What really goes on behind the curtains at Vietnam International Fashion Week.
H’Hen Nie leans down to peer through a tear in the heavy black curtain separating the runway from the backstage area as Luong Thi Hong Xuan next to her reaches hungrily into her snack pack for another rice cracker. There’s not much of a view from back here – we only manage a glimpse of the models as they glide out into the sparkling lights and step carefully over the folds of their sweeping gowns. Behind us, Kha My Van gazes distractedly into her phone as she makes another attempt at the perfect selfie, her hair draped in absolute symmetry over her ruffled Francoise Lea Cellier frock; she glances up to grin sheepishly at a photojournalist before resuming with her own snaps. To my left, K’Broi and Vo Thanh An joke in cheeky faltering English with a visiting Polish beauty, the three of them wrapped awkwardly in fabrics that will look stunning the moment they step out on stage a few moments from now.
Don’t worry if you’re not yet familiar with these names – they’re all fresh-faced celebrities barely out of their reality TV platform and primed for a shot at the real fashion world, and they’re being treated to a remarkable graduation ceremony. The Vietnam International Fashion Week, the second of its kind ever held in Ho Chi Minh City and following just ten months after the inaugural event, is an extravaganza of towering runway beauties and breathtaking designs, held to put this country definitively on the high fashion register. This is one of those things that observers five years ago would have shaken their heads at and said would never happen in dusty old Saigon with its unshakable preference for conical hats and open-toed shoes. It’s still often said that there is actually no fashion industry at all in Vietnam – and the Fashion Week is a very deliberate effort to challenge that presumption.
As with last year, Vietnam’s Fashion Week is a patchwork of neatly interlocking elements. It’s convened in partnership between Singapore- based FIDé Fashion Weeks – headed by billionaire philanthropist and Asian Couture Federation founder Dr. Frank Cintamani – and local media production firm Multimedia JSC under TV & fashion entrepreneur Le Thi Quynh Trang. Many of the special guests and leading industry figures are connected to FIDé and the ACF in some form, working in cooperation to realize the latter organization’s mission “to inspire, support and promote the highest levels of Asia-based fashion design artistry to the Asian and global markets.” On the Vietnamese side, Multimedia’s TV properties provide the raw materials for the shows – models are for the most part Next Top Model alumns, and Project Runway designers take up a number of the event’s show slots. Advertising for its sponsors also draws heavily on Multimedia’s not- insignificant proprietary promotional resources. Take a close look, and you’ll see that the whole web is a self-supporting lattice of interweaving handshakes – an impressive structure of recursive deals that has made the impossible here possible.
The pertinent question is whether or not a web of industry associates and television show competitors really constitute the state of Vietnamese fashion and the national industry’s emergence as a strong regional player. Critics have their doubts; the VIFW committee is eager to prove otherwise. Speaking at the event’s press conference a fortnight earlier, Multimedia’s Le Thi Quynh Trang expressed her confidence in the potential of the Fashion Week to bring to the world a new perspective on the potential of the Vietnamese fashion market. At the live finale of this season’s Vietnam’s Next Top Model, celebrity guest Julien Fournié – a French haute couture fashion designer and one of the key presenters at the Fashion Week – gushed over the talent he’d seen since touching down in HCMC, stating: “In fact, it’s very easy to understand that nowadays we need new figures, we need new faces… during the 90’s, girls came from the Ukraine and Russia. During the [2000’s], they came from sometimes Italy and sometimes Brazil. But, for the future and for tomorrow, they have to come from Asia and of course Vietnam. So I’m very excited to see the new faces here.”
Ripple of Gravitas
Several days after that finale, the Vietnam International Fashion Week kicks off at the Gem Center. The local celebrities are out in force, eager to stamp out their obligatory shots on the red-carpeted stage, which seems to be open to anyone brave enough to step up and face the entourage of flashing cameras. Dubai-based designer Ezra Santos wears one of the biggest smiles, pleased as punch to score an invite to present his latest signature collection, predominantly a series of wedding gowns in nude pink – “I wanted to use one color this time,” he enthuses, “because a nude pink color for any woman brings out their tone and their skin color. It makes every woman beautiful.” To the highly-respected Santos, the Saigon event is certainly proof enough that Vietnamese and Asian fashion is on the rise: “Come on, Alexander Wong, a lot of Asian designers are doing very well in New York and Paris. I do believe it’s maybe because of what’s happening in China, so it’s about time that they recognize that.”
