The fashion industry in Vietnam can be summed up in three words – mass production, label slavery, and fairy tale fantasy. While in many so-called “fashion cradles” of the world such as Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo fashion is a culture, a part of history, and acceptance, Vietnam, despite the international investments mushrooming via glamorous flagship stores commanding an inspirational presence in touristy districts, still needs in-depth education to truly appreciate and be able to grasp the core aspect of fashion being much deeper than just skin level.
Many Vietnamese could care less about fashion because “survival” alone is tough enough following the widening gap between the rich and poor induced by the growing economy. While the most fortunate may acquire luxury brands abroad, the younger generation of the emerging upper middle class is trend-conscious and ready to spend its old and new money. With buying behaviors highly influenced by westernization, these young people blindly believe any product from abroad to be worth the hassles and bigger price-tags. This in turn hurts local designers as customers would rather save just a little more to afford that particular ready-to-wear F/W 2012 skirt from a well-known brand.
Unlike other countries where tailored and custom-made clothes are considered a luxury, in Vietnam, buying off the rack is high quality and exudes even more status if that rack belongs to one of many fashion power-houses. Many blame local garment production for being too traditional and holding on to old cutting techniques; yet, they do not realize that great fashion exists everywhere, within every budget, and for all body types.
The three keys of being trendy are choosing the right fabric, the right fit for one’s body type, and the right colour for one’s complexion. Combine these key points with two more important elements – having the confidence to celebrate individuality and the right personality for a particular style. For the regular non-trendsetters, when in doubt, just dress to a fashion era suitable to one’s style then pull current fashion colours and accessories to update the look. It might sound easier said than done, but the complication is the struggle between wanting to be fashionable and expecting convenience during the process. On a side note, having the money to dress head to toes in LV does not make one a fashion leader, it just makes him/her lazy in style.
Another unfortunate drawback affecting the staleness of the fashion industry in Vietnam is the non-risk taking attitude of many apparel manufacturers. For many years, local manufacturers thrived in the mass production of casual sport wear. Stability has led to habitual laziness and the unwillingness to update to new technology, new processes and new vision. As both machinery and human resources’ skills age by the day, Vietnam remains slow to catch up with technological advances in apparel production thus, crippling any possibility for advancing beyond the mass producing garment industry to an haute couture culture. What I find puzzling is that Vietnamese culture is highly adaptable and the people have the potential and willingness to learn if given the opportunity, yet so few of them are willing to lead the change. Perhaps, like Asian society in general, the cultural norm is to respect individuality as a group, not individuality as an individual.
Sourcing too has continued to be a huge obstacle for on-shore and off-shore production. The country lacks a sustainable, self-driven material market including fabrics, notions, and suppliers. Most of these basic materials are imported from neighbors such as China, Cambodia, and Thailand. Ironically it would be much cheaper to import a hand sewing needle made in China than having one made locally. The lack of local materials forces local designers to source them from abroad and in turn adapt their designing taste to that of the sourcing countries further validating the idea that “made-in-Vietnam” is of poor quality or low status. Moreover, local designers exposed to the grandeur of off-shore markets with their gloss-over perfected image contribute to the deterioration of local design identity. It does not stop here, foreign fashion labels approaching Vietnamese manufacture are faced with higher labor costs than in the surrounding countries. However, labor cost alone is rarely the decisive factor when investing or placing an order for these companies. The hassles are the lack of local materials, which up the cost of pre-sourcing the materials, and the primitive manufacturing technological skills.
Culture too should play an important role in shaping the country’s appreciation for fashion. Most Vietnamese are brought up with the mentality that a successful life encompasses the idea of “eating well, dressing well”. Yet the notion of fashion design is still too vague and too young for both audiences and designers to comprehend. So is a distinct separation of fashion designing as a white collar job from apparel production as a blue collar one. Designers, manufacturers, buyers, entrepreneurs, consumers and all those involved in the apparel production business, as well as designing students, fail to understand that fashion involves all three equally important elements: creative design, savvy business sense, and skillful production. Based on personal experience, there are people who approach design schools seeking for short courses to be a full fledge fashion designer in 3 – 6 months because they already have some sort of manufacturing business and have been sewing and creating patterns for the last 10 years. There are also some who come to Vietnam to open up designer boutiques with no design background and no understanding of the local market or buying behavior. For them it is almost like trial and error with a golden rule: Vietnamese love any foreign brand and as long that brand lies in some fancy venue, business is guaranteed.
Fashion students and fashion education across the country overall are so determined to distinguish themselves from the blue collar production industry that they focus the entire learning process in artistic creative expression without the production skills as a solid foundation. Emerging and some already established designers alike, lead the industry with a foreign creative vision so far off that they can sketch it but have no clue how to make it real. There are some collections that are too “haute couture” to be palette for entertainment value. “Haute” lies in heavy beadworks, embroideries, structured shaping, Lady Gaga and Alexander McQueen- inspired “couture”. Take these attires, flip them inside out and the finishes is far from “high sewing – haute couture”. It is almost as the local industry is still grasping the concept of crawling, not yet learning to walk, but is expected to sprint a marathon with the rest of the world.
So who is to blame? The media for misrepresenting fashion in a skin deep war between models and celebrities busy flaunting the hottest next thing in front of the camera; the cultural misconception of fashion meant for beautiful people and making everything it touches turn fierce and glow in glamour; the consumer being shepherded into the next international label’s opening to represent fashion freedom to stand above the rest; or the industry being too disposable and easily influenced by the next best trend? There is no wrong or right answer, fashion itself is subjective and still too proud to admit its wrongs. The glass is always half full. Fashion in a developing economy has so much potential and playground to shape and change a whole nation’s taste level. But it is like a wild black horse with long luscious hair and diamond studded hooves, an act of balancing freedom to dress without being ridicule, and the order and structure of proper fashion education. Fashion is to be unbound in the mind, wearable on the body, and grounded with creativity.
Contributed by Valentine Vu Anh Ho Nguyen, Fashion Program Manager, ADS International Design & Art Center