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Custom clothing in Hoi-An (Jan. 29-Feb.4, 2011)

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Hoi An's old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, is famous for its custom clothiers, and justifiably so: a ten minute walk through the narrow streets will take one past the wooden entryways of innumerable custom shops, offering everything from suits to casual clothing, silks to shoes. We visited for Tet, the lunar new year, and figured that we could hit two birds with one stone: see the cultural events and cheaply restock on journey clothes, as half a year of travel and varying laundry conditions had left much of our wardrobe ragged. Hoi An's reputation among travelers in Vietnam is simple: a cheap place for custom work.

It worked, for a certain value of working. Quite a few new outfits were made for us for only a couple of hundred dollars, including two suits and a pair of custom leather shoes for me. But "hit or miss" proposition does not begin to describe shopping for custom clothing in Hoi An, and several of our purchases, while cheap, have ended up being not so much of a bargain. Hoi An clothiers range from the utterly unscrupulous to the pleasant but corner-cutting, and care is required to make sure that you get what you want. Having been on the bad end of a few "bargains," I'll leave the following advice, as well as a few reviews of good and bad vendors.

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Chilling out at a lakeside bar in Hanoi, in a Kimmy's suit

  • Test for "silk": Silk dresses are among the most popular custom products in Hoi An. Only one of the shops that we visited, however, offered real silk right off the bat, with others passing off various synthetic fabrics as "Vietnamese silk." Here's the trick: take a lighter with you, and ask for the "burn" test. Real silk burns with a smell like human hair. Fake silk melts with a plastic, chemical odor. Often the sight of a lighter is enough to make a vendor change the fabric that they're offering. (This is a "learn from our mistake" lesson: Pallavi has one very nice dress that was sold to us as silk, but has never been within sight of a silkworm.) That said, fake silk is cheaper: if you don't need it, you can drive a much harder bargain. Just make sure not to pay a premium when a salesperson tells you what good "silk" you're getting.
  • Time your trip, and take your time: In hindsight, Tet may be the absolute worst possible time to visit Hoi An to pick up clothes. The streets are thronged with foreign and Vietnamese tourists, which means it's harder to bargain. Worse, every manufacturer wants to get their orders finished so that they can head home for a four-day New Year holiday. But in only a few cases would salespeople admit that they lacked capacity and refuse to take orders. Instead, they cut corners.

    The key is not to be rushed: if you asked for something, or the final product isn't right, insist that it be done correctly before you pay for it. (If you can avoid putting any money down when the order goes in, all the better.) I'd suspect that the week after Tet, when there are many fewer customers and employees are looking at the equivalent of our post-Christmas credit card bill shock, might be the best time of the year.
  • Carefully inspect the work: I found that the tailors (and particularly the salespeople) will make the clothes look good on you in the shop, but you need to make sure that what you buy will keep looking good once you leave. For suits, if you have a position in the great fused vs. canvassed debate, make sure that you specify how the suit is to be made and then check that it's done that way when it comes back. If you asked for canvas and get fused, don't pay. (Make sure the tailor takes down any details--for instance, writes "CANVAS"--in the order book.) Note: some tailors will feign ignorance of the difference. This is a good sign to go elsewhere.
    The devil really is in the details, and I found that even similar items from the same shops would vary in the amount and degree of defects. For instance, my linen suit (supposedly identical to the wool suit) came back to the first fitting with very wide lapels that were not equally sized. Similarly, the lining of the pants have been sloppily sewn in, which means that they rustle awfully when I walk. (This was not so noticeable in the shop, where you couldn't hear the pants over the noise of fittings, sales and other conversations.) I have one shirt with a fused collar that has bubbled horribly now that it's been washed, and a pair of cargo pants convertible to shorts that rub my knees harshy because the zipper scrapes directly against skin. While each of these can be fixed, the clothes aren't such a bargain if you have to pay a different tailor to make them workable later.
  • Leave room for shrinkage: A custom-fit shirt flatters a man's figure, but none of my Hoi An tailors left any spare room in my cotton shirts. Unless the shirt is made of exceptionally nice material--and there is not a lot of very high quality cotton in most of these shops--it's going to shrink after several washes. I didn't think to ask that they make allowances, although I should have. Needless to say, several of my shirts have now gone from "fitted" to "tight," and are making their way towards "shockingly metrosexual."
  • Be realistic: Hoi An is a great place to get cheap traveling gear, and the tailors will make anything: just show up with a picture. But this is not Saville Row, and it will not live up to Saville Row expectations of quality. If you work in an office where seven-hundred dollar suits are the norm (or at least not out of the question), I recommend against coming to Hoi An to cut corners on your clothing budget. While you might get Alexander McQueen style you won't get the quality, and it will show. On the other hand, I was inspired by our San Francisco friends, who wore some classy-but-classic outfits when they took us to Bourbon & Branch, to get a pin stripe that's far closer to Boardwalk Empire than anything I'd ever wear to the office. I love it, and I doubt I could have found anything similar off the rack, but I didn't spend enough that I feel foolish for having it made.

As for vendors, we tried four of the shops, in descending order of quality:

  • Kimmy Custom Tailor (70 Tran Hung Dao St.): One of the suit stores with a good reputation, this is the shop to which I'd apply all of the cautions above about inspecting the merchandise. They're skillful and creative, and the final outfit looks good, but they will cut corners if you do not look very closely at their work. If one of the tailors argues that substandard quality is acceptable, tell the salesperson that you're not happy, however, and it will be fixed (after a bit of arguing back and forth between employees in Vietnamese). That said, they're honest about the materials: no "it's blended with silk" fables here.
  • Ahn Silk (on Cua Dai Street, near the Hai Au Hotel): A nice shop with a tailor who seems to be starting out, we bought much of our casual restock clothing here due to her very fair prices. She fused the collars on shirts, so one has bubbled, and she is responsible for the poor zipper design on the cargo pants. That said, most of her work is good quality, with nice material and some surprisingly creative designs. Although she did try to pass off some artificial fabric as "silk," working with her was very pleasant.
  • Cloth Shop 27 (42 Tran Hung Dao St.): They were recommended by our hotel, but we strongly advise against them. These are the folks who sold us some "silk" that very definitely wasn't, and when confronted with the burn test proceeded to insist that the silk was "blended," finally concocting a number of other fanciful stories involving "Thai silk," "Vietnamese silk," and "Chinese silk." She eventually gave us some, but not all of our money back.
  • A nameless shoe shop: I don't have a record of where I got my shoes, but since I can't recommend them very highly, it's not much of a loss.

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