The backstage area is your typical fashion show rush; the designers fuss over their creations as lanyard-bearing minions grab and shift and poke their way around the big names fiddling gracelessly with their straps. There’s a high level of security tonight, as show sponsor PNJ is about to unveil their jewelry collection, and every girl is wearing what looks like several thousand dollars’ worth of gems around her neck. One of the guards steps on a girl’s gown and finds himself on the receiving end of a toxic glare from one of the models’ handlers: “If she fell over…” he spits angrily, drawing his finger across his neck and pointing right at the guard, who stares guiltily at his shoes. The models would laugh, but they’re clearly extremely nervous as they line up to step on the catwalk. Miss Universe Vietnam 2013 Truong Thi May shouldn’t have anything to worry about, but she’s visibly trembling – she presses her hands together and raises them before her nose in earnest prayer, bowing and whispering for confidence as if standing at the temple. She flashes me a terrified smile and I give her an encouraging nod as she begins her careful, studied footsteps out to the runway, while I shake my head and wonder if I haven’t imagined that this little exchange actually took place.
This is my second night back with the models; the previous evening I’d been competing with Polish journalists for a brief interview with veteran Japanese bridal couturier Yumi Katsura, celebrating 50 years in fashion with us here in Saigon. The Poles are awfully persistent – they’ve come on another reciprocal arrangement, filming Poland’s Next Top Model in Vietnam and providing their contestants to the Fashion Week as European runway talent. Ms. Katsura is a little flustered trying to judge which of their competing models performed best in her outfits (which were among the most extraordinary of the entire week); when it’s my turn, she shuffles next to me heading for someplace a bit quieter as if on tip-toes, suddenly looking very weary of the entire performance.
She’s grateful to be here, however. “As a designer, I will go anywhere where our products are welcome,” she says, “and also where we are invited. So as a designer, that is my career, that is my job.”
“I feel that Vietnam is almost as it was 20 years ago in Japan,” she observes. “It’s developing, so it’s worth looking at the Vietnamese market compared to the Japanese world or European countries. Actually, I’ve already done this in Japan. When I started in bridalwear 50 years ago, only three percent of women were wearing wedding dresses there, so I’ve done this in a developing country before. I have the same feeling in Vietnam right now. It’s very exciting.”
Ninety-one-year-old Italian designer Renato Balestra echoes her enthusiasm as he prepares for what is likely to be one of the last shows of his long career. “I wasn’t able to say no to Mr. Cintamani,” he says brightly of why he’s decided to take part here. “They put on such beautiful shows all around Asia, and I had never been to Vietnam.” While he takes the regional fashion industry at face value, he does have his criticisms: “It depends on country to country, because each country brings to fashion their roots, their traditions. Of course, some of them have to become more international. They are a little too much in touch with the roots. If they want to show in New York, or Paris, or London, or Rome, they must become a little more international.”
There’s a discernible ripple of gravitas backstage as one of the event’s most important models glides past the baby ones like a floating statue. One of the VNTM boys whispers across to a counterpart from PNTM, “That is Thanh Hang. She is supermodel,” and they nod in shared awe. Hang is dressed in a staggeringly glamorous gold Valenciani number that plays about her curves like liquid metal. She descends regally on a patchy office chair pushed towards the rear of the open changing area and is attended to by her outfit’s designer, Adrian Anh Tuan. Both of them are themselves pieces of the FIDé/ Multimedia puzzle; they were both Top Model judges last season, and Hang has been appearing in Fashion Week sponsor advertisements for months already.
As they flutter about preparing for the launch of Adrian’s new line, their camaraderie with the former contestants on the show is evident, and it’s this observation that I take home from all of this – the entire production with all its complex network of forces has become something of a joint effort, and almost a family affair. There’s nothing forced or pretended going on here – this is the groundswell of Vietnam’s fashion industry, and wherever it goes in the future, it all begins here. It may be cobbled together, but it’s still the real thing.
Perhaps Frank Cintamani himself puts it best in his final speech that closes this year’s Fashion Week: “People from beyond the shores of Vietnam have now heard what it is we’re doing here. It benefits both the international designers, and of course the local designers. As an organization, we are extremely, extremely confident that this country has what it takes to become a fashion capital of the region. So I would like to wish Vietnam the greatest success, and you have always our support.”
Images By David Dredge