It was only 8 a.m., but the narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter were churning with motorbikes and bicycles, the sidewalks crowded with people eating rice-noodle soup. As my friend Amy and I made our way down Hang Gai Street, we were tempted by stuffed banana leaves, longans, and dragon fruits. But we had set out that morning to satisfy our wardrobes, not our palates.
This was my first trip to Asia, and I intended to follow the advice of a friend from New York: "Start your trip at the tailor's." Seduced by the vibrant colors of Maggie Cheung's glamorous wardrobe in Wong Kar-Wai's movie In the Mood for Love, I wanted a fitted cheongsam of my own. I'd brought magazine clippings of modern Suzy Wong—style dresses and also several pieces of clothing I planned on having copied.
Anyone who had visited Vietnam raved about the workmanship and quality of clothing they'd found there. "The dresses that sell for hundreds of dollars in SoHo boutiques look like the lining of the ones I get custom-made in Vietnam," said Ellen Kaplowitz, a travel photographer.
Amy and I hired a guide to take us shopping—a common practice in Asia—and to show us around Hanoi. Assuming that we, like many of his other clients, were looking for a Western shopping experience, he led us to Khaisilk, a large store catering to foreign visitors. We'd been hoping to find a family-run workshop filled with handmade clothing. Instead, we were besieged by robotic saleswomen who steered us toward ready-to-wear items.
Still, I liked the store's samples of handsewn cheongsams, so I decided to have one made there. During my fitting, I began to understand the lure of tailoring. I felt transformed, as though I'd slipped into someone else's shoes—someone with a much bigger budget than mine. Meanwhile, Amy wandered down the street, trying to find someone to copy a $450 Mayle handbag she had coveted back home, a flat rectangular fabric bag that would have been simple enough to duplicate had she brought one with her to show. This was how she stumbled upon Thuy Ky, a shop packed with bolts of fabric in brilliant hues. Ao dais (tunics with loose-fitting silk pants) and hand-stitched silk shirts with mandarin collars and frog closures hung on the walls.
All she needed now was a model for the purse. Just then, Amy spotted a man across the street carrying a thick plastic shopping bag. It was the perfect shape: squared off, with a hole for the handle. Bag in hand (the man insisted on giving it to her), Amy came and got me at Khaisilk.
Minh, Thuy Ky's twentysomething tailor, showed us bright linen fabrics as well as lighter-colored silk for the lining. She would charge us $20 for a large version of the bag and $10 for a small one. We each ordered three, knowing that a real Mayle costs 20 times that much. When we went back the next day to pick them up, Minh was ecstatic. She liked the finished product so much she asked our permission to copy one for herself. A few days later, her replica of the bag—"our" bag—was in the window among the traditional silk purses.
Captivated by the city, Amy stayed behind in Hanoi while I continued on to Hoi An, an ancient Vietnamese port town that has become a mecca for fans of custom clothing. While eating a lunch of cao lau—rice noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts, and greens and topped with tofu—at the Yellow River Restaurant, I spotted two American women who looked stylish and friendly, so I sought their advice about tailors. Their response was instantaneous: "You must see Xuan." They guided me through the narrow streets to A-Dong Silk. Inside were piles of Western fashion magazines, sketchbooks lying on a coffee table, and two old sewing machines. It was the tailor shop I had imagined.
Xuan met us at the door, calling my new pals by name, and invited us to sit down for a chat. It turned out that the 25-year-old seamstress was part of a three-generation tailoring family and had been making clothes since she was 14. She worked from eight in the morning until 11 at night, and with thousands of clients, she had taken only a single day off in the past two years.
As we flipped through Xuan's sketches and issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, my head spun with possibilities. I showed her a fashion spread with a Michael Kors jacket I wanted, and she started sketching. It was three-quarter length, with a simple clean line, and narrowed at the waist. For the fabric, I chose a brown cotton tweed, and before I had a moment to think, Xuan asked, "And what more?" I decided on the same jacket in an olive silk-wool blend. She also copied two pieces I'd brought along—a halter sundress by Theory and a pair of APC pants. The total price tag was just under $200. I warned Xuan that I had a return flight to Hanoi in 28 hours. She patted me on the shoulder and told me to come back in the morning for my first fitting.
The next day, with 12 hours to go, Xuan invited me to have tea with her. The jackets were a little too boxy, the sleeves long, and the buttons not yet attached, but I could see the grace of the cut. I loved watching Xuan at work: intently chalking, snipping, and pinning. I returned to the store after a day at the beach to find that in just six hours she had finished everything. The sundress was lined (even though my designer version was not), as were the jackets, which had an A-DONG, MADE IN HOI AN, VIETNAM label sewn in. But the jackets still didn't quite fit, and I was beginning to worry that I might have attempted too much. There was more work to be done, and I needed to pack, check out of the hotel, and catch my plane in six hours.
Sensing my anxiety, Xuan volunteered to accompany me to the hotel, where we did the final fitting in the lobby as my bill was being printed. Kneeling, with pins in her mouth, needle and thread in hand, Xuan performed the final alterations as curious guests looked on. She then hugged me and handed me a bag for the plane, containing jackfruit, sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves, potato chips, and a souvenir toy cyclo.
A couple of weeks later I found myself in the crush of the biannual Barneys Warehouse sale, where, if I was lucky, I would find a D&G top for under $300. I realized I was wearing a jacket that had been sewn to fit me perfectly. And, for a moment, I found myself longing for Vietnam, a place of ao dai—clad schoolgirls, sweet kernels of sticky rice, and wonderful handmade clothes.
Susan Grobman is a producer with Dateline NBC and lives in New York.
Made to Measure: Asia
Khaisilk 96 Hang Gai St., Hanoi; 84-4/825-4237. Both traditional and Western styles are offered, but tailors can be reluctant to try new designs.
Thuy Ky 98 Hang Gai St., Hanoi; 84-4/825-1606. Quick turnaround, moderate prices, and a familial atmosphere make it worth a visit.
A-Dong Silk 40 Le Loi St., Hoi An; 84-510/863-170. This family-run operation specializes in high-fashion copies and custom clothing.
Tan My 66 Hang Gai St., Hanoi; 84-4/825-1579. Do Thanh Huong's sophisticated designs have an international following. The quality is high, as are the prices.
Beethoven Tailor 698 Sukhumvit 26, Klongton, Bangkok; 66-2/258-6805. The tailors are so talented that Big Blue, one of Bangkok's hippest film companies, uses them for costumes.
Baron Kay's Tailor 43 Mody Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852/2723-2839. This shop has been making men's and women's clothes for more than 50 years.
Jimmy Chen Mezzanine Four, Shop ML5, Peninsula Hotel Shopping Arcade, Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852/2722-1355. High-quality Shanghai workmanship for men's suits and women's dresses at reasonable prices.
Ascot Chang Co. Hotel Inter-Continental Hong Kong, Room L151, 18 Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852/2724-0963. This is Hong Kong's most famous shirtmaker. Once your measurements are on file, you can order by e-mail.
Jimbaran Tailor Jalan Bukit Permai, Bali; no phone. Mr. Made speaks little English but does great copies at a fair price.
Merino Leather 358 Legian St., Kuta; 62-361/755-410. Known for leather and suede work—pants, halters, jackets—and for being fastidious about the fit.