Keeping it Ku

Meet fashion designer and restaurateur Chuong Dang

Chuong Dang leans back and flashes yet another smile of absolute and easy conviction. The man has a warm, observant gaze, as if he sees everything in slow motion, and he has the uncanny ability to change the way people look at things.

“I don’t know if you realize this,” he answers – I’ve been asking him about his distinctive work in fashion design, featuring reinventions of traditional Vietnamese garments not in silks, but in cotton and denim – “but when a woman is wearing an ao dai, she moves differently. The dress will flow, and it creates a breeze of its own. A beautiful ao dai can shimmer like a flowing breeze. The secret of making an ao dai beautiful isn’t so much the material, but that motion. So when a woman moves, you feel breezy. That’s it. That’s the beauty of it.”

I find that I tend to believe Chuong when he shares his observations on the subject of beauty. I’ve sometimes heard it said that if you could just slow down for long enough, if you could stay absolutely still for one moment and take a good look around you, you’d notice things that other people never see. This is Chuong Dang’s truth: As a young child in rural Bao Loc, he was stricken with polio and locked in total paralysis for two or three years. In an area where children thrill in boisterous play and are often seen darting through the local forests, Chuong could only watch as a loving brother would carry him around, silently observing the childhood he could not share. With no other alternative, his mind opened and began to take in details invisible to others. To this day, he remains an astute judge of what is beautiful – and in every case, he can tell you why.

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Chuong’s work with traditional Vietnamese fashions grew out of his early work with embroidered denim for a British jeans firm experimenting with Vietnamese production. After that project closed, he realized that denim and similar fabrics could actually make sense when applied to the ao dai, and so established his own brand, which he called Kujean by Chuong Dang (47 Pham Ngoc Thach, D3). While other designers would dismiss denim as something cheap and impractical for the Vietnamese heat, Chuong saw something different entirely.

“When you work with jeans, with denim, you come to realize that they look the best after a year of wearing them,” he says. “Why is that? Because all the movements of your entire body will work together to create its form, and the color will wash out, so you’ll see a story written on it. That is why I make my ao dai with cotton. To me, a woman looks sexy in denim because you can read what positions she holds most often, you know what’s happened to her from the jeans she wears. That is a kind of fashion fact for me, and that’s why I have the drive to make this kind of outfit.”

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“The pattern is quite loose and elegant,” he explains. “What I’d call creative from my part is in using a new material that is friendlier to a woman’s body. In Vietnam, we use that very shiny silk from China, which is not friendly to human skin. It absorbs all the heat, so it feels really hot to wear. I don’t feel that we’re very rich, so I use a very common cotton, and then I add some embroidery to make the material look more expensive and to soften it. I’ve designed a two-layered ao dai to create the breeze. To achieve that effect normally, a woman will have to slow down the speed of her movements. Women nowadays have no time to do that – they work in an office, they’re businesswomen. So making an ao dai with two layers supports their walk. Even when walking briskly, it’s still very sensual, a very charming movement. It looks confident and powerful.”

When Chuong recovered from his childhood illness, he found himself naturally drawn to fashion, at first working with the tho cam fabrics preferred by the ethnic Cham of his hometown area. But the sense of beauty that had unfolded within him during his paralysis led him along a much broader creative pathway. He consumed the English language and became a very successful tutor in his hometown, before deciding to use his earnings to pursue fashion studies in France. In Paris, however, things took a different shape than he expected.

“You know I was born in the countryside,” he says, “where people really don’t feel confident when they move to a big city. But I had no feeling of shame at all. When I first went to France and lived there, I felt very confident. I loved French, I loved French food, I loved the people there, their lifestyle and everything. I got a part-time job and lived very comfortably there.”

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“But I didn’t study fashion,” he admits. “When I was in France, I was preparing for college. I studied French, I learnt a lot of new things. I thought, wow, they have a great new way to teach a language. I found that the French are very creative, and that they really encourage the student to study. And then one day I woke up and I thought, I want to go back to Vietnam. So I returned to my hometown and then I opened an English center.”

“It wasn’t for students to come and study,” he explains. “We had a table where we made chocolate for drinking during the class, and the children could come and talk to the teacher or anyone working there, so it was really a platform for students to realize that there are new ways of learning. When the parents came to pick them up and saw how we educated their children, then they learned from that too. That’s how I realized that it was working. So when I create fashion, that too should represent myself, it’s also part of my unique brand, and I know that there aren’t a lot of people doing that.”

‘Real’ One Is Not Real

Chuong’s school was the first move in a series of businesses that saw him establish himself as an entrepreneur in Saigon, all of them loosely linked by a concept he calls ‘lifestyle’ – perhaps best understood as a form of urban mindfulness. Since working again in fashion design after moving here several years ago, he has gone on to establish several other business lines, all of them fixated on bringing out each product’s or venue’s essential value, and – just as with his cotton ao dai – reinventing the business model to emphasize their essentials.

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“With my ao dai,” he explains, “I’m trying to make something beautiful that a woman wears for herself and not for a man. With my food, and the concept of being in the present, you need to create something where you really realize what you do. I have a coffee shop – Kujuz Tan Dinh (5 Tran Quy Khoach, D1) – where you have to make your own tea and coffee. There are no waiters. Now we have so many young people who have no concept of how to make their own coffee. They have it every day, but they don’t know if it’s really good or not. Real organic coffee, with its very mild flavor – if you don’t make it on your own, then there’s no takeaway. The artificial coffee with the chemicals and the strong flavors, we’ve been having it for 20 years, and now we can’t recognize that the ‘real’ one is not real.”

“We live in a country that exports coffee and chocolate,” he sighs, “but we don’t have any good stuff to enjoy of our own. We say chocolate now, and everybody eats m&ms. We export coffee, and everybody has Americano, Starbucks… what’s the point?”

Chuong has now developed several restaurants, all of them focused on simple traditional Vietnamese standards with their original freshness and pure tastes restored and enhanced. The venue locations too are also carefully selected for their character.

“I didn’t originally want to live in Saigon, because I wanted to do something in my hometown,” Chuong explains. “But when I got here, I realized this city is very beautiful. At least part of it is, like deep somewhere that nobody knows about, that even the local people never see. So I found very small places far away from the main streets, and I set up my coffee shops and restaurants there, and people started to like them. They didn’t think those places were beautiful before. We have a lot of places like that, hidden somewhere.”

Chuong now runs several Kujuz venues as well as Ru.pho Bar (27E Tran Nhat Duat, D1), a fashionable noodle joint specializing in pho made with brown rice noodles and other healthy, fresh ingredients. He has also diversified into other natural product lines, such as refined honey and quality soap made with nin, a Vietnamese plant known for its antibacterial properties. He continues to lovingly develop beautiful character buildings, and is a patron of the arts. Despite the variety in his work, he still maintains that everything he does is all of a piece.

“How do I explain?” he grins. “I think I have a very good design of living. It’s because I survived many difficulties in life. I finally realized that what kept me up and kept me enjoying things is that I have a different side. So I decided to bring it out and introduce it to people.”

Images By Ngoc Tran

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