Dubbed as a ‘fashion icon’ of Vietnam and with her natural flare for fashion, it is difficult to believe that Hong-Kong-born Christina Yu was once a practicing litigator.In December 1995, Christina moved to Vietnam for love but it was actually her own destiny calling.
Impressed by the refined workmanship of local artisans, Christina started to develop a series of private label work for a wide array of international labels such as Shanghai Tang, G.O.D (Goods of Desire) and Anteprima. Popular demands and encouragements from local residents prompted Christina to open her first shop with a lap top and 2 staff in a small street of Hanoi. As the first and only brand in Vietnam focusing on high end accessories, Ipa-Nima was soon inundated with demands from major retailers based in the USA, Japan, Paris and Amsterdam. In 2001, Ipa-Nima was graced by the visit of the First Lady Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea as their first stop for shopping in Vietnam, as Vietnam was getting ready to be part of the WTO. In 2006 and 2008, Ipa-Nima was graced by the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Andrew from the UK during his official visit to Vietnam. The Queen of Malaysia, The Prince of Thailand, Madam Christine Lagarde, current chairlady of the IMF, have all graced the Ipa-Nima shops in Hanoi. The Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden named Ipa-Nima as her favorite fashion brand on E!Entertainment.
Christina says, “I want to create accessories that are fun, flamboyant and fabulous, different from the norm – designs that are inspiring and evoking strong emotion. I started Ipa-Nima with a vision to create accessories for the same kind of woman- women who are daring to be different, yet being true to her own style.
Today, we sat down with Christina to talk about her favorite things, life in HCMC, vision on the local fashion scene and advice on start up business.
How did you end up in HCMC? Can you tell us your story? Did you find your legal background helped your fashion career?
C :Yes having a legal training does help. Local Vietnamese were not that organized and did not have much future planning and this is where my legal training kicks in. You sort of foresee the Looming problems ahead and will try to find a way to avoid that. Having said that, it does frustrates me more sometimes to know where my rights are and somehow, somewhere there is no way for me to enforce it. The legal system can be very biased here and I have not heard much of story that a foreigner could win a court case against a Vietnamese unless it is a criminal offence like straight forward theft or fraud. In my Vietnam years, I only have 1 successful court case where my HR Manager committing on SI and MI fraud. I think we won because that were the employees’ entitlement and although he was sentenced to jail, I saw him not so long afterwards around town L.
Any tips for the new Bliss Saigon ladies to make Saigon feel like home sooner?
C :I think Saigon can be a very lonely place as it is a big city and people are constantly busy with different things. I think a newcomer should try to find a way to work or join some hobby classes. This way you tend to meet people and have some mates with a similar interest. I think volunteer work can also be good as there is a constant demand for it with so many different charities. It is a good way to meet people and helping others can make one feels good or needed. Good friends are important in a city like this, so that there is someone that you can talk to when there is a problem, and people to explore the city with which makes it more fun.
Where is your dream vacation location ?
What inspires you?
C :Movies, Art and People. Every collection theme is like a mini movie for me when I see my heroine completing a journey of some kind or having a virtual experience that defines the collection.
Who are your fav fashion designers?
C :Nicolas Ghesquiere, Riccardo Tisci, Jeremy Scott, Halston and Emilio Pucci.
I know your big fan of shoes . Could you share some of your fav shoes that you have?
C :My God- this list is going to be endless. I have a few pairs of Jeffrey Campbell that I love – one pair of short boots in suede with a POLLOCK style print on it. The other pair is black and white pumps with a carved-out heel ( I still have not worn them as I have to work out how to walk in them first !). I love all my old MANOLOS, and a beautiful pair of suede slippers with amazing embroidery from DOLCE & Gabanna ( still not worn). You can’t buy shoes like that anymore I guess. I also had an amazing pair of plastic wedge sandals with a miniature EIFFEL TOWER set inside the heels like those snow flake Christmas decoration – shame that I had to throw them out as the plastic started to melt and got sticky in this kind of humid weather.
How could you describe the changes of customers needs in HCMC in few years?
C :I also think that customers, whether local or tourists, will need to have a better places to shop. At the moment, there is no interesting shopping areas in HCMC apart from the malls, where they go to the food court mainly. We need to have a place like DISTRICT 798 in BEIJING where there are cafes, art galleries and interesting local niche brands for both the locals and the tourists – an interesting shopping destination for local brands to develop and have an exposure. We need to have better book shops and proper music shops.
I am hoping that the young Vietnamese consumers will turn more towards high quality local designs as opposed to buying mid-brand international brands. To be honest, everyone is now complaining that the fashion industry is getting more and more generic. People are buying what is cheap as opposed to what is good. I think sooner or later, consumers will wake up and realize that sometimes less is more.
