Christina Yu’s Vietnam-based fashion label is the universal translation of chic.
April 23, 2006
The Girl From Ipa-Nima
Not until I saw one with my own eyes did I fully understand the power of an Ipa-Nima handbag. They are just plain gorgeous. They are also just plain one-of-a-kind. Hanoi, Vietnam-based designer Christina Yu has founded the four-year-old label on a mixture of her refined tastes and personal whimsy. Each bag is hand-crafted to exacting standards, but each bag also exhausts that standard prompting a new idea and a new sense of the beautiful to be developed. This process has not only kept Ipa-Nima constantly fresh, exciting, and cutting edge, but at the same time allows the bags to exist outside of any one trend, yet parallel to all.
This process might explain the Ipa-Nima tag line, "Idee Parfaites viennent de Notre Imaginatin Magnifique" (Perfect ideas come from our magnificent imaginations). Yu's "perfect ideas" take the shape of handbags that keep you up-to-the-minute through a sense of the classic and traditional. The "magnificent imaginations" is the cultural bank we all contribute to – a global institution with which Yu regularly transacts for inspirational fuel.
There can be no doubt that this ex-litigator from Hong Kong has unceasing creativity, discipline, and expert fashion savvy – in a short four years her efforts have landed her in New York's Ford Focus Fashion show, some of the world's top chic boutiques, exposure in virtually every fashion publication, a visit from Senator Hillary Clinton, and her own stores in Japan.
But Christina Yu's truly precious gift is her insatiable curiosity. She consumes everything in her path and unleashes it into her work. She is not so much a fashion designer as she is a producer of beautiful, cultural artifacts. She slams together contradictions and materials, forcing opposite notions to work together in a Baroque cultural fusion. To wit, her mandate to decorators designing her new boutiques in the hip Shibuya district of Tokyo: make it "the French boudoir of a modern Geisha who lives in the Moulin Rouge of the early 20's." In Christina's design reactor, eras, cultures, and aesthetics collide into something that is not identifiably East or West, then or now, but a little bit of both … and a little bit more.
urbanStyle: How did you go from lawyer to designer?
Christina Yu: One does not really go from "lawyer" to "designer" – certainly not overnight. I have always had a fashion vein in me and while I was working in Hong Kong, I moonlighted at a fashion magazine (so much so that I utilized all my annual leave for international fashion shows at my own expense!)
A lot of people think that it is a big jump but in practice I feel blessed with the benefits of both the business and creative world.
Why did you relocate from Hong Kong to Vietnam?
It is very much a story of fate and love. My husband moved to Vietnam to set up the Hanoi branch of a large international law firm that we both worked for. I decided to move with him. [As] litigation is very jurisdictional, I had to give up my practice. So I abandoned myself to fashion, my true passion.
What attracted you to handbags?
I have a fetish for shoes and bags so it came naturally to me to make bags when I started Ipa-Nima. Due to my editorial experience, I have quite a keen eye on fashion. There was no doubt in my mind at the time that there would be a big comeback on hand-embroidered, fully embellished accessories. Plus, accessories are quite non-seasonal when compared to clothes and easier for me to export without having to worry about sizes and age groups.
If fashion is about relationships – how people present themselves to others – then what role do handbags play?
I consider handbags one of the most important accessories in a woman's wardrobe…after shoes. A bag to a woman's ensemble is very much like jewelry to a face or flowers to a room; They are the added touch that can turn "conservative" into "original" or "sexy" into "romantic."
[Handbags are] also a secret weapon for a woman's self-expression. She might be professionally obliged to wear a suit, but she can carry a slightly off-professional funky bag or briefcase just to break that monotony. Not to mention that she can play with all the accessories inside her bag that people won't see unless she wants them to – her wallet, her makeup, her cigarette case, mobile phone, etc…having accessories is having a game to play.
Handbags seem to be more popular than ever.
The popularity of bags [is due to] the ever-increasing return to playfulness in fashion. We have moved from 90's Zen minimalism to today's Baroque couture. As women want more and more glamour, accessories – and the bag in particular – have returned to their well-deserved spotlight.
In your own words, describe your designs.
Whimsical, strong