Saigon Socialite, a company founded by Vietnamese financier-turned-fashionista LanVy Nguyen, is melding sleek modern leatherwork and traditional wood-carving to create a very special hybrid. Her shoes, born out of her love for the intricate work of Imperial-era craftsmen, are a potent symbol of how Eastern tradition and Western knowhow can be brought together in startling and striking ways.
Pagoda carving dates back hundreds of years: the work of skilled artisans who would apply their craft to everything from doorframes to shoes. It was these wooden mules that sparked Nguyen's interest. She recalled her grandmother talking about how the mules were a way of announcing your arrival (by clapping the soles together) and a status symbol. The stars aligned in favourable ways: a NGO she had started up was approached by a cobbler looking for funding who had just the skills she needed to update the traditional forms. The cobbler was averse to making women's clothes, but he liked the notion of making money. A deal was struck, and Saigon Socialite was born.
The shoes, which are rolled out in six different designs and a limited edition of 2000 pairs a year, take over two weeks to make. The wood, harvested from local orchards, is blocked, dried, carved and oiled before the leather uppers are added. The artisans are careful to ensure that the designs are sensitive to the overarching culture: carving a four-tailed dragon, reserved for important pagodas, would be seen as disrespectful, for example.
These are not humble shoes, and the impact they have had on the local economy is similarly impressive. Nguyen has marshalled the craftspeople of 48 villages and invested over half a million dollars in equipment and training in a venture that has benefitted 30,000 Vietnamese. Better yet, she insists that those skills and investment are returned to the local areas from which they came. Artisans are encouraged to pass on their skills, or help out in disaster-struck zones where their help is needed.
Saigon Socialite shoes are upscale and exclusive, and the aggressive clash of modern and traditional forms won't be to everybody's tastes. But the thinking behind them is the very definition of good ethical fashion: employing local craftspeople and embracing their traditional skills in a way that benfits their communities. I think the shoes and the business thinking behind them are exemplary.