Do you have any exciting plans for the future? What will you yourself and Ipa nima in 5 years time?
C :In the last 5 years we have already reinvented our business once – opening our design and manufacturing business to work with other international brands. Whilst this has been a great experience, I feel that the next 5 years we will have to re-focus on Ipa-Nima and have another re-branding exercise. If the retail situation improves, we should be having more outlets in other parts of Vietnam and out of Vietnam hopefully– fingers crossed !
Where do you shop in Hcmc ? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
C :I like shopping in TYLOR HO on No 23 Ly Tu Trong as he has a few interesting designers in his shop apart from his own. The quality and cut of his clothes are good. There are also a few good designers shops in the vicinity now. The other place is LE CONG KIEU for antique finds. I do love walking around that area and seeing old junk. I sometimes go to NGUYEN TRAI Street as this is where all the locals shop.
What are you favorite restaurants and bars in Hcmc?
C : I don’t have one as the F & B scene is constantly revolving. We have new bars and restaurants every 3-6 months, and every new place seem to be same-same but different. I do love SORAE for the ambience and think this is the best in town. I just discovered SNUFFBOX which I thought was a very cool bar, although you need to wear a mask to deal with the smell of SNUFFBOX’s entrance. Thai Street in D2 have the best value THAI food. I also love the RATCHA ROOM’s cocktails.
What has been your biggest challenge working for a start-up, and what do you think are some of the struggles that many start-ups in HCMC face? and now ?
C : The biggest challenge that I face is to find a trustworthy partner in my supply chain and also working with the current legal system. There are a lot more restrictions and taxes to pay if your company is non-Vietnamese. My products were copied to death when I first started- which leads me to open my own factory to control the designs and the quality of my designs better. The tax people in all aspects are horrendous to deal with. And of course, dealing with Vietnamese for an international practice requires a lot of micro – management.
I think the biggest struggle that today’s start-ups have is the differentiation of their products and services compare to others. I think the young Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial – they think they can start a business easily in a whim but they do not actually have a thought-through process of how their businesses can stand up against others, a marketing and a branding strategy that make their businesses sustainable. A successful business often takes vision and you need to stand firm to it at times and make adaptations at others without losing your brand’s DNA and this is not easy. A lot of start-ups think that they can make quick money and when they see others making money selling coffee, for example, they all think that can make money selling coffee. Just look at all the coffee shops around town and you know what I mean.
The other struggle is that if and when indeed your business becomes very successful, and you need to take it to the next level- with a lot of capital investment – what do you do ?
Five things in your handbag that you carry it every day? ( may be some pictures or brand name?)
C :Samsung Mobile Phone Note 4/ MAC LIPSTICK col Taupe/ Moleskin Diary Notebook/ Keys with my Balinese Keychain/Ipa-Nima Wallet – sample which I have made with an unusual leather and Swarovski crystals decorations.
What are some of your most memorable moments in ipa nima ?
C :My Meeting with Mrs. President HILARY CLINTON’s at Ipa-Nima Shop as soon as she hopped off AIR FORCE ONE in 2002. She has to walk up 4 flights of stairs to my showroom and was huffing and puffing when I met her- quite amusing. We talked about what I did/ Fair Trade and Kazakhstan where my husband was working. Chelsea came the next day and was quite a visit at the time.
How do you balance work and life?
C :I work hard and play hard – typical Hong Kong girl. One of the things I have learned is NOT to take work home to give work and home some space. A relaxing afternoon for me will be watching movies, having facials or some pampering on myself and exploring new places to eat in the evenings. And I love to get away as much as possible.
Any fashion accessories tips for Spring/Summer 2016 that Bliss Saigon ladies should try?
C :Pastels will be in this season. More structured and hard shape bags are back on trend. We are still seeing a lot of drawstring bags with tassels and also pom-poms. A lot of the constructions are multi sectioned – very vintage inspired with a modern twist. I always advise ladies to try colours with accessories as opposed to the neutral shades of black, beige and brown. It is a bag after all, and you can change it the next day if you want to. Accessories are great to be adventurous with, and you can see how this can make your clothes look differently.
Any words for young woman expat entrepreneur in Vietnam?
C :Be adventurous with the business you decide to embark on but be mindful of the partners you plan to set sail with. I always have a golden rule of not having a 50.50 business with anyone, as I have never met anyone who succeeds on this. The other day I read a quote that reflects the sentiments of most successful businesses here.
Wardrobe : Valenciani by Andrian Anh Tuấn
All Pictures by : Ho Dang Khoa
Photo assistant : Ho Tran Minh Quang
Special thanks : Elaine Chew , Gemma Shaw