that was made using 18k gold embroidery. The result was that the garment's color differed from an authentic one made from 24k gold. Only princes' and officials' robes were made of 18k gold.

But Gioi's men quit the job when he asked them to unstitch the robe and do it again using 24k thread.

Thus, cost is a big hurdle for him in recreating Nguyen kings' robes. An original robe weighs about six kilograms of which a sixth is gold, and it is decorated with pearls, he explains.

"I cannot afford so much gold, therefore I use gilded material instead of gold lame."

Gioi has devoted his life to recreating royal costumes, sometimes even refusing tourism and export orders which fetch bigger profits.

There was also the time when he left for the historic town of Hoi An to open a shop catering to tourists after his close friend called him. But he finally found himself busy making loincloth, whose images have been found in bronze drums from the ancient Dong Son civilization.

"My destiny is in the village, creating royal costumes," says the artisan, who has just been ordered by the northern province of Ninh Binh's Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to make a giant embroidered fan.

He is also working on making royal costumes of the Dinh, Ly, Tran, and Le dynasties, a big challenge since there are of them around unlike Nguyen Dynasty costumes.

Gioi made costumes for the martial art/historical movie Thien menh anh hung (Hero's Destiny) released this Lunar New Year Tet late January.

His works have been displayed at the Festival Hue, Museum of History, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, and the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi in 2010.

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