Local designers Thanh Thuy and Tang Huy exemplify the ingenuity and flexibility of Ho Chi Minh City’s local creatives with their new retro clothing store, Kaia. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Vinh Dao.
“I have a very good intuition for materials,” says Vietnamese interior designer Thanh Thuy, in a pleasant blue linen dress from Kaia, the linen and leather boutique that she runs with her husband.
“I buy way too much. I love curtain designs so I would spend all day in fabric markets and now I have a big room of fabrics. When I see one piece of fabric, I can imagine what item it will be.”
It’s not just fabrics she can conceptualise but entire families of brands. In Ho Chi Minh City, it’s not enough to have one niche business. Rather, it’s about how to combine or evolve one creative concept into another – take L’Usine, which integrates a café with a clothing store, or 3A Station, a cove within Ton Duc Thang Street that integrates an art gallery, fashion stores and décor retailers like Sadec District, which all share the same ideals and contribute to a lifestyle.
Speaking with Thuy is similarly a lesson in local ingenuity. She recounts starting an interior design company, Mienform, with her husband in 2008. The couple subsequently launched Retro Livin’, a specialty furniture store in which the two collaborated on unique retro home furnishings. And now Kaia, which opened at the end of last December, is the latest addition to their creative empire, located in Phu Nhuan.
“We just are people who love to create new things,” she says. “Our furniture is our spirit, our way of living simple and cheap and quiet. It’s a luxury that people can’t see right away. They’re things that take time to realise [are] special.
“My customers, when I design a room for them with a new atmosphere, at first they feel it’s very different, but when they live one or two months with the retro furniture I design, they said they love it so much they cannot live without it for a long time.”
Kaia continues Mienform and Retro Livin’s sentiment by selling understated linen pieces that are retro-inspired and handmade using fabrics from India. “Kaia is something that is pure,” Thuy says. “It’s also just the spirit of wearing something simple, normal. Linen is a pure material from a plant, not something that’s artificial.“
Huy handcrafts Kaia’s immaculate leather accessories like shoes and belts from his leather workshop, located above the store. “We traveled to Oslo in 2012 and found a small leather workshop owned by an Italian living there,” Thuy says. “We stayed there all day and he taught us how to make bags. He was our first teacher. His workshop was very interesting.”
Inside the tiny shop, located in a small alley on Hoang Dieu Street in Phu Nhuan, are all boutique-quality pieces for men and women – refined, well-tailored, rotating styles in limited quantities.
“I create one or two pieces and change products,” Thuy says. “I just make something unique and rare. We only think about creating a new product every time.”
These products, impeccably merchandised within the shop, seem to embody their shop owners in both appearance and spirit: rare, classic, genuine, good-natured and altogether discerning. The gentle nuances of linen and rustic charm of leather are poetic, reflecting each owner’s aesthetic and personal trademark.
The husband-wife team harnessed their respective crafts and varied their talents in Berlin, where they lived and studied product design for six years at the University of Art. Although Thuy studied product design, she also took a fashion design course, which was useful as she began to sketch designs for Kaia.
“The spirit of Berlin is the retro style,” Thuy says. “I lived there and I loved it. If you see my retro products you see that it is not the same as those in Berlin. My retro style is quite different from the Berlin retro style, it has an Asian influence to it.“
Thuy says many Europeans often go to the local flea markets in Berlin on weekends to shop for retro items, some buying for display rather than novelty. “Retro products should not be something you can show off, it’s when you live with it for a long time that you will love it forever,” she says.
Indeed, both Thuy and Huy are ensuring that their new creative venture will remain special and meaningful for themselves and that their thoughtful retro products will continue to enrich the lifestyle goals of others for a long time.
“At first we wanted a very big Kaia with many things: Kaia Leather, Kaia Home, Kaia Mode – a gallery for painting and décor,” Thuy says. “It’s too many things, so we decided to start small and continue these ideas later on, maybe next year. We just want to create a lifestyle with everything involving not just clothes or furniture but to create something beautiful to live in a real life, live with what we love and have things not for others but for ourselves.”