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Hoi An has become synonymous with tailoring and it seems every other shop in the UNESCO old town is devoted to selling you new custom duds. The tailoring process can be overwhelming. Where does one begin? Here’s our guide to tailoring in Hoi An.

Flashback to 2009: Hoi An’s reputation as a tailoring mecca was already flourishing and eye-catching samples of pretty frocks adorned storefronts. We wanted to make a dress. We did our research, went to the best, most reputable tailor shop in town armed with a photo, picked out the fabric and plunked down more money than a week’s worth of accommodation in Vietnam. It would be worth it, we told ourselves. The first fitting wasn’t quite right but it was fairly close to what we wanted. The second fitting was a regression – it actually looked worse and something was very off. At the third fitting, the staff assigned to us was anxious to get it done. Suddenly the salesperson who had been so sweet and eager when we started became bored, then argumentative and pushy, and with her help we reluctantly became convinced the dress was okay. We carried the dress around in our backpack for months and when we returned home, we never wore it.

All may not be as it seams when it comes to Hoi An tailors. Photo taken in or around Tailoring, Hoi An, Vietnam by Cindy Fan.

All may not be as it seams when it comes to Hoi An tailors. Photo: Cindy Fan

We’re older and wiser and now understand that a lot can go wrong with getting clothes made in Hoi An. The first question you should ask is “How much do I care if it’s not perfect?” If you just want a button down shirt and not an exact replica of a hot off the runway outfit, then practically any shop will do. But if you are more particular, read on.

The scoop
Would it surprise you to know that those “tailor shops” aren’t really tailor shops? With very few exceptions, the store you order from isn’t doing the actual tailoring. Anyone can set up a shop. It’s as easy as buying bolts of fabric, displaying samples on mannequins, buying measuring tape. The sewing is outsourced to “workshops” (the polite word for sweatshops) or seamstresses at the market. They earn very little per piece, and quality and workmanship is their lowest priority.

There are obvious disadvantages to going through a middleman. Communicating details about what you want will invariably be lost along the way. The shop owner or salesperson is not a tailor themselves – they will know enough about how to measure you, but little about how well-made clothes are constructed. They will say yes to everything to make the sale, tell you anything is possible, even if you ask for Bjork’s swan dress. Why care that after one wash it will fall to pieces? The tourist will be long gone by then.

Custom-made elephant pants? You do you, baby. Photo taken in or around Tailoring, Hoi An, Vietnam by Cindy Fan.

Custom-made elephant pants? You do you, baby. Photo: Cindy Fan

As of May 2016, Be Be, Yaly, A Dong Silk and Kimmy are the only four businesses that have their own factory, with their own full-time staff of seamsters and seamstresses and therefore control over the quality. They are all upscale compared to the average shop and cost more. The general rule for tailoring in Hoi An is you pay for what you get. And by going to one of these professional businesses, you are paying for someone to care, someone you can harangue until it is perfect and for honesty. An experienced tailor should tell you if your idea won’t work.

Are we trying to dissuade you from all the other shops? Not necessarily. We’re trying to illustrate quality and expectations. If the clothing is simple, if you aren’t picky about details and are on a tight budget, then you’ll probably be satisfied with any shop. Remember that aside from the cost of materials, what the shop pays the seamstress and the commission to whoever brought you (more on that later), whatever else they charge you is their profit so you do have bargaining power. Just take those glowing endorsements by happy clients displayed on shop fronts with a grain of salt.

You can buy fabric from any store or at the cloth market (at Tran Phu and Hoang Dieu Street, open until 17:00), and bring it to be made at the shop of your choice. In Hoi An there’s a wide selection of men’s shirt and suit fabric, as well as a lot of silk and synthetic material. One hundred percent cotton and linen is very limited, with good quality hard to find and expensive. If you do find cotton, it is usually thin, cheap Vietnamese cotton in patterns that are better suited for granny pajama sets.The salesperson may tell you it is 100% silk when it is actually a poly-blend. The burn test is surest way to tell.

