For fashion lovers, the heat is on in Saigon

HO CHI MINH CITY Fri Feb 22, 2008 8:31am IST

HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters Life!) - Backstreet tailors are so last season.

Vietnam is starting to make a name for itself as a fashion paradise, and we're not talking about 24-hour tailors and sequinned handbags.

Ho Chi Minh City, which most still call by its old name Saigon, may be better known for its millions of motorcycles, never-ending noise, and bustling markets such as Ben Thanh in the centre of town.

But shoppers increasingly find that they get more bang for their buck if they seek out local and regional designers, whose collections are starting to be shown in London and New York.

"10 years ago there was nothing except small tailors and tourist stores," says French-born Valerie Gregori McKenzie, who has lived here for 16 years and owns high-end label Song, meaning "life".

"They are still there but you now have a lot of new designers that use Vietnamese craft as an inspiration and mix Vietnamese heritage and western influence," she adds.

She should know. Gregori McKenzie founded her label, which offers eco-friendly clothes, homeware and kitchenware, in 1997. Song products are sold in luxury resorts and in Gregori McKenzie's shop on 76D Le Than Ton, District 1. She also designs for international brands such as Habitat and Nicole Farhi.

"If tourists are looking further than the local market or tourist streets, they will find fabulous things to bring back and actually use. Most creations by local designers are hand-made and this is something that is no longer available almost anywere else in the world, unless at crazy prices," she says.

PARIS, LONDON, HO CHI MINH CITY

Anupa is another label that resort-hoppers will recognise. British designer Anupa Orvil's leather totes, handbags and jewellery boxes with her trademark embedded tourmaline stone can be found at the one-stop shop Gaya (39 Ton That Thiep, District 1) as well as resorts as far away as Miami.

Gaya also stocks collection from Romyda Keth, one of Cambodia's most sought-after designers, who cut her teeth in Paris before returning to her homeland a few years ago. Specialising in outfits using Khmer silk, organza, jersey and cotton with bold embroidery and flattering cuts, her clothes cost a fraction of what shoppers will pay for her designs in Singapore, Tokyo, Paris and London.

For most travellers, shopping in Saigon starts at Dong Khoi, and despite the recent influx of international luxury brands -- Louis Vuitton and Gucci now have their own shiny spaces -- the area still offers numerous gems.

There is Vietnamese designer Mai Lam's boutique Mai's underneath the Continental Hotel, which sells tops and dresses inspired by ao dai, Vietnam's traditional dress.

Just a few steps away, at the back of the Opera House, sits Thuy Nga (11-13 Lam Son Square), set up over a decade ago by a husband-and-wife team. The brand's longevity is unusual for a city where shops come and go almost every day. This is the place for quality men's shirts and trousers while womenswear is geared towards glamorous evening gowns.

BAGS AND JEWELS

For accessories, you won't go wrong with Sally Cox (www.coxsbazzar.com). The British former dancer started designing bespoke jewellery out of sheer passion and now sells her creations at Ipa-Nima (85 Pasteur Street, District 1). But the best way to get a unique piece to call your own is to meet her for a one-on-one consultation.

Ipa-Nima also sells its own accessories: bold, bright bags produced by former Hong Kong lawyer Christina Yu and now available in stores from Saks Fifth Avenue to Selfridges. U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea bought a few Ipa-Nima bags each the last time they were in Vietnam.

For a more local take on haute couture, there is qb mode (104 Nam Ky Khoi Ngia, District 1) a street down from Ipa-Nima. Designer Quoc Binh colourful gowns, many of them made with velvet and silk, could rival those on a Parisian catwalk.

Local celebrities, meanwhile, turn to Nguyen Cong Tri, whose Kin Boutique (194 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3) houses chiffon dresses and sultry silk numbers. He will also provide made-to-order evening dresses starting at US$100.

And then there are local and foreign designers who produce clothes in Vietnam but sell them abroad. St. Martins graduate Charlie Rollo-Walker is one of them. She is behind A Right Charlie, a Vietnam-based label that produces special-occasion wear. Her embroidered taffeta silk outfits retail exclusively in the UK.

"Saigon is really booming," says Rollo-Walker, who is currently looking for an outlet to sell her designs here.

"There's a real buzz, with so many opportunities for designers, not just for launching their own things but to collaborate and work with different designers. I imagine it is similar to the community feeling from the 60s when things are still small and burgeoning just before it all goes mainstream."

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