Michèle de Albert, in Vietnam for the past 22 years – and counting – has been working with furniture and lacquer for more than two decades. She was the one who came up with the idea to make chopsticks trendy, by using color and mix materials giving a modern touch to very functional objects. You can now find these chopsticks everywhere. Bliss sat down with the designer and entrepreneur to talk about her experience of Vietnam, the future of the ‘Espace Michèle de Albert’ and her deeply.
Bliss (NM) : First of all, Michele, could you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how did it all start?
Michèle de Albert: I came to Vietnam in July 1994, 22 years ago, traveling with my partner who was invited by the government to participate to an engineering project. What was initially a one-year trip ended up being a (very) long-term settlement! I come from an international law background, but I was always fascinated by design and fashion.
My first mission here was for the “Le Bon Marché” (high-end department store in Paris), who was hosting at the time a huge exhibition on Vietnamese products.I was in charge of all their sourcing, which allowed me to travel around the country and see if opportunities were available. Vietnam was closed up for so long, so the design was very classical, traditional with a lot of gold and flowers and wasn’t very adapted to the International and European market. After a couple of months of sourcing, I saw the amount of opportunities available here, but a lot of aspects of the designs needed to be re-worked.
Bliss (NM): The history of your brand is today very established in Vietnam, how have you been able to build it whilst staying true to Vietnam’s heritage?
Michèle de Albert: The first project I came up with was “Celadon.” Celadon is a type of ceramics denoting both wares glazed in the jade green Celadon color and was hardly produced anymore in Vietnam. There were two small producers, but their collections were very limited: one type of plate, one type of vase. I decided to open my first shop called « Celadon Green,» and we’ve developed Celadon through a collection, with six different sizes of plates, salad bowls, cups, and a wide range of products. Back then, it was the fist boutique looking like a real boutique! There were no retail shops like this, with a thoughtful display. Then I opened two new shops on Dong Khoi Street called ‘Precious’, focused on lacquer. They were both next to each other; one more focused on the ‘Home Wear’ with a lot of chopsticks and one more focused on ladies accessories. That’s when I started to launch the ‘chopstick trend’, everybody create them this way now! I was also looking for wider and bigger spaces, to offer a larger range of products so I teamed up with a couple of other designers such as Catherine Denoual and we opened up Gaya in 2004. We had four floors and about 500 square meters of shopping surface. That was the first decoration showroom in Vietnam with a true identity and an international range of products, with home wear, fashion, outdoor garden furniture… In parallel, I was exporting my products in Japan, Europe… I had my showroom and my production going on in Vietnam, and I was exporting internationally.
Bliss (NM): What difficulties did you faced?
Michèle de Albert: Back then, communication with the “outside world” was quite difficult and if you were not careful, you could find yourself with a phone bill around $1000. Imagine the cost if you had endless conversations! Private use of Fax was also forbidden, and we had to send and receive them at the Post Office, with a cost around $20 a page. As censorship was still highly applied, all Email were read, so you’d get them with a delay. The period was a bit more complicated than it is now. At the time, paying $1000 for a phone bill seemed reasonable! People here were very reactive, and when the internet arrived, they started to use it much more than in Europe. Things on this end have changed and for the better.
Bliss (NM): Is settling a company in Vietnam complicated?
Michèle de Albert: It’s much easier to launch today your company than before when you are a foreigner. It’s much cheaper, but the paperwork gets intense. One shouldn’t forget that everything is very bureaucracy focused here, but yet there’s always a way to get by.
Regarding communication, I’ve been able to surround myself with amazing Vietnamese people, who stayed with me from the beginning, and who spoke fluent French. It helped me a lot as I could communicate quicker, but it did not motivate me to learn Vietnamese!
Bliss (NM) : How did you end up in District 2, and have your showroom on the production site?
Michèle de Albert: Well, we lost the previous spot where Gaya was located previously, and moved on Le Lai street, right in front of PhanNhu Lao. In Vietnam as a foreign business, you’re less protected about rents than in Europe, and rents can double without prior warning. Landlords can change their mind, and you don’t have your word. Real estate prices were also exploding downtown, so I moved here, in District 2, and gathered all my activities (showroom and production) in one same location. It’s much more convenient like that. I can see every production status, and the quality control happens much faster. If a mistake occurs, it’s easy to fix it on the spot, and I do not have to go back and forth…Regarding my customers, they now know me as well, so being away from the center is not an issue anymore.
Bliss (NM): ‘Espace Michele de Albert’ has a very pure philosophy when it comes to design and material used. Do you create everything? Do you buy locally and transform?
Michèle de Albert: I don’t buy anything and create almost everything myself here. We have two collections: a lacquer collection and a furniture collection. Regarding the lacquer collection, I draw everything and produce everything here. All aluminum furniture are designed by Quasar Khanh (who passed away last June). He worked in this Boutique, designed the first models of the collection and we worked together to expand it. As he was famous and was dealing with many projects at the same time, I used to handle a lot the production part. Quasar Khanh was a French visionary designer born Vietnamese, an inventor, an engineer and an artist. He’s worked on one of the biggest dam/barrages in Canada; painted a lot, created “Avant-gardist” furniture as the “Inflatable sofa” in the seventies, and also worked in fashion… A book on his career is coming out this March 2017.
Bliss (NM): What do you enjoy most about your work?
Michèle de Albert: I really enjoy working with colors. With lacquer and plates, it’s not always easy to re-design. After all, a plate, once you’ve made it round, square or octagonal, you have seen it all! Regarding the furniture, I’d like to play with details such as the handles, the shapes of the drawers, inside boxes… Today for some clients we have the privilege to design exclusive furniture with specific colors and shapes.
Bliss (NM): Today do you encounter a different range of clients?
Michèle de Albert: Oh my, that has evolved! In the beginning, my clients were 100% foreigners. Now, they represent only 20% of my clientele, and the rest is local, who come and purchase in my retail showroom. Regarding exportation, I sell a lot in Hong Kong and Asia globally. A bit it Europe and in the US as well. The Vietnamese purchasing power has exploded recently, and their openness to the world has sharpened their eye and taste for design. A lot of well-traveled Vietnamese are also coming back to Vietnam to settle, and enjoy products that represent their country: 100% made locally, with a minimalistic touch. My local clients, usually in their 30’s, really love lacquer and are proud to give back to their country.
Bliss (NM): what are you currently working on that our readers should look out in the near future?
Michèle de Albert: We’re working on an exhibition in Paris featuring Quasar Khanh’s furniture, after the book’s launch in March 2017. I do wish I could travel more. It nourishes my inspiration, unlike here where it’s every day work work work… We have great projects ahead!
Tel + 84 837 40 60 09 – 79/11 Street 12 Tran Nao – District 2 – Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam