Looking Pretty in Ho Chi Minh City
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the best fashion stuff starts small.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Dislocation can be a wonderful thing.
If you’re looking for a restroom? Not so much. But if you’re looking for something to wear that doesn’t exist in the world around you? Well, you’ve got a catalyst to create, which is very precisely what Mike Nguyen did.
“I love the classics,” says the 26-year-old Nguyen from his quiet corner in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. “Not what’s trendy.” That’s another way of saying good luck trying to find what he loved back in 2010 — simple T’s, jeans and blazers. But after years of tailoring his own stuff and cobbling together wardrobes on a catch-as-catch-can basis from foreign sources, Nguyen’s eureka moment struck. High-end brands from overseas understood that there was a demand. But they didn’t understand how to price to fill that demand. So, Nguyen recalls now, “why didn’t I try to launch my own menswear brand with the style I love?”
In 2012, Nguyen — with bachelor’s degrees from RMIT University Vietnam, in their entrepreneur program and fashion merchandising (at 19 years old, no less) — did just that, and in 2014, on Phan Ke Binh Street, The Mike Style showroom became a thing.
Environmental issues are really critical in Vietnam, so if we can help our community, we’re answering our hearts.
“I was wearing it in a film here I was in,” says Erik Koehne, an American ex-pat speaking about a role in which he played a Miami Mafia boss. “Dressing nicely in Vietnam can be challenging with the heat, but Mike’s stuff breathes.” So ankle-high jeans, no socks and loose cotton T-shirts or button-down shirts with Nehru-esque collars are Nguyen’s stock-in-trade, and it’s a trade that’s presently gaining purchase with 10 office staffers and about 40 craftspeople in his workshop in Hue, his hometown. And Nguyen’s win was in: He now knew how to produce it and who would buy it.
He was aided in no small part by the fact that this was an extension of the family business. Nguyen’s parents have been working in the apparel industry for more than 30 years. But there was a crucial difference: The Nguyen elders are focused on exports and casual uniform stuff. Nguyen the younger? “Look, we’re not even really just a menswear brand,” Nguyen says. “We’re a lifestyle that has an aftereffect, a brand.” It’s a lifestyle that lays claim to not-so-distinctly Western interests. “We love food, we love nature, and environmental issues are really critical in Vietnam, so if we can help our community, we’re answering our hearts.”
That’s a sentiment worthy of the time and zeitgeist, but this is still business. “The design would have to be really unique for me to make the effort,” says sports apparel house owner Mark Mazon. “But we’re spoiled here in the States.” Nguyen’s been trying to work around that issue as he manages the logistics and figures out how to minimize the costs for worldwide customers. And given that one of their badass blazers goes for 1,990,000 Vietnamese dong, or about $90, this might be a manageable deal.
“We have new competitors every month,” Nguyen says. “But we’re also expanding. Day by day. We’re in no hurry.” Though just try tamping down the irrational lust that kicks in when you take a gander at his floral-pattern blazer, a sort of red-patterned, quasi-paisley’d smoking jacket with crushed black velvet–looking lapels. Yup. Need it. Here. Now. A discerning customer might be wishing for Nguyen to hurry along with that expansion.