Bringing ao dai to America

If you have ever been to a traditional Vietnamese wedding, you might at first be overwhelmed: rows of giant fruit trays, beautiful shiny lanterns hanging from above, sparkly aisles full of confetti and the constant “pop” sound of beer cans being opened by yet another Vietnamese uncle.

You might also notice the mini-fashion show of attendees wearing their vibrant and colorful ao dai.

Ao dai is a traditional Vietnamese formal dress — most often worn by women, but also worn by men, on very special occasions. Ao dai is a two-piece. The silk top is knee-length or longer and split front and back at the waist, elegantly flowing over soft and silky matching long pants.

People wear their ao dai on occasions such as Lunar New Year, weddings and similar celebrations.

In Vietnam, most tailors alter ao dai because many people prefer a perfect hug to their curves. In Seattle, many Vietnamese go to Nhung Nguyen and her shop — Adam Tailoring and Alterations on Rainier Avenue.

This family-owned shop has been a lifesaver for many people for almost 30 years. Her shop is one of the only few ao dai tailoring shops in Seattle, where 13,000 people of Vietnamese descent live.

Nhung Nguyen, founder and owner of Adam Tailoring and Alterations in Seattle, has helped thousands of local Vietnamese get the perfect fit with their ao dai. (Photo by An Vuong Nguyen)

Adam Tailor looks exactly like a typical tailor shop in Vietnam: rows of ao dai hanging on the wall on racks all over the store.

On a recent day, a woman works on a sewing machine in the middle of the shop, right next to a small cash register. All of her attention seems to be on the piece of fabric in front of her eyes, accompanied with the constant “tk – tk – tk” sound of the sewing machine.

That woman at the machine is Phung Nguyen, the daughter of shop founders Nhung and Be Nguyen.

Before coming to America, Nhung and Be Nguyen (no relation to the author) had a small tailoring shop in Vietnam. Nhung Nguyen talked about her husband with a big grin. They started became tailors when they were teenagers, even before they met each other and fell in love.

After they started a family, he made his way to the United States. In 1980, Be Nguyen left Vietnam and spent two years in a refugee camp in Philippines. Nhung Nguyen was 26 when her husband left. She and their three teenage children finally arrived in the United States in 1990.

“We were apart for ten years,” Nhung Nguyen said.

When arriving in Seattle, Be Nguyen immediately opened up a tailoring service in 1984 — a shop that is still open seven days a week. The family all joined their father in his already established service in Downtown Seattle. But it was a very small shop, and Nhung Nguyen had bigger plans.

Nhung Nguyen works at a sewing machine at her shop, Adam Tailor on Rainier Avenue.
(Photo by An Vuong Nguyen)

“My husband and I then planned to open another shop for me,” Nhung Nguyen said in Vietnamese. “It’s bigger, and I did not only do alterations. I also designed ao dai.”

After years of designing unique custom-made ao dai, Nhung Nguyen recently stopped making custom orders from scratch because of her age. She now produces only one size of ao dai, then alters the pieces to fit each customer.

“Grandma works really hard,” Tiffany Nguyen said, while taking a break from helping with the family shop. “Sometimes she works until six in the morning.”

The shop is a family affair. Tiffany Nguyen, granddaughter of Nhung Nguyen, also works in the shop. (Photo by An Vuong Nguyen.)

Nhung Nguyen finds her passion and happiness in managing this small shop, despite the occasional tight deadline and demanding customer.

“It really is true love for the profession that keeps me from resigning. It is a really, really tough job,” Nhung Nguyen said before heading back to a small corner, where she finished a pair of ao dai pants on her sewing machine.

She first came to America with little knowledge of language and culture, but Nhung Nguyen adapted to the U.S. so her business could thrive. The shop has also built a clientele of non-Vietnamese customers, who have orders for all sorts of clothing alterations. The shop is lined with racks and racks of pants-too-long and shirts-too-tight, which the family later transforms into a much better fit.

She said that customers’ loyalty is what keeps the shop alive, especially in a big city like Seattle.

“Big department stores offer their own tailoring services too, but many of my customers come to our shop because they weren’t happy there,” Nhung Nguyen said. “They feel taken care of in a smaller shop like ours.”

Habtamu Abdi, one of the shop’s regulars, came in on a rainy Wednesday evening to pick up his suits, when he noticed a reporter was setting up bulky cameras in the middle of this small shop.

“It’s good you are writing about them,” Abdi said, out of the blue. “It’s a minority-owned business, and she’s not receiving the same attention which she deserves.”

Over the years, Nhung Nguyen has witnessed the tradition of wearing ao dai change. But she has been surprised to see an increase in Vietnamese youths wearing ao dai, especially for the past few Lunar New Year celebrations.

Nguyen is happy that the traditional attire is not disappearing in the neighborhood, and her designs are still a part of many people’s lives.

She hopes the next generations of her family will take over someday.

“Perhaps, I will keep working in this shop up until I physically can’t anymore,” Nguyen said.

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