Thursday, March 10, 2016

From Sewist to Client: a Custom Wardrobe in Hanoi

"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us."

I am still on a high from our Vietnam vacation --- inspired by the fellow travelers we met along the way, picturesque scenery, my own vanquished fears (an overnight in the 3rd largest cave in the world deep in a leech-filled jungle!), and the silliness and confusion that accompany developing world adventures. What beautiful memories!

Soon after we booked our flights I started researching tailors in Hanoi.  My husband Michael needed a work wardrobe refresh and I wanted a headstart on my wedding season wardrobe.  I quickly settled on Hoa Fashion after learning that it was favored by local expats and recommended by our guidebook.

A third generation family business, Madame Hoa and her daughter Lien are the face of the brand.  Madame is a master of fit, nipping and pinning and smoothing; Lien, a fashion school grad, has a great eye for design and proportion.   The workers -- pattern maker, cloth cutter, men's tailor and several general sewists -- surfaced from the basement to advise during our fittings.  There was a visible security camera feed on the shop's main floor and I was able to glimpse at their comfortable workspace.

We arrived for our initial consultation at 8:30pm and spent two hours with Lien and her mother getting measured, trying on existing shop samples, flipping through catalogues (La Redoute, etc.) and settling on designs.

Madame Hoa measuring Michael during the initial consultation

Michael brought along a sample shirt and I brought images of designs to copy.

From left: Pinterest pants, DVF dress, Laroque tank, Burberry coat, Simplicity 1880

Additionally, we offloaded seven kilos of fabric from our suitcase!  You really can't compare the quality of Asian textiles to their finer European counterparts, so I encouraged Michael to shop for the fabric in advance in NYC.  He purchased the bulk at B&J, including super 120s suiting, shirting, and cashmere flannel for a sport coat.  He also made purchases at Mood and Elliott Berman.  I brought two pieces of stash fabric: a cotton floral print purchased several years ago at Benevento in Venice and a yellow brocade from Zimman's in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Fabrics purchased from B&J

Once we arrived at Hoa neither of us could resist adding to our order with garments made from fabrics from the shop.  Michael added a blue linen suit and several shirts and I added dresses and separates, including a dress and camisole from Vietnamese silk, and two dresses from Korea-milled cotton lawn.

For a small shop, they had an impressive fabric stash including a very small collection of high quality Vietnamese silk manufactured in the Van Phuc Silk village.

In addition to taking extensive measurements, Lien asked that I try on samples of the two designs I wanted to copy from her shop examples: a Burberry trench and a dress.   Her Burberry trench sample was on point and she told me that she had purchased a real Burberry in order to copy everything exactly.  It passed the Gorgeous Fabrics Burberry trench test!   Although I wanted to make some changes to the Burberry trench (princess seams and a flounce, a la Kate Mid), she asked that I try on her sample so she could work from her existing flat pattern to make the changes.  She quickly ascertained that one of my shoulders is taller than the other and made notes so that both shoulders would fit.

I fell in love with this dress which was destined for another client.  Since it was my size, I tried it on and Lien made notes for the pattern maker to alter the existing pattern to my body.

Before leaving, Madame asked if we would like all cotton fabrics pre-washed. These ladies sure do speak my language!

We returned five days later for the first fitting.  Hoa had prepared one of Michael's eight dress shirts and they had wisely chosen the lowest quality of the fabrics to make the initial shirt.

1st fitting.  The buttons are not placed, placket not sewn, and the collar is made out of interfacing

It was interesting to see what they had deliberately finished and what they had not.  Both of his suits were in process (no linings and only one sleeve) and all pants had been sewn.  All hemlines had been hand basted, zippers had not been inserted, and buttons had not been sewn.  For both of our garments, the collars (Burberry trench, Michael's shirts, my DVF shirtdress copy) were made out of interfacing to preserve the fashion fabric in the event of further changes.

First fitting.  Collar is interfaced, nothing is hemmed, and buttons are not placed.  Only one sleeve is inserted.

The inspiration on the left and the copy on the right.  The shape looked terrible on me, so we made it into cigarette pants.

And we did make further changes -- the DVF dress collar was a bit too tight, so Lien cut the collar at the center back and then used tape to achieve a comfortable fit around my neck. Similarly, we reshaped the interfacing collars on the alder style shirt dresses with a pair of scissors.  We discussed linings  and Lien suggested which dresses only needed a 1/2 lining.

