Fashion Workshop

Building your own factory – from abroad

Two friends starting their own fashion label made the radical decision to open their own workshop in Vietnam. It came after they couldn’t find a supplier who could reproduce designs to the quality they wanted.

20 April 2014

It’s 2am and Ha Dang and Anh Trieu have just got back to Dang’s at from The Spurstowe Arms in east London. Dang reaches for her laptop for the daily call to their workshop in Ho Chi Minh, where’s it’s nine in the morning. They dial up Van Tuoc, a five foot tall 40 year old seamstress with ‘supersonic eyes’ to talk through the detail on an embellished bomber jacket that will feature in the second ever collection of their Anhha womenswear label. That was last summer.

Van Tuoc is one of 10 women and one man who work in the Anhha workshop in Vietnam. Van Tuoc’s embroidery and beading skills, and the fact that so few fashion labels make their own clothes, are what the founders are betting the future of their business on.

It’s meant a two-year whirlwind of long nights spent on Skype, 14 hour flights, jumping between languages and a constant back-and- forth between designs conceived in Dang’s Shoreditch at and clothes made in their Vietnamese workshop.

But the strains of running a workshop on the other side of the world is something the owners consider a price worth paying.

‘It was pretty obvious very early that we couldn’t go down the supplier path if we wanted a high level of workmanship,’ says Dang.

Trieu adds: ‘Every young designer wants to create a collection and sell it to a boutique, but that bit in the middle of actually making it is so hard. We bit the bullet and said we want total control of the quality and delivery. We knew it was the hard part but it was best in the long run.’

Unmistakably east

The London–Ho Chi Minh axis that the company is built on is also reflected in the dynamic between the two founders. While they collectively steer the direction of the collections, Trieu designs the contemporary shapes that form the basis of the clothes and have a relevance for modern fashion stores. Dang meanwhile is responsible for developing the intricate handcrafted embellishments that are the brand’s signature.

Trieu grew up in Hackney after coming to the UK when she was two years old and is unmistakably east London. Dang was 17 when she left Vietnam to study in London. They complement each other with their specialist areas, but also as a result of their backgrounds.

‘Anh has made me more western, and I make Anh more Vietnamese,’ says Dang.

‘I’ve taught Ha some Cockney!’ responds Trieu.

They met working for one of the biggest ‘white label’ manufacturers of clothes in the world. The rm produces goods for big high street names in several countries, including UK clients such as the Arcadia Group and House of Fraser.

It was here that Dang and Trieu learnt about the real business of how clothes get made – designing, sourcing materials, fabrics, trims, production, manufacturing, delivery times and shipping.

Defining decision

Trieu rails against the snobbishness and limitations of many designers: ‘A lot of people slag o the suppliers but it’s shocking how little many designers know about the business side of things, let alone can even draw properly. The suppliers are the unsung heroes of making things actually happen.’

This respect for the boring parts of the fashion industry allowed them to adapt their initial strategy. They started hatching plans for their own venture, sketching out designs and looking for suppliers as they began work on the first Anhha collection.

Then, in January 2012, after frustrations with suppliers over quality and minimum order volumes, Trieu and Dang made the decision that would define their business. They opened their own workshop.

Having the language and local knowledge of one of the most well known countries for clothing production clearly helped.

Craftmanship skills

Dang’s aunt, a former machinist in Ho Chi Minh, helped and a space by the Saigon river and recruit skilled embroiderers, machinists and pattern cutters. The emphasis on delicate craftsmanship is a world away from the highly operational and efficiency-based environment where Dang and Trieu spent so many years.

‘We knew there were very special embroidery skills in Vietnam. You didn’t see that level of work in contemporary clothing. We love textures and colour and it made us really excited to bring that craftsmanship into modern clothing on the street in London,’ says Dang.

The image of women stitching and beading in the Vietnamese workshop has also injected an authentic ‘provenance’ dimension to the Anhha brand while many labels often try to invent or exaggerate a back story.

Added pressure

Earlier this year, some of the world’s most powerful fashion buyers saw the bomber jacket stitched by Van Tuoc, and the rest of the Anhha autumn/winter 2014/15 collection during New York and Paris fashion weeks. As a result, several big retailers are understood to be ranging the collection this winter, starting with the high-end US fashion retailer, Intermix.

Trieu and Dang describe the upcoming collection as ‘make or break’ and feel an added pressure to succeed for their team in Ho Chi Minh.

Between the workshop and the two women huddled in front of Skype, there is a collective mission, and a strong sense of responsibility towards the people on the other side of the screen that appears to have pushed the group to dig deeper.

Trieu says: ‘It’s sometimes mad to think that our clothes are made by our employees and not some faceless supplier. But we wouldn’t have it any other way now.’

This story is taken from Courier Spring 2014.