Meet Vo Viet Chung, Vietnam’s award-winning ao dai designer and UNESCO honoree

Vietnamese fashion was given new recognition last August with an unprecedented international award bestowed on local designer Vo Viet Chung, one of the country’s foremost innovators in fine traditional garments. At Leonard Simpson’s Fashion Forward awards ceremony held in the US at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Vo Viet Chung was selected for the accolade from a number of international figures presenting interpretations of both ancient and modern Asian garments, being awarded the title of Designer of the Year (as well as Best International Designer) for—according to the organization— his “stunning array of elegant gowns that portrayed the history and future of Asian fashion; with details and prints that reflect the history of the Vietnamese culture, the modern designs with high splits and flowing trains shattering the traditional, transforming it to the remarkable.” As the first Asian designer to win the award—now in its 39th year—the immediate media attention that the win has brought to both Chung and Vietnamese traditional fashions in general has represented a new peak in the designer’s career.

“Those were big awards,” says Chung, still clearly stunned by the announcement. “Many professional designers desire them in order to support their profession and business. This is also the first time for an Asian to win this award. Although people praised my work, I still think a very important element was luck, because if I was not lucky and wasn’t able to convince the judges, it would have been hard to win. I don’t feel emotionally affected quite yet, but this is a milestone in my life that really surprises me. Even those who are really good at what they do, in art—especially fashion—it’s like a painting, maybe you can feel it or maybe not, or maybe you like it but I don’t. That’s my personal judgment, everyone is different. But this time, there was common agreement between all the judges. I even won two awards, and this is something that makes me feel really proud of myself this time.”

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While the surprise victory provides validation for Chung’s extensive work in the traditional genre, Chung has in fact long sought to distance himself from the garment with which he is most commonly associated—the ao dai. What is more definitive of his oeuvre is an attempt to reinvent international styles using Vietnamese precursors, thus producing designs with recognizable but somewhat obscured Vietnamese features.

During a previous interview with our magazine in 2015, Vo Viet Chung explained that “Foreigners who visit my store seem to sense that the ao dai is very important, very spiritual. I know that, but for a designer like me, I choose to make it look more relaxed, more open, like these ones I’ve shown you. I can cut it shorter to make it into a dress; I can make it longer so that it becomes a gown; but all my pieces are made of materials that are exclusively used for making ao dai.”

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Chung’s presentation at Fashion Forward this year, Dynasty, was a more flamboyant dramatization of this design principle, borrowing liberally from national costumes throughout Asia to produce a collection of staggering couture pieces that overtly exposed their influences without being limited by them.

Dynasty refers to elegance and something regal, but also dreams of a royal garden,” the designer said in an interview with Vietnam News. “The collection consists of 20 designs with red, yellow and metallic black as the main colors. The colors reflect the characteristic nuances of the royal style, while the materials of silk, brocade, velvet and lace clearly express the spirit of the collection, the ‘royal’ haute couture line of fashion. The motifs on the clothes are shaped like Italian baroque motifs with stones, metals and pearls. The accompanying accessories such as jewelry, shoes, hats and scarves are handmade. This is the first time I have combined hair, dresses and flowers to tell a poetic royal story. All form a path throughout Asia’s dynasties.”

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While the design aesthetic presented in Dynasty proved so popular in the United States—Chung is still fielding calls from interested American partners—he has been reluctant to exhibit the collection here in Vietnam or produce the individual pieces for sale. “Those were high-class garments, not really applicable for here, only for attending the program,” he explains. “Some have said I should hold a show, others said I should not, I just want to let people be curious about them. In any case, I have been producing ao dai for many years, but it’s my hope that through programs like that one, people overseas will learn more about our culture.”

“For any fashion show, we must follow a theme,” he continues, and that particular program was themed around Asian designs, so it had to be Asian. My feeling is that we shouldn’t always try to overtly introduce Vietnamese culture, but just reveal part of it, enough to symbolize the rest. Otherwise we run the risk of limiting our creativity in a stereotype. That’s fine to show overseas, we’re proud of our home country, but if I kept focusing on that, I could never develop.”

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Chung remains philosophical about the award, insisting that it is his own creative drive that provides his primary sense of artistic direction. “There were many opinions,” he says with a tone of defiance, “but I don’t care. Only someone who has been traveling as much as I have or someone in the same field can really understand what I’m doing. It’s good to maintain our culture, but we shouldn’t hold on to it all the time. For example, I don’t want any Vietnamese elements to relate to my designs for models in China. This time there was a sense of thematic tourism, so I went for something of an integration while still featuring the region’s characteristics. But in general, while I have already put a lot of effort into working with more traditional materials and specializing in the ao dai, I still keep attempting to renew myself and to learn more about international fashion and follow the common trends, while still holding on to some traditional traits.”