My dress on the left and the inspiration on the right

Michael was particularly impressed that Hoa made working buttonholes and vents for the sleeves of his suit jacket and sport coat. According to Michael, most men's RTW -- even upmarket brands like Paul Smith and Hickey Freeman -- do not include working buttonholes on suit jacket sleeves.  Hoa also made several perfect welt pockets in the lining for different purposes:  a pen pocket, general breast pocket, and business card pocket.

Modifications to the pants during the first fitting.  Note that the belt loops are not completed.

Four days after the initial fitting we were back in the shop for the final fitting!  We had recommended Hoa to some fellow travelers whom we had met the previous week on beautiful Phu Quoc Island.  The girls met us at Hoa and we quickly took over the shop!

Our fellow travelers were busy in the back of the shop ordering garments!

While the girls were busy ordering garments, Michael and I made final modifications to ours.

Michael did a "sit-test" for comfort around the thighs

Matching in blue linen (Michael) and Vietnamese silk (me)!

My finished yellow dress on right (still needs a good iron) and the inspiration on the left.

We left Hoa with all garments in tow except for my white linen cigarette pants and two Alder shirt dresses. These were delivered to the hotel the following day. 

From the Grainline pattern to Mai Attique's version to my two new dresses

Giddy with our purchases and wanting to celebrate our last night in style (Michael was itching to wear his sportcoat!), we met up with the girls at our hotel's bar for its famed pho cocktail named in honor of folk singer Joan Baez.
With our fellow travelers waiting for Joan Baez pho cocktails; I am wearing another shirt from Hoa!

Baez was a Metropole Hotel guest during the war and recorded parts of "Where are you now my son?" in the hotel bomb shelter where she spent several nights during the Christmas bombing of '72. 

Joan Baez pho cocktail in the making!  Its pyrotechnic presentation recalls the successive Christmas bombings of '72 survived by Baez in the Metropole shelter; the flavors (cardamom, star anise, coriander) are a nod to Pho, Hanoi's iconic dish.
Tour of the historic bomb shelter where Baez and Jane Fonda were "guests."  This bunker was designed for 40 people.  Hotel staff took cover in manholes along the street.  

In my Hoa trench on our last day in Hanoi visiting the Temple of Literature

We are so pleased with our beautiful garments and with the Hoa experience!  Now back to my own dining table "workroom" where I am the pattern maker, cutter, fit specialist, sewer, and everything in between...


  1. What an interesting post! It must have been something to see them work like that. I love a good trip! Sounds like you had a great one.

    1. Yes, it was a perfect trip in an amazing part of the world. I was blown away by the efficiency of the workers. We dragged the process out 2 weeks because of our schedule, but they could have had everything done in only 5 days.

  2. Oh what a wonderful post! Just loved how the clothes we're made and loved your picks.....

    1. Thanks Laura! I am about to wear the DVF inspired dress to a bachelorette tea party this afternoon. I have never had so much fun "shopping" for clothes as I did at Hoa.

  3. Wow! What a cool process! It's interesting to see the way they constructed the garments to allow for efficient fitting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Glad I came across your post, Claire! Good amount of detail - just what I needed while sourcing online for a good tailor in Hanoi to make a few suits during my trip there :)
    How much did Hoa Fashion charge for the mens' suits and shirts which your husband made? I was initially not planning to bring in my own material like Michael did but after reading your post, I might consider doing the same.

    1. Glad this is helpful! That was the entire point of the post! Our trip was a few years ago, but i really do recommend Hoa and bringing your own fabric. They did have MUCH higher quality fabric than most tailors but if you have access to a big selection before going, then do that. I would make an appointment with them in advance via email and let them know you are bringing some of your own fabric. Count on going in person at least 2x before they deliver the final garments to your hotel. Michael recalls paying $40 per shirt for the labor (excluding fabric cost) and $300 for a suit jacket with 2 pairs of pants (excluding fabric cost). They are more expensive than most of the tailors you are going to find hawking to tourists, but truly the quality is top notch. He wishes that he had made several more suits and more shirts. Every time Michael wears his cashmere blazer he gets compliments, and usually it's from men in his industry who are accustomed to purchasing blazers at dizzying price points. Have a wonderful trip--that was one of the best trips we have ever taken and I think about it often!

    2. P.S. If you are also going to Bangkok on your travels, I have a similarly quality tailor I can recommend. Cotton House in OP Place (behind the Mandarin Oriental). I have been to Cotton House on 2 separate trips and they are fabulous and similarly priced to Hoa. More emphasis on women's tailoring than men at Cotton House...

    3. Thank you very much for the extra info - I think I'm sold on Hoa Fashion!
      Best wishes on your future travels!