While the pressure to march to the drumbeat of public scrutiny is high in Vietnam, fashion seems to offer an escape. Fashion design gives students the opportunity to dream.

By Thomas Pleeging

When a Vietnamese friend returned to his home country after studying in the US for nine years, he had developed a casual clothing style with faded t-shirts, torn jeans and long hair. It horrified his grandmother, who feared people might think he had become a trash collector or a lottery seller.

Appearance is everything in Vietnam and despite a decade of double-digit economic growth, there are still plenty of people who cannot afford anything but rags.

As in many Asian countries, Vietnamese society values harmony, balance and the collective above individualism. In general, the ideal is to blend in, to be successful but not stand out, positive or negative. Disagreeing with parents, superiors or teachers is considered disrespectful.

Add to that a government that severely restricts freedom of speech and an educational system that prefers memorizing facts over independent thought and the possibilities for self-expression become small.

So when Vietnamese students decide on a career in design, you might expect most of them to pick something safe, something with a reasonable chance of making a living – maybe graphic design.

However, despite very few career opportunities, the Fashion Design department at the school where I worked consistently attracted the most students. “Vietnamese want to dream,” my colleague told me when I asked him why.

In fashion, with its glamour and connection to the rich and famous, you can be controversial without public backlash. Creative young people who dream about walking in the spotlight are safe within a context that is familiar to a wide audience thanks to popular television shows like Next Top Model and Project Runway.

True, those shows don’t offer the most realistic image of design and Vietnam still has a long way to go for a serious fashion design industry. There are some promising signs though, showing that fashion can shake things up.

Vietnamese fashion designer Minh Hanh for example changed perception about the ethnic mountain tribes by using their traditional patterns in her collections. Before, these tribes where regarded poor and uneducated, but because of her collection the idea that they do add value took hold.

Dutch designer Thomas Pleeging, a graduate from Design Academy Eindhoven, worked for two years as a program manager of the Graphic Design department at ADS International Design & Art Center in Ho Chi Minh City.

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