The four businesses we mentioned have a wider selection and are more trustworthy in telling you the material. Yaly in particular has a small, decent collection of cottons and linens, but it is overpriced – we were quoted a whopping US$20-35 a metre. To give you an idea, you need at least 1.5 metres to make a simple skirt.

If you are serious about your threads and you happen to be passing through Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or another city with huge fabric shops before arriving in Hoi An, it’s not a bad idea to buy the fabric, trim and embellishments from there.

The process
So you have chosen the fabric. Now what? If you are getting a copy of an existing, definitely bring it for the tailor to reference. Found a photo on the web? Print it and give it to them, or if it’s just not possible, show the picture on your phone/camera at the shop and they can take a photo of it. At the very least, bring a sketch or have them draw one as you describe it.

Decisions, decisions on the construction details: A good shop should be asking you the right questions and guiding the process. Where do you want the zip? Do you want it hidden or exposed? What colour thread do you want for the seam – matching the fabric or different? Where do you want the pocket? How low do you want the neckline? Which way should the pattern be oriented? Are you using real feathers for your Bjork swan dress? This first step establishes the overall shape. Details like length can be altered – a good tailor builds in sewing “wiggle room” when making the item so it can be adjusted.

Shops are accustomed to people ordering with a tight timeline, asking for a whole wardrobe when they have a plane to catch the next day. The four businesses we mentioned have control over their work and are more likely to deliver at the appointed time, as promised – if they tell you come back tomorrow at noon, you can. They can even bring their seamstress to the store for corrections to made on the spot, while everyone else requires a back and forth with the outsourced seamstress.

The first fitting will never be right. Tailoring in a process so don’t despair if it looks off. If the shop kicks up a fuss about making any adjustments after the first fitting, this is a bad sign that they truly don’t care. Minor adjustments will have to be made - if something does not look, fit or hang right, say so. Now is also the time to decide on details like length and buttons.

By the second or third fitting, the shop will want you out of their hair. Stand your ground and don’t accept it unless you are satisfied.

Commission is what makes Vietnam tick and yes, taxi drivers, guides and hotels will recommend a tailor that will give them commission for the referral. Tailors will also probably ask you what hotel you are staying at so they know who to pay. That’s not to say that the tailor the hotel refers you to won’t be good, but now you know that everyone is trying to profit from your new pretty pants.

The verdict
We’ve been making clothes at Be Be Tailor (their second shop at 95 Phan Chau Trinh Street) for more than a year and have found them to be consistently great, both in terms of workmanship and service. We performed some mystery shopping at the three other reputable tailor shops Yaly, A Dong and Kimmy (at their different locations too), comparing service, selection and pricing. These shops are a well-oiled machine – Yaly especially, handling bus loads of tourists at a time – and prices across all four shops were generally comparable. While we don’t doubt their technical ability, our service experience at Yaly, A Dong and Kimmy was disappointing. Each instance, the salesperson assigned to us seemed bored, abrupt and disinterested as we shopped for fabric and showed them the design for a skirt. Perhaps it was because we weren’t interested in a big-ticket commission earning item like a suit. Or perhaps they were just jaded, ironic given how many other places seem desperate for your business. These big tailors can do over a thousand orders in a week.

Be Be Tailor:;; Bebe 1: 11 Hoang Dieu St; T: (0510) 221 2670; Bebe 2: 95 Phan Chau Trinh St; T: (0510) 392 3678; Bebe 3: 40 Tran Hung Dao St; T: (0510) 392 3399
Yaly Couture: 47 Nguyen Thai Hoc St; T: (0510) 221 2474; 47 Tran Phu St; T: (0510) 386 1119; 358 Nguyen Duy Hieu St; T: (0510) 391 4995;;
Kimmy Tailor: 70 Tran Hung Dao St; T: (0510) 386 2063;; A Dong Silk: 40 Le Loi St; 62 Tran Hung Dao St; 91 Tran Hung Dao St; T: (0510) 391 0579;;

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