One half of a Hanoi-based fashion house that has gone national
One of Chula’s signature ao dais pictures a hunched-over Vietnamese woman on the front, a focused look in her eyes as she zooms ahead on a motorbike. On the back of the dress, it’s the motorbike’s rear, carrying a blossoming tree in preparation for Tet.
It is through what they are achieving with Chula that Laura and her husband, Diego Cortizas, embrace Vietnamese culture.
“We are a Vietnamese brand, and we are proud of that,” Laura says, as she leads me through the colourful maze of terraces, workspaces and showrooms that comprise Chula’s West Lake headquarters. In the last year, Chula has expanded beyond its original Lac Long Quan location, opening shops in Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City and central Hanoi.
Laura clarifies that she’s not the brand’s creative force, referring to Diego as “the master beside me”, but her role in Chula cannot be understated. Her energy permeates the company’s operations, in her passion for each dress, her animated conversations with the employees, and in her contagious excitement for all things Chula.
Chula began after Laura and Diego first moved to Hanoi from their native Spain in 2004.
“We never thought we’d work together,” Laura recalls. After all, she had studied political science and Diego had studied architecture, so their presumed career paths were wholly separate.
Passion for Fashion
“Something about Vietnam just exploded in us,” Laura says, and they packed up their lives in Spain and started putting down roots in Hanoi. Laura discovered the gorgeous textiles abundant in Hanoi’s markets, and Diego discovered a passion for fashion.
“I think he was in shock,” Laura says. “Fashion became an excuse for Diego to put forward his ideas about art and culture in a beautiful way.”
While Diego embodies Chula’s aesthetic through his designs of dresses, skirts, tops, jackets and a developing line of menswear, Laura carries Chula’s colourful spirit via her familial love for the brand.
“Diego’s vision is wonderful,” she says, “and I am follower number one.”
Laura and Diego discuss all of Chula’s designs and collections, which Diego ultimately takes the reins on. Laura oversees the brand’s public relations, sales and day-to-day production.
As Chula evolved, so too did Laura and Diego’s working styles.
“We never had a determined plan for how we’d share the work, but we’ve figured it out along the way, and taken Chula forward little by little,” Laura says.
Beyond the spousal relationship at Chula’s foundation, social relationships shape the brand’s identity. Laura’s love of Chula’s employees is palpable.
“I love the production part,” Laura says. “I love working with the girls, admiring their technique, and seeing how the dresses bloom.”
It’s remarkably quiet as we tread over woven carpets and through ribbon-adorned doorways; that’s because 85% of Chula’s employees are people with disabilities (predominantly hearing-impaired). Laura communicates with the women embroidering, cutting and sewing through sign language and big smiles.
“We were lucky to meet one of the girls at the beginning of Chula,” Laura says. “The communication was perfect, as we didn’t speak good Vietnamese.
“People with disabilities are a minority in society, in the world, and in other companies. At Chula, they are the majority.”
Chula’s production has always been a team effort. This communal spirit is embodied in the Lac Long Quan shop and workrooms.
“We love that when people come here, they can see everything that’s related to the dresses’ creation,” Laura says. “They can meet the designers, see where the clothes come from, and get inspired.”
Laura takes great pride in introducing customers to Chula, and says she’s the more forthrightly social one; she welcomes customers and shows them what Chula is all about, while Diego takes more time establishing close, one-on-one relationships with customers.
“We both believe in the relationships, but we approach them in our own ways,” Laura concludes. “Being an expat, I’ve always loved meeting new people.”
The expat community has no doubt bolstered Chula’s success.
“They love our dresses that reference Vietnam, that serve as a memory of the years they lived here,” she says. But Laura also expresses gratitude for the enthusiasm shown by the local Vietnamese community.
Through Chula’s history, Vietnam itself has remained the brand’s most salient motivation.
“If we were not in Vietnam, we never would have created Chula,” Laura says. Likewise, Laura expresses great pride to have the label recognised locally and internationally as something inherently Vietnamese. “It’s a big honour to be representing Vietnam.”
When Laura talks about Chula, it’s almost easy to forget that she’s talking about a fashion brand, particularly when she expresses her vision as “a model of business that is a social company, independent and sustainable, and not all about the money.” In a world of fashion obsessed with creating the “next, next, next,” Chula embraces fashion’s power to tell a story and build connections.
“Clothes need to have values to stand out in the big business of clothes,” Laura says. “Chula clothes are not for one season, but forever.” — Noey Neumark
For more info on Chula click on chulafashion.com