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Insider Shopping: Custom Clothing in Vietnam

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.

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