|Among all the ao dai, the most sophisticated ones are embroidered, with each image bearing a message or goal for the person wearing it
In the two months leading up to Tet, the Lunar New Year, the fashion houses across the country launch their latest ao dai collections for the year.
Women of all ages busily prepare one of their most special costumes of the year, second only to the ones they wear for the wedding of a family member.
If the fashion world has two collections – one for Spring/Summer and one for Autumn/Winter – then many Vietnamese designers tend to have three each year: the same two collections, and one just for ao dai.
Ao dai can fit all women
People often think a delicate outfit like ao dai can be hard to wear, because you are supposed to show the body under a couple layers of thin silk or velvet. But actually, the free flow of the drapes make it fit any body type and the long sleeves and long trousers make it safe to wear if you don’t want to expose your skin.
Among all the ao dai, the most sophisticated ones are embroidered, with each image bearing a message or goal for the person wearing it.
When Vietnam was a kingdom, many villages survived by filling the wardrobes of the King, his wife and his contingent of concubines. Since Vietnam became a republic in 1945, these traditional villages switched to making ornate embroidered tablecloths, napkins, embroidered paintings and duvet covers, or kimonos, small gift boxes and bags.
Besides rice farming work, the livelihoods of these artisans depend on the export orders they receive.
“My parents only wanted me to go to school, go to college, get a job as an office worker and settle down,” says Bui Mai Lan, 35, founder of the Tu Thi Hand Embroidery company. “They did not want me to follow the traditional craft of our village because they both think it’s all hard work and low pay. All they wanted for me was to be a government employee to get a pension when I retire.”
Quat Dong, cradle of embroidery
Lan said she was lucky to have grown up in Quat Dong village in a land of more than 200 craft villages in the Ha Tay region.
“Every family in my village used to have several frames for embroidery,” she said. “During summer when we went there from our Hanoi house, I saw my uncles and cousins embroidering all the time.”
It was as natural part of life as breathing. Lan said she had a happy childhood playing in her country home and watching her family sewing. They would take a break to prepare a meal, then go back to work together again.
One day, hanging around the masters of the craft, the little girl received an offer: “Want to try it?”
So she did. From early on, children learned to make simple stitches. The first detail they were allowed to sew was the water in a larger dragon painting.
“I started out with water, then I did clouds,” she says. “Then I got to do each segment of the dragon’s long body. And the adults would meticulously sew the dragon scales.”
“Sometimes, when they worked on a large painting, six or seven people would sit around a frame working at the same time to make a landscape painting or one that has dragons, kylins, turles and phoenixes, the ancient sacred symbols. The overall ambience was really busy and happy,” she said.
“During my childhood, I could see the better time of the village was around 2001 to 2005, when orders from Japan to make kimonos and orders to from the Republic of Korea to make tablecloths kept villagers busy.”
Lan said she did exactly what her parents wanted her to do. She studied well, finished college and got a job as a journalist at Radio the Voice of Vietnam. To many of her fellow villagers, and her cousins who stayed to work as craftspeople, it was a dream job to have – if you do not make any grave mistakes, you are on the right track to get your pension upon retirement.
But since 2005 her village has received fewer orders year by year, so many families have opted for other ways to make ends meet. Since 2010, there has been a little vogue of cross stitch works that people were enthusiastic about. But to Lan, it was not the real embroidery she used to know.
“The more I went to my village, the more I had to see our family’s beloved old things being lost,” she said.
“I treasure my memory, and that of our family, of our village’s craft. My younger cousins also loved it and I want to keep the line going.
“So I asked myself, why don’t I go back to doing embroidery?”
Lan started thinking about it more seriously in 2017. “But I was still very scared. Because I went to work right after college graduation, I did not know anything about business or the balance sheet. I always made mistakes doing maths, let alone trying to make some profit by counting costs and turnover.”
Lan wasn’t convinced she would change careers, until a family anniversary for an ancestor that changed her mind for good.
As a family deeply rooted in the village life of the country, Lan says her family has many anniversaries to worship ancient ancestors throughout the year.
Two years ago around this time of year, she went home to see her father discarding her family’s own embroidered wooden and bamboo frames, including some from her grandparents’ time.
“Dad, what are you doing?” She asked. “I’m throwing them away,” he said. “They are all rotten, eaten up by wood borers. They would eventually eat up our other furniture. I’m burning them up, as firewood to cook!”
Keeping the craft alive
Lan made a very smooth transition from working as a journalist to starting up her business. She brought some embroidery samples to work and showed her colleagues, who ordered some for themselves and became the first customers of her start-up. Word of the beautiful pieces of clothing travelled fast and in no time she was overloaded with orders.
Ha Trang, another journalist with design talent, worked with her for a few months.
“I thought I could not split myself between my daily beat as a journalist and managing my business, so I left to found Tu Thi Hand Embroidery,” Lan says. “Deep inside, I still love the nature of writing, so I now write content for my brand.”
Ha Trang also quit her job one month later to work full time in the business, taking care of the designs for Tu Thi.
“What I brought up has started burning like fire!” she says in her home on a tiny alley in the Old Quarter. The old frames were not burnt to ashes, but they helped light a match in her head.
The first few months were tough, she said. She spent all her salary from her previous job to pay the workers. “At first, they demanded that I pay them right away,” she said. “Now I beg them to take the money, and they tell me to save it for Tet and they’ll take it all at once.”
Lan says everything needs time to process and develop. “If you continue to work hard on it, then it will only get better!”
Tu Thi Hand Embroidery shop has tried to save costs by using Lan’s home for the office.
“Right now, we are based here,” Lan said. “But in the future, we will think about longer term offices.”
“We do have a policy, which is that we refuse to copy design from other shops,” she says. “Some customers may see a beautiful design and they want our shop to make the same for them; I made it our policy to flatly refuse.”
By following this policy, Lan said she and her company respect the creative work of others, and promote her own company’s designs.
For Tet, Ha Trang has come up with new designs of little pink pigs, which are also birth sign animal for both of the founders. "I go to night design classes for further training to offer customised drawings for clients," she said.
Choosing better quality fabric is important to their company. They came up with their own designs for the Spring/Fall collections on Vietnamese silk made in Van Phuc here in Hanoi, Ma Chau in Hoi An or Bao Loc in Lam Dong province.
“We are geared towards making a product that is ‘Made by Vietnam, instead of ‘Made in Vietnam.”