Custom Tailoring in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is a town of tailors. Their shops, lining every street, are filled with little women in flowing ao dai (the traditional dress over pantaloons that, aptly quipped, “covers everything, but hides nothing"), all ready to bat their lashes and convince you to order more than you intended. Every day, in shops all over town, the ao dai change colors: Sunday is pink, Monday white, Tuesday gray... Our tailor just shrugged when we asked the origin of the local tradition.

The choices for clothing here are overwhelming. There may well be a hundred or more tailors in and around town and every shop proudly displays the same styles in the same colors out front, none seeming to aspire higher than mid-tier catalog garb. How they all chose to make that particular apple green jacket with the hood and offset closure I do not know. A few of the popular "rack" styles are cute and very on trend. Others look like prom or bad bridesmaid dresses that would be more at home under fluorescent lights in a soulless department store basement. Looking only at the sidewalk showings, I wouldn’t have ordered a thing. Only the relative success stories of friends at home carried me inside.

There are three stores that advertise on billboards in the Danang airport and along the road leading into town: Yaly, Thu Thuy, and A-Dong Silk. The first two were most often recommended in our pre-trip research. A very stylish friend had told us about the shop Queen Margaret of Spain visited in 2002—if it’s good enough for an actual queen!—so we went first to Thu Thuy.

I had brought two items with me to guide the tailors: a favorite wrap shirt ruined in dry cleaning and my most flattering but now too big slacks. Thu Thuy had a fairly broad selection of fabrics and colors, with and without stretch, in patterns and solids. No perfect matches, but good choices. We had been warned that impostor fabrics are common and to ignore the labels on the fronts of the swatch books. The names stitched into the bolt edging seem to me more likely to be the real deal, but who knows. 

I went back for a fitting on day two. Shirt: perfect copy. Pants: needed some adjustment, but close enough to order another, more casual pair. And another color of my favorite casual dress. And shift dress I had started to fantasize about—just in case round one went well.

Next fitting the evening of day two. A few finished items, a few with earlier fixes missing, and one disaster. The shift dress was a mess, completely unwearable, nothing like the pictures I had given them. Broken lines, the omission of key seams, etc. made us think they were trying to copy without understanding design fundamentals.They had to summon the tailor in person to figure out what to do about it. (Usually customer interaction is managed by people other than the ones doing the sewing.) Some of what they had done was fixable. A big part of the dress had to be scrapped completely. They were good sports about it though, some frustrated looks, but no argument. I still left expecting to write off the finished product. They continued to suggest that I should order more clothes though. I conceded that if they managed to get the shift dress perfect the next day—fat chance!—I would get another.

Morning of our last day: completely redone dress! Huge improvements! Very close. Enough that between the excitement and the reminder of my offhand agreement, I was back in the swatches, ordering another in a very different fabric. That second dress missed some of the changes we had made to the first. Do they copy before they fix? In this case, different is not bad. I like both versions.

I didn't negotiate the price at all. I don’t know whether you’re supposed to, but my salesgirl/fitter, Hai, knocked down the price for me a little on my second order. I picked the most expensive materials (which make up most of the cost), and my clothes ranged in price from $35 for the cotton wrap shirt to $150 for dress of Dolce & Gabbana wool with silk lining. Not cheap, but relative bargains for the quality and fit.

Meanwhile, to hedge our bets at Thu Thuy, Oren decided on day one to get a dress shirt made at Yaly. Their fabrics weren’t up to his usual standards, but were fully passable. (They had a drastically smaller selection of fabrics for women’s clothes; no stretch wools and only a handful of patterned wools other than pinstripes.) The fit was close on his second visit, very good on pickup. Using their most expensive cotton, his shirt came to $43 and turned out pretty well. At three times the price but with Borelli and Brioni fabrics, he still prefers his Hong Kong tailor (MyTailor.com).

We didn't get anything made at A-Dong Silk, but the mid-twenties Australian couple we met on the flight in had things made at all three of these shops and said they liked A-Dong the best, though it was by far the most expensive.

Here’s what I learned from all of this. If I was to do it again, for any nice items, I would bring an example of what I wanted to copy, or at least a close pattern. Bringing magazine photos of what you want will do in a pinch, just don't expect details like seam placement and finishing touches to come close. I don’t think they see a lot of designer apparel so they have trouble understanding or envisioning more advanced designs without seeing a concept applied. Being picky about fabric quality and usually having a particular look in mind, I would also bring my own fabric. The selection at Britex in San Francisco dwarfs all the shops in Hoi An combined. Even going in without these insights though, I’m so far happy with what I got, and the experience was mostly fun. Hopefully the satisfaction lasts.