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Aug 28

Saigon Take-Homes: Communist Kitsch and Post-Modern Fashion

Interestingly, the subject that seems to most inspire Saigon’s contemporary designers is the past – the tumultuous historic events of the 1960s and 1970s, along with Vietnam’s traditional culture, heritage, arts, and crafts.

The story of Vietnamese-Australian designer, artist and entrepreneur Mai Lam is similar to others we met in Saigon: after losing a brother and sister to the Vietnam War, Mai and her family fled to Australia in 1976 by boat on vessels that were far from sea-worthy. The bravery and resilience that journey and the war inspired is probably what helped Mai achieve business success. And Mai’s creative output, her postmodern fashion, could be seen as a way for her to come to terms with the past.

For souvenir-hunting visitors to Saigon – or more appropriately in this case, Ho Chi Minh City – all of this means you’ll find plenty of communist kitsch and, thanks to the likes of Mai Lam, pockets of post-modern fashion that are imbued with Vietnam’s history and culture. Here’s where to look for it and what to look for:

Mai Lam
In Saigon’s most striking boutique – it looks like a cross between an art gallery and fashion store – you’ll find plenty of what I’m going to call Saigon’s ‘postmodern fashion’ – everything from exquisitely detailed appliqué and hand-sewn embroidery stitched onto vintage US army jackets to funky khaki caps and bags made from recycled parachutes. Many of the clothes feature the signature motifs of designer/owner Mai Lam, such as the embroidered dragonfly or the lotus flower bronze buttons, that draw on traditional Vietnamese cultural symbolism.
132-4 Dong Khoi Street, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

Saigon Kitsch
Less than a year old, Saigon Kitsch was started by 26 year-old, French-Vietnamese Audrey Tran, who left her home in Paris to return to Saigon, where she now lives with her grandmother. “I came here for a holiday two years ago and I never left!” she tells us when we meet her at her vibrant shop where we admire the retro-cool, communist-kitsch gifts she has designed herself: notebooks, coffee cups, purses, mouse pads, and even scented candles featuring vintage designs from the French colonial period and familiar propaganda images.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

Dogma
It’s tempting, but try not to spend all your money at Audrey’s shop so you can pop upstairs to Dogma. This hip boutique is owned by Saigon-local Tran Thi Kim Loan and her British partner Dominic Scriven, a Saigon resident since the early 1990s, who are passionate collectors of communist propaganda posters and art. All of the funky clothes –dresses, t-shirts, jackets, and bags – boast striking propaganda designs. They also have some striking posters, postcards and art.
43 Ton That Thiep, District 1 (D1), Saigon.

4 comments

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  1. Maxine Sheppard

    Lovely Saigon. I think it’s my favourite city in Asia. The best food, the best shops, the loveliest *things*. I loved Dogma. I’m sitting here now looking up at the wall behind my desk, where the three propaganda prints I bought in there hang. One is of a woman picking coffee beans. It says – I think – ‘The earlier you pick coffee beans in the morning, the more you can export’ – or something along those lines. It’s quite beautiful. Is there more than one Dogma though? I don’t remember it being upstairs. Maybe it’s changed, was a few years ago..

    1. Lara Dunston

      Whoops, just saw this comment, sorry! I’m so glad to learn you loved Saigon as well. LOL, love the sound of that print! I really wanted to buy some prints from Dogma too, but it’s just so difficult to carry around prints. Our luggage was already over-weight at the time and I didn’t have any hands free. Next time…

      Dogma was on two floors of that building apparently, but due to rents going up, they moved or stayed upstairs and rented out the bottom floor space, part of which now belongs to Saigon Kitsch, also above. They said they do have plans to open another store, but I’m not sure if they’ve done that yet or not. My guess is you visited the space where Saigon Kitsch is perhaps.

  2. Tom

    Interesting! Nice stuffs. There is a market which is called Dân Sinh by the local also sell these stuffs, but be careful with the two prices system, things are actually 3 times cheaper than they actually tell you, if they recognize you’re foreigner.

    But it’s worthy and cheaper, a lot. You can find real items which were literally used in the war. The market is located in the area around Yersin street.

  3. Lara Dunston

    Hi Tom – thanks! That’s the ‘War Surplus’ market, isn’t it? I heard about that. I wanted to go but we didn’t have time. Next trip. Thanks so much for the tip! Much appreciated. And thanks for dropping by!

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