Xuan-Thu Nguyen hadn’t been back to Vietnam in eight years when she landed in Ho Chi Minh City for the annual Vietnam International Fashion Week last April. Xuan-Thu, a Vietnamese-born, Dutch-raised fashion designer, is based in Paris, where she’s going on her third season as an invited member of the exclusive Paris Haute Couture Week — basically a designer’s life achievement unlocked. But that global exposure still hadn’t fully prepared her for what she saw in her birthplace.
The scene in Vietnam had changed. The style, design and quality Xuan-Thu saw were more refined, international, creative and, well, just better. She remembers one dress in particular by Vietnamese-born designer Devon Nguyen, who was also raised in Europe. The dress was white and sleeveless and included surreal 3D details that surrounded the model, “like paper airplanes, flying by in a warm summer evening,” she recalls.
I SAW THE GROWTH [IN VIETNAM’S FASHION DESIGN INDUSTRY].
XUAN-THU NGUYEN, VIETNAMESE-BORN FASHION DESIGNER
When “Vietnam” and “clothes” are used in the same sentence, it usually has to do with that “Made in” tag. Vietnam’s garment and textile industry is the country’s largest source of exports and employs millions of people. But visit Vietnam’s fashion weeks, take a stroll around trendy Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or even browse Rihanna’s Instagram and you’ll see that cool is on the country’s mind. With more designers returning from abroad to share their skills — and with new homegrown talent — Vietnam’s fashion scene is bursting at the seams. The country known traditionally for manufacturing clothes is increasingly becoming recognized for designing them. And from the avant-garde to the traditional, it’s a beautiful scene to watch.
“I saw the growth,” says Xuan-Thu.
The country really started wearing its fashion heart on its sleeve in the ’90s, says Hang Vo, a fashion design lecturer at ADS Vietnam Design Institute in Ho Chi Minh City. One of the first designers to go global was Minh Hanh, also from that city. She toured her collections — which embraced traditional Vietnamese weaving techniques and intricate patterns inspired by minority tribes — around Asia and Europe. Designers like Do Manh Cuong, who worked with Christian Dior and Dominique Sirop in France, also returned to Vietnam after studying fashion abroad and helped inspire Vietnamese not only with new designs but also with new business acumen.
When Hang started out in fashion design 10 years ago, there were only four options for formal study in fashion. But last October, at the Fashionology Festival in Ho Chi Minh City, she was amazed on the final night when students from 15 fashion schools packed the venue to show off their talent. And those 15 were just the schools located in the city.
There’s plenty of inspiration to go around. The more experimental designs of Nguyen Cong Tri, the Vietnamese designer of the moment, can be too much for the average human. But they’re perfect for U.S. pop stars. Rihanna posted a photo on Instagram of her wearing one of Nguyen’s designs this year. His oversize white dress shirt looks like it has been zapped by a grow ray — ending up more dress than shirt. Rihanna’s head and wrists poke out of the huge collar and cuffs like an elegant Fievel’s. Katy Perry ordered Nguyen’s stageworthy designs for her 2017 Witnessworld tour. Hang describes Nguyen’s clothes as trendy yet glamorous and, perhaps even more important, “100 percent made in Vietnam.”
Tam Nguyen, 21, says his parents first thought he wanted to be a tailor when he began studying fashion. Now, he is about to graduate from ADS and is already selling his own clothing line in Australia. And his parents get it. With all the various fashion weeks and glossy Vietnamese magazines, Tam says, fashion design has increasingly caught on with his generation. Vietnam is especially great if the designer’s focus is traditional techniques, he says; it’s sometimes a struggle for students to get material for something more modern. For that, you’re better off being in one of Asia’s other fashion capitals like China, Japan or Thailand. But maybe not for long.
Vietnam has gone through enormous social and economic change in the past few decades, and so have people’s ideas of fashion, says Hang. As luxuries multiply, she predicts, open-minded young talents will contribute more conceptual and avant-garde collections. There are also creative nostalgic trends like “pop-art áo dài” or “minority tribe streetwear,” she says, and a new emphasis on sustainable and ethical fashion brands.
Vietnam is in some ways still finding its place on the international fashion scene. Designers are experimenting with their “heritage, methodology and ethos,” says Hang. But with high-quality craftsmanship taken from the country’s tradition of garment-making — and the boundless creativity of the younger generation — Vietnam, says Hang, is just getting started.
Meanwhile, Tam wants to work and study abroad after graduating. But after he gains some experience, he says, he’ll return home: He wants to connect generations of Vietnamese through fashion design. And besides, for fashion, Vietnam might be the place to be by then. It’s already getting there.