Not walking the catwalk talk

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Paucity of successful fashion designers in Vietnam shows industry is yet to mature, insiders admit

Nguyen Cong Tri, Vietnam's most prominent designer, at the launch of his latest collection "˜Thank you Saigon', on November 1. Photo by Kinh Can

Hoang Minh Ha was the only Vietnamese designer at the renowned Tiffany's Fashion Week Paris last September, becoming one of the select few designers from the Southeast Asian country to join a non-diplomatic fashion event abroad.

His Black Rose collection received acclaim from fashion tycoons at the show including Woolmark, one of the world's best-known textile fiber brand based in Australia.

Woolmark has chosen Ha, winner of the first season of Project Runway Vietnam 2013, a reality show adapted from the original US fashion design contest, as the only Vietnamese designer at a wool fashion show to mark 40 years of Vietnam-Australia diplomatic relations later this year.

Ha said he has also received orders from a US-based fashion store at the Tiffany's show.

His coming out to the world, no matter how enduring it is going to be, is a much-needed fillip for the local fashion industry where the lack of accomplished designers, especially for daily wear, has saved the catwalk for foreign brands.

Vietnam Collection Grand Prix, the country's first national fashion design contest, closed after a decade in 2009 as most of its winners failed to go beyond the contest and make signature changes in the market.

A number of them opened fashion stores that failed and many have gone on to work for garment and textile companies.

One of its rare successes is Nguyen Cong Tri.

After winning a subordinate prize for fashion ideas, Tri has built two successful brands including one that carries his name for a high-end product line, and KIN for young customers. He has also become the designer of choice for celebrity models.

Then there is Do Manh Cuong, who studied fashion design in France, and left the Vietnam Collection Grand Prix empty-handed in 2006.

He has gone on to become the other big guy in the local fashion market.

Cuong now plays a major role as a designer at the country's biggest fashion event - "Dep (Beauty) Fashion Show," which used to be Tri's exclusive playground.

His collections at the show are usually sold out, and his DMC-branded product line of around US$500 apiece has found its way into deep pockets, according to a The Thao & Van Hoa report.

Cuong's success was followed by a wave of young people going aboard, to the UK, France and the US to study fashion design, while some overseas Vietnamese designers opened showrooms at home.

His latest collection, "Butterfly," featuring fall-winter designs, was launched on November 12, around ten days after Tri showcased his "ao dai" collection called "Thank you Saigon," which seeks to tell the story of the southern metro, now officially named Ho Chi Minh City, with images of sites, newspapers, street restaurants, street signs, classifieds on street walls and motorbikes.

"Saigon to me is like a dress, not perfectly pretty, but big and warm enough to cover any person who comes and wants to stay," Tri said.

He said life is the material for fashion, not any kind of luxury cloth.

After more than ten years in the job with various feathers in his cap, Tri still shrugs off praise for being the peak of the local fashion industry.

"I think "˜peak' is an overstatement as creativity has no boundaries. I'm just doing something that I can do wholeheartedly.

"Creativity, then, is merely the job of finding one's true self, of exploring the unknown in it."

If so, many designers in Vietnam are apparently lost on the path, and industry insiders admit that Vietnamese fashion is still to mature and find its feet for several reasons including a lack of creativity, limited supporting industry, and a preference for global brands among consumers.

Floundering

Despite the impressive achievement in winning foreign orders, Ha cannot be said to be a pioneer in this regard.

Ngo Thai Uyen, who won a fashion design contest in Singapore in 1997 and is now the director of her own fashion company, received an order of more than $100,000 from US women's clothing retailer J.Jill for 5,000 items including handbags and scarves.

But even after her designs were approved, Uyen had to turn down the offer as the customer demanded the products to be made entirely from silk that comes from mulberry silkworm instead of industrial yarn, and Uyen was not confident about stable material supply.

Dinh Cong Dat, Vietnamese art director for a foreign brand, said Vietnam's designers have not been devoted enough to handicrafts although it is a profitable venue.

"I have heard stories about Vietnam's diplomatic gifts packed just like those in souvenir shops outside a school, a carton box covered with colored paper. That is not good enough."

Dat, who has been hired to design sophisticated hand-made packages, said many people in Vietnam can do such jobs and customers are willing to pay high money.

Hong Kong designer Christina Yu, regular guest at a fashion program on Vietnam Television, designs bags for her brand Ipa Nima and has them made at craft villages in Vietnam.

Ton Hieu Anh, an editor of the program, said Yu's bags are favorite products among foreigners, but they are almost unknown to Vietnamese people who prefer big brands.

"The way out for handicrafts is blocked as we lack designers who can recognize their value and know how to promote them."

Vu Huy Thieu, a consultant at the Vietnam Trade Village Association, said at a conference last month that fashion design has not been appreciated as a business.

He said the task deserves specific budget at each company or organization, just like budgets for traveling and attending events.

Dat said the country has quite a lot of fashion shows, but they are more about decorations, while "real fashion designers are few."

Dam Ca, a typography expert, said the crisis also exists in text preparations, which are necessary not only for clothing items but also brands and promotion slogans.

Ca said Vietnamese designers use Western fonts and add Vietnamese tones to make Vietnamese words, so they are hindered by the limit of fonts that tolerate the tone addition.

Even when the tones can be added, they can fall at position far from how a normal Vietnamese word looks, like too much on the left instead of being on the right half, he said. "Such incomplete fonts very much lower the impacts of the texts."

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