Entire street filled with tailor shops

Hoi An Tailors: Lessons Learned from a Custom-Made Dress

Nov 18, 2014 - Julie

Previously a central trading port on the silk road, Hoi An was later abandoned after the fall of the Nguyen dynasty. However, some of that heritage still remains in the form of Hoi An’s ubiquitous tailor shops. They were literally everywhere. Hundreds of shops lined pretty much every street. I was pretty excited to get custom-made clothes (!!)… too excited.

It has become a trend on this trip that whenever we are too excited about something, it tends to disappoint, if only because we have unrealistic expectations. Hoi An tailors was one of these incidents. It all somewhat worked out at the end, but it was not a fun process. Some lessons our experience with Hoi An tailors taught me:

Lesson #1: Have a design in mind

This is the most important lesson – and my biggest downfall. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted (a dress) but that was nowhere near specific enough. Hoping to get inspired by the mannequins at tailor shops, we visited many, flipped through numerous lookbooks, to no avail. If anything, they only confused me more. This was the classic case of sales hindered due to the customer having too many choices. There were so many tailor shops with so many designs in so many fabrics that I was completely overwhelmed.

Entire street filled with tailor shops
Entire street filled with tailor shops

After a frustrating few hours, I ended up choosing a dress on a mannequin I saw, almost for the sake of ending the misery of finding a tailor. I liked the dress enough, but did I love it? At that point I had seen so many dresses and doubted my decision too much to think clearly. I was not my usual confident self, but I was measured for the dress and I hoped for the best.

What I Should Have Done
Tailors are not designers, I need to tell them exactly what I want. I should have gone into a tailor shop knowing not only what kind of clothing I wanted (dress) but what style (casual), what material (colorful), what I want the front and back to look like… the more detail the better. Then all I had to do is find the best tailor who understood my vision for the most competitive price.

The chosen one (the colorful one on the right)
The chosen one (the colorful one on the right)

Lesson #2: Pay only a small deposit

The sales girls at the tailor I (almost arbitrarily) chose – Thong Phi – were very welcoming and enthusiastic at first. They fawned over me and showered me with attention as if they really cared and wanted to provide me with the best tailoring service. All of that immediately stopped after we paid the deposit. I knew the initial attention was mostly a show, but really? I was still a paying customer.

We paid 80% deposit (!!!) – 500,000 dong out of the total 630,000 dong price (approx. $25 out of $30). The only explanation I have for what we did is that we must have been so tired and overwhelmed that we were not thinking straight, and did what others asked of us without questioning. We both let our guards down. That was an extremely poor decision on our part and only contributed to the severe drop in service. Now that they’ve got our money, they didn’t give a damn who we were or what we wanted. It was like a hot sunny day that suddenly turned into the middle of winter – the shift was that harsh and significant.

Thong Phi tailor
Thong Phi tailor

My subsequent fittings were equally cold and terrible. Most people usually require three fittings to perfect the fit – first to try on a rough but mostly complete version, second to fix details, and third to confirm the fit and take home. It became clear that I would need way more than three. At times it seemed liked they couldn’t even remember who I was or which garment I had ordered. I tried on the “wrong” dress (for another person) multiple times, and I had to point this out to them myself. Requested fixes were not implemented. I became convinced that they were giving me the same garment (that was not even made for me, the measuring was a show) each time for the sake of having me try something during each fitting. Those were just a few of the issues I had – not even mentioning the fact that every time I went for a fitting, they tried to rush me out as soon as possible, instead of offering helpful comments for how to make the dress fit me better. It was a nightmare and I felt awful about how they were treating me like crap.

What I Should Have Done
Deposits were unavoidable, but I should have paid no more than 30%, the lower the better. Had the tailor refused – I would gladly walk straight out to another. The market is so competitive for Hoi An tailors, there would be a hundred more willing to make my dress for a lower deposit. Plus a lower deposit would give me an out, should I want to ditch it completely. In my case, I had already paid for practically the whole dress, I had no choice but to go through until the end.

There are countless tailor shops to choose from!
There are countless tailor shops to choose from!

Lesson #3: Don’t leave until the fit is perfect

After a yet again useless third fitting, my frustration and self-doubt finally turned into determination and assertiveness to turn this situation around. I have never been afraid to ask for what I want so why was I letting the tailor have the upper hand? They were providing me a paid service and I had the right to demand their best efforts. We made an unexpected visit to Thong Phi and very firmly (but politely) reemphasized my wishes. If the dress was not ready by the next day, then we were ready to demand for our money back.

The next day we finally saw some progress. The ultimatum from the previous night must have worked because not only did they recognize me, the dress had all the fixes I wanted. However, the fit was a bit off on both shoulders. I wasn’t going to leave until it was perfect… so they took me to the actual tailors.

Tailor shops are often just a front for the real tailors who work offsite
Tailor shops are often just a front for the real tailors who work offsite

It turns out the shop was just a front, while the actual tailors worked away in a small alleyway a few km away. A group of women worked on dresses on one side, while a group of men worked on suits on the other. None of them spoke English but they didn’t need to; they could immediately see the dress did not fit me properly and sought to fix it. Finally the real tailors! I spent a good hour waiting for the real tailors to correct the fit, occasionally trying on to check progress. This was how it should have been all along! It was pretty interesting to watch them sew up other dresses so quickly. I didn’t know much about textiles in general, so this was great insight.

What I Should Have Done
I did the right thing being assertive! If only I had done that from the beginning…

Final Review

It was a struggle, but I walked away salvaging the situation the best that I could. My final dress:

Final dress
Final dress

Hoi An tailors may have disappointed me, but the whole process taught me some important lessons. We made some mistakes that we can’t afford to make in the future, but we will hopefully remember what we learned. If you think about it, these lessons that sound specific to Hoi An tailors can really be generalized for life:

Lesson #1: Know what you want
Lesson #2: Negotiate to your advantage
Lesson #3: Be assertive

I have no regrets about my experience with Hoi An tailors overall. Not every adventure during traveling will be amazing and carry out smoothly, but it’s about making the best out of it.