Making the clothes that make the man

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Vo Van Ve, better known as Haive, cuts a pant from paper frames he has made for each customer. The legendary tailor makes suits for VIPs, but that does not stop him from sharing with everyone tips about what makes for a good suit, helping raise their expectations. Photo by Nguyen Tap

Haive has a sharp eye for men's suits, but very rarely do they find his expert approval.

And if he spots someone wearing one that offends his high sensibilities, he is prone to accost the person and offer to make him a proper one for free. Such offers are not taken seriously because, as the 76-year-old man himself admits, he is mistaken for an old man who's lost his mind or a tailor desperate for customers.

They do not know that Haive is not senile or hard up for work. He is a master tailor who counts royalty, CEOs, millionaires and celebrities among his customers.  Some of his fans have compared him with Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin tailors.

"I feel irritated anytime I see a suit with so many errors," says the man who was dubbed "Saigon's No.1 Scissors" more than 40 years ago.

Such a reputation, which still holds strong among his old customers and their children, began with his apprenticeship at Tan Viet, which together with Adam, were the two most famous tailor's shops in Phnom Penh, where he was born and grew up.

He was born Vo Van Ve, and "Haive," the name that is printed on his shop's sign and business cards, combines his first name and "Hai," an address given to the eldest child of a family in southern Vietnam.

He was 15 when he began working as an assistant for his cousin at Tan Viet, and was soon promoted to be the main cutter, serving French officials and members of King Norodom Sihanouk's family.

His difficult childhood did not afford him a good education. He learnt to read, but could not write very well. But it was enough for him to learn a lot of tailoring techniques from a French book gifted by an Australian ambassador in Phnom Penh in 1964, making him a master of men's suits with a French cut.

His family moved to Saigon in 1970 along with many Vietnamese households who returned to their native land at that time.

Thanks to Cambodian references, he found work at Chua, a shop that used to make clothes for Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the US-backed South Vietnam regime, as well as many senior officials of that time.

He was promised a monthly wage of VND15,000 (worth three quarters of an ounce of gold then) if he proved useful.

He utility was apparent with the very first suit he worked on, which was for a regular and picky customer of the shop.

Haive recalls that the customer nodded the moment he tried it on and tipped him VND5,000, which prompted his boss to raise his wages to VND25,000 a month.

But he was not appreciated for long, as he usually told customers what was wrong with their clothes. His boss was worried that the customers would use the knowledge imparted by Haive to become more demanding.

Haive left after eight months and opened his own shop, now located in a small alley off Ly Chinh Thang Street, drawing many customers, so many that there were rumors he was deploying some form of witchcraft.

He made clothes for Cardinal Pham Minh Man, first presiding judge of Vietnam's supreme court (1959-1980) Pham Van Bach, and Tran Van Lam who was the foreign minister of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Nho, a close friend of his former boss, Chua, had 62 suits made at his shop, after Haive could reproduce a suit that he (Nho) had brought from France. This was something Chua failed to do.

Nguyen Van Minh, former ambassador of South Vietnam in the Philippines, told Haive in a hand-written letter in 1974 that his clothes were envied by anyone seeing them.

"Even tailors at Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin in France bow at your talent," the letter said.

During a recent visit, Haive was measuring a pant for the son of an old customer, Bui Dac Hoa, former teacher at Petrus Ky, one of the oldest high schools still operating in Vietnam, now a leading school for gifted students (Le Hong Phong). 

Hoa, now 70, said he has been a customer since 1972.

"I've tried several other famous places, but I always ended back here. My son once told me Haive had bewitched me, now he is bewitched also," he said.

Vo Quoc Thang, chairman of leading construction materials producer Dong Tam, is among his current customers.

Haive still maintains his habit of telling customers how to recognize a beautiful suit.

A good pair of pants has to be higher at the back than the belly and a little tense at two sides, so that the belt at the back is not pulled backward when the person sits down.

There should be no extrusion around the fly and the wearer must feel no stress at the knees and butt when walking up the stairs.

Pant cuffs, meanwhile, need to be two centimeters lower at the back than the front, so that it covers the heel of the shoe but not the tip.

A vest has to be slightly close even when it is not buttoned up, instead of swinging to two sides, and should not look squeezed when buttoned.

Haive says one can test a tailor's ability by giving him/her a striped fabric.

"A good one will make a pant that has the stripes fall straight from the fly, and no extrusion inside."

Haive can go on and on in this vein all day long, as long as there's a listener.

His passion for his job is such that he would offer to make a suit for free when he has an interesting conversation with a customer, and will withdraw his service when one tries to bargain.

He charges US$175 for making a two-piece suit, $50 for a waistcoat.

And as befits an artist, he works at anytime he feels like it, and stops if he is not in the mood.

Sometimes he wakes up at 2 or 3 in the morning to cut a fabric. He sleeps on a mattress in his working room to make his spontaneous routine convenient.

Several customers have wanted to open a big tailor's shop and hire him as their chief manager, but he has never been convinced.

"Running a big shop is a lot of headache. I feel much better working at home for familiar customers. It's easier if I can work when I feel like it."

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