In his book Previous Convictions; Assignments from Here and There, A.A Gill describes Vietnam as a place lacking one remarkable detail; 60’s rock ‘n’ roll. He’s right. There are no Jimi Hendrix licks, no hallowing cries of Jim Morrison echoing across the campestral rice fields. Other preconceptions will likely consist of a country that is down trodden in poverty, crippled by communist corruption, ladled with sweatshops and fake Burberry bags. Amongst the malaise of preconceptions, it’s sometimes impossible to decipher the layers that dovetail between truth and fiction. Yes, the fakes and knock offs are highly prevalent. Yet remarkably, the designer flagship stores such as Lacoste, Versace neighbour the night markets where the knock offs are sold for a fraction of the price.
Undoubtedly the fashion capital has to be Hoi An, the nerve centre for bespoke suits, home to 3rd-4th generations seamstresses and tailors. A street that UNESCO has once again, announced as a world heritage site. Every building seemingly given a new lick of paint, the street tannoy plays Bachs’ Jesu Joy of Mans Desiring and Air on a G-String for 364 days of the year, sparing one day for eminent flood announcements that will give the shopkeepers two hours to haul all the stock and furniture to the upper floors before the waters from the nearby Delta breaks its banks and ploughs ruthlessly through.
With the nearby city De Nang thriving with development, seemingly an entire beach dedicated to new hotels, the word is out on Hoi An. With over 400 tailors in the Old Quarter alone, in the fight for competition the tailors and stores have become crippled by the commission prices they pay to hotels and agencies that recommend their services to tourists. Reportedly some only make $15 per suit after the monies are divvied. Such is life, competition is fierce in this neck of the woods.
Here, in the malaise of haggling, uncertainty, not knowing the local tongue, sites like Trip Advisor are king. One restaurant we visited had the not-so subtle wifi code of TRIPADVISOR, which was a brave move considering this particular establishment took 20 minutes to deliver my beer, an hour for food, had living things within the food, then the audacity to overcharge me.
The service in the tailors, as condescending as this will sound, is surprisingly well coordinated. Vietnam’s ‘Savile Row’ doesn’t quite have the regal reception you might find at a Turnbull and Asser or a Henry Poole, no one is offering you a bourbon in a cut glass tumbler whilst you wait. However, with this intensity of heat, a bottle of chilled water was equally as welcomed. What it lacks in the way of London prestige it makes up for in spades with glamour and flamboyance. Sure, London can boast the likes of peacocking modernists such as Gresham Blake in Spitalfields and Joshua Kane, (formerly Spitalfields now Portman Road) but it doesn’t have the breadth of foppishness, brazen colours and Hawaiin-esque pineapple motifs, which appealed to almost every ‘lubricated’ male passerby.
The first fitting is done, the haggling is perfunctory and feels oddly arcane. No doubt customary on the street market with irascible vendors, but there is a ‘take it or leave it’ philosophy with Hoi An tailors. They have the power. They know how much you like the suit, especially after the missus waxes lyrical from the fitting room that you’ve never looked so good. We’re sent away to do a couple of laps of the town, sink a few sangrias whilst the suit gets tailored for a base fit. Upon the return it still needs to be nipped-tucked, and the garments are sent away for another half inch here, half inch there. Ideally you’d need to be in town for three days depending on how pedantic or hyper-vigilant you are about the fit, but it’s never an arduous task for them, at least, that’s how it’s portrayed. After it’s all done they even deliver the goods to your hotel.
Despite Hanoi being the country’s capital after the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam war, despite Ho Chi Minh being the city affluent with business and infrastructure, Hoi An is the epicentre for fashion. Good fashion, legit yet cheap, touristy yet somehow, still underrated and a little undiscovered. For how much longer remains to be seen.
All clothes modelled by me, purchased at Ba Ri Tailors in Hoi An.