“I’m not bringing the whole ao dai to introduce abroad, but taking inspiration from it,” he adds. “The sleeve, for example; the collar, the button— just the traditional buttons themselves could inspire a new collection.”

One of the most obvious considerations Vo Viet Chung had to take into account from an artistic perspective was the fact that many of the models presenting the garments would be of European rather than Asian descent. “It’s not easy for Westerners to feel comfortable in Asian garments,” admits Chung. “I wanted them to be more relaxed, so that they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable wearing an ao dai as foreigners. Whenever I give a Western lady an ao dai, those models for example, if I don’t tell them in advance just to walk as usual, they tend to be very unnatural. Almost every model who works with a Vietnamese designer thinks that they need to be like this or that when they wear an ao dai. For me, in order to make them suitable for Westerners, I know the collar should not be too high, not too tight, because the most important thing is the confidence of the wearer. Only when they’re confident can they look right in an ao dai.”

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Reviving the Past

This is not the only prestigious award Vo Viet Chung has been presented by an international organization—in 2007 he was honored by UNESCO for his work in reviving a unique, jet-black Vietnamese silk known as lanh my a—the production technique for which was almost forgotten by the time Chung brought it back to life while seeking a traditional material on which to base his graduating collection for his studies abroad in Denmark. “It was a matter of chance,” Vo Viet Chung said when speaking to us about his rediscovery of the materials during our 2015 interview. “I noticed in our family photos that my grandmother and my mother wore ao ba ba and the Mekong-style black pants. I asked my mother about the fabrics, and she explained that they had a long history, but were no longer available in our modern markets. Lanh my a is particularly amazing—I remember examining my late grandma’s ao ba ba and realizing that it was something really special. The material is dyed with the resin of a kind of wild fruit named mac nua. The rainwater makes it look more beautiful, stronger, and it also becomes smoother over time. At that time, I had my mother and our relatives in the Mekong, Tan Chau, and An Giang help me to figure out how could I reproduce them all.”

“When I watched Fashion TV or read magazines like Elle, I realized that Vietnam had definitely never acknowledged a traditional material and brought it to the modern world,” he said. “We always import our materials from overseas. So I thought that it would be great if I could bring out a forgotten traditional material comparable to modern ones all over the world, and upgrade it to an international standard. So that’s exactly what I did.”

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His mother, now 86, remembers the origins of the material very clearly. “I always used to wear lanh my a,” she recalls when we speak to her at her home in Cu Chi, where Vo Viet Chung was raised as a countryside boy obsessed with fabrics even as a child. “Only wealthy people could afford that material. The poor usually wore vai xien—you don’t know that material. It looks dull after several washes. That was a hard time. Wealthy people could own several pairs of pants. Our family wasn’t bad (we weren’t exactly poor), since their father was a driver. I still kept some of those pants when we moved here, although they were old.”

“Pants made of lanh my a and white ao ba ba were what we usually wore in the past, not the pajamas you see now,” Chung’s mother says. “It’s glossy black. There was a certain period when people ignored it, stopped wearing it. Then when Chung went abroad to study, he called me to ask about it. I said it’s a strange material, you can use it to create your stuff. If you want it, I can buy some for you. But it was very hard to find. I went to Chau Doc to buy several dozen meters and sent it to him. It was VND40,000/meter at the time. When he returned, he went to Tan Chau and Hong Ngu to make orders. Then that material came to be known, otherwise it might have been forgotten.”

“This material has become very expensive since being reproduced,” she adds. “He ordered a lot of material and used it to create his collections. I don’t know how much, but afterwards I saw so many models wearing lanh my a silk.”

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“Maybe the path I chose is different from other designers,” says Vo Viet Chung of his work with the fabric. “I love renewing these materials, I love taking these ordinary things that were once connected to the peasantry, and elevating their status to make them high-class materials comparable to Chanel or Valentino products. That’s why I like to revive these materials and give them a new look, a new context, at the fashion weeks of New York or Paris.

Origins

The designs of Vo Viet Chung have their roots in the countryside because the designer’s own roots are firmly planted in the rural Vietnamese south. Like many who grew up in the areas around Cu Chi, Trang Bang, and Tay Ninh in the era following the war, the environs of his childhood were perfectly idyllic. What was unique about Chung’s own experience was that his character and passions were obvious from his earliest days.

