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F for Fashion

 

At the turn of the millennium, everyone in Vietnam seemed to dress the same. Fast forward 15 years and people have developed some style. So with all the international brands in town, where’s it all heading? Words by Nick Ross

 

A night out in the big city will reveal one irrefutable fact; women in Vietnam know how to dress. Look around at the men in this country and they, too, are starting to put on the style.

 

This is not something new — the Vietnamese woman has always been expected to be beautiful. Etched into their psyche with four words, cong dung ngon hanh, or work hard, look beautiful, be a skilful talker and know how to create a happy family, the outward visage of the traditional Vietnamese woman has always had a focus on beauty.

 

With global fashion making its way to Vietnam, greater spending power has affected what people wear. Naturally, people in this country dress much better than in the past.

 

“People are definitely more stylish,” says Paul Norriss, COO and director of garment manufacturer, Un-Available. “The outside influence from the internet and music is very apparent and in the 12 years I’ve been here I’ve seen big changes in what’s acceptable. Younger generations are much more daring and want to be seen to be pushing the boundaries. This is mainly in the big cities, while outside of that it’s still a little way behind.”

 

Yet, although people are “catching up real quick,” says well-known model and celebrity, Vu Ha Anh, “the majority [of people here] have not developed styles or taste.”

 

She adds: “There is a lack of menswear brands and our perception is men don’t need to look good, they just need to be smart. I think it’s not generally true these days, and particularly in business. Everyone needs to have a certain style and dress code to impress their employers, colleagues, partner and friends.”

 

Says Paul, “What’s missing is true contemporary fashion for the middle classes — the cool working professionals. But international brands can’t offer this as price-wise they are too high.”

 

At the Mall

 

It’s the January sales and many of the well-known brands in the Crescent Mall in Ho Chi Minh City — Accessorize, Aldo, Calvin Klein, Diesel, Ecco, Guess, Mango, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Vans — are offering discounts. Naturally, sales attract customers and despite being mid-week, mid-afternoon, the mall is busy. Contrast this to 18 months ago. Then, even during the sales, except at the weekends the mall never quite filled up. When it did, the majority of the customers would window shop before heading to the upper floors to eat in the food court. Now they are starting to spend.

 

This is something confirmed by Emrat Rungruangwitchakul, the head of British clothing store, Marks & Spencer (M&S). And it’s something I notice when I interview her in the outlet in the Crescent Mall. The place is busy and shoppers aren’t just browsing.

 

Targeting “middle and high-class people” aged mainly between 25 and 40, M&S is aware of the problem that “people are still into traditional markets,” says Emrat, who worked in retail in Thailand before moving to Vietnam.

 

“The spending power here is different and this is a new country, so customers here are more concerned about price.”

 

While many of the international brands try to position themselves at the upper end of the market — a quick walk around Gap and Next, two clothing stores I know well from the UK, shows that prices are 30 percent to 40 percent higher than in London — M&S has taken a different route. Prices in Vietnam are lower than the UK, and more competitive even than in Thailand and Singapore.

 

“I want the brand to be affordable first, then let’s see the feedback,” explains Emrat. “Because if you set the price too high at the beginning, then the perception of the customer will be affected and they won’t buy. So, I prefer to lower the prices, give the brand a luxury feel and make the customers feel like this is something they can afford. Affordable luxury.”

 

As she says this we look around at the price tags. I spot an M&S leather jacket for women — it costs just under VND3 million, or GBP90 in the UK. It’s actually cheaper than the equivalent local brand jacket available in leatherwear shops in Hanoi. And of course, the quality is far better.

 

Another reason for keeping the prices affordable is to try and make inroads into the well-off Vietnamese market, to attract the kind of customers who do most of their clothes shopping overseas.

 

“Now new brands are entering the country, this will change a lot,” says Emrat. “All of the fashion brands are trying to find ways to engage Vietnamese customers. So what I’m trying to do is say that if you buy here, it’s cheaper than buying overseas.”

 

A Matter of Price

 

The issue with price, where certain brands sell low-end clothing in the West but are seen as mid-range in Vietnam, is something that Paul Norriss believes makes this a “strange market”.

 

“Mid-range depends on numerous things, and one of those is price point,” he explains. “So whereas Gap and Topshop are low-end clothing in the West, due to price point and quality here they are seen as mid-range clothing. The prices are more expensive due to import taxes, and of course average incomes in Vietnam are lower, making them more expensive to the average citizen.”

 

For him the answer is for Vietnam to start creating its own brands, to develop its own fashion lines that can compete internationally on style and price with the big players. It’s a tough call, but it’s desperately needed.

 

“It’s going to need a local design house to come to the party,” he says. “What we need in Vietnam is an edgy local brand with worldwide influence that’s produced locally but with international standards. It’s the only way to hit the price and still be forward enough in terms of style and quality.”

 

Ha Anh agrees but points out an issue. Costs.

 

“Local designers… struggle in business because even though they are very talented, there’s a lack of quality fabric and accessories available,” she explains. “Their production costs are too high and therefore their products are not price competitive.”

 

Which all leads this country to an interesting impasse. The fashion industry has improved beyond all recognition. Yet, to move onto the next stage, the local designers need to step up and the ‘luxury’ price issue needs to be overcome.

 

It will happen because Vietnam loves fashion and Vietnamese women love to look beautiful. The question is when.

 

1 comment

  • Katherine Cotton
    Katherine Cotton Tuesday, 22 March 2016 05:26 Comment Link

    Hi Nick,
    I recently came across this article and it caught my attention as I am in the process of setting up a website that will help promote designers work by enabling them to create individual profiles in order to showcase and/or sell their products worldwide. It is also a creative community hub in which designers can share ideas and potentially form collaborations with creatives from all over the world. We are still finishing off the website but I would love to feature some of Vietnam's new designers on there when it's completed. I will be in Vietnam for a while so please let me know if you have any ideas for how I can reach out to these young designers or if there is anything I can do to help in anyway.

    cheers

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