“He used to make ao dais from scarves,” recounts his mother with obvious fondness. “He would steal his sister’s ao dais to make clothes for the cats and dogs. When he was in first or second grade, he was thin and weak, so I gave him money and told him that he should eat something at school, no need to save it. But he always saved his money to buy fabric and made clothes for himself. He fried rice to eat before going to school, not buying any food outside. He seemed to have even more money than I did. He used it to buy cloth and made garments, ironing them perfectly, always, since he was a young boy. We did farming back then, but he himself couldn’t do any of it.”

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“I did what I love, despite everything,” remembers Chung. “I knew that my mom wouldn’t yell at me whatever I did. It’s those memories that formed me and made my personality what it is today. It was fun, every time I designed or made something for my cat, it tore everything to pieces. I couldn’t reach it because it was on the roof. By the end of the year, when we were spring cleaning, we found many scraps of cloth up there. But clearly there was something very interesting to me in what I was doing.”

Even though Vo Viet Chung’s family was relatively financially secure, there were still obstacles between the emerging young designer and his chosen path in life. “In the markets there was colorful kate,” he explains, “but those were hard times.

I remember that we were issued with ration tickets for cloth. I was like no one else, if I wanted to exchange the ticket to get other color, I would pay more money. For example, I made an exchange of more than ten meters of one fabric for one meter of another, as long as it didn’t look like anyone else’s.”

“I remember there were red and other colors, but they looked terrible,” he says. “I liked white, simple colors, so I had my sister embroider it and then show me how to do it. How to embroider dramatic motifs and that kind of thing. I like something unique. Obviously there were items of mine that were like no one else’s. Now I have the factory to do the hand embroidery, but at least my creative ideas are still informed by my childhood. In the design world, if you have something that is so unique and atypical, you will definitely not be confused with others.”

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“In the past I also had a passion for drawing,” he adds. “Usually I drew ladies in ao ba ba, ao dai… that was something that accompanied my childhood. I feel it now to be the source of my creative inspiration, of my love toward my profession. My childhood was very beautiful. People often say that the past is something very beautiful, something that carries the soul of our hometown. I didn’t have a clue that I would be a designer when I grew up, but obviously such a childhood helped to make the choice for me.”

Looking Ahead

Now having exhibited his collections in many countries overseas—including attending international fashion weeks in China, Australia and New Zealand, among others—Chung’s greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the US. It was just last year that Vo Viet Chung presented a major collection of traditional Vietnamese ao dai at the “New York, I Love You” fashion gala, a 2015 spring/summer event featuring haute couture evening gown designs in nude tones. As the only Asian designer among the 100 international talents taking part in the Independence Day gala, Chung brought special attention to his Vietnamese collection with a very public photoshoot in Times Square with Victoria’s Secret supermodel Angelica Kotliar, who reportedly agreed to pose without charge out of her respect for the traditional garment.

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“I have traveled a lot, and America is one of the places I like most,” grins Chung. “If there’s a chance for me to develop my career in the US, I would feel very happy. After the awards, there were many invitations to collaborate, but I’m still making my choice, and so far I’m not thinking about it too much, particularly from now till the end of this year. You have to consider things closely when doing business. Besides the financial issue, I have to consider a lot, I can’t make any decision overnight even though it feels like I’ve reached a new level.”

Having reached a certain level of celebrity, Chung is now often approached by younger designers hoping to find some inspiration, but the designer only rarely accepts an apprentice, having been disappointed in the past.

“I went through student life, I understand that it’s really hard when you want to achieve something, it’s not simple,” he sympathizes. “Every year, fashion design contests give opportunities to young designers, but in the meantime, many of them can’t survive in the industry. A contest may generate several hundred young designers each year, but then they all give up. I think it’s a waste to lose that source of talent. People may think I’m very well-known these days, but they don’t usually know that I had to go through a very hard time. It wasn’t a process of luck, but a great deal of effort and patience. Young designers today have better opportunities than we did, it takes only several hours for the latest information or collection to be updated on the internet. We didn’t have that in the past, and so we had to try much harder.”

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“Sometimes young designers come to me, but I have often found that they don’t have the qualities I require,” he sighs. “Their love toward this career is just not that profound. They have no passion or enthusiasm, and they just want to become famous as quickly as possible. I spent 20 years to get to where I am today.”

Vo Viet Chung leans back and permits himself a rare, genuinely warm smile. “I try my hardest because I like it,” he says. “If someone says they don’t want to become famous, maybe that’s misleading. I want to be free without anyone to bother me. I still want a quiet death that no one cares about. I don’t want to be a celebrity, that’s my nature. I love living a normal life without caring about all these people around me. But it’s a simple fact— when setting out on this career, you have to be strange and special.”

IMAGES PROVIDED BY VO VIET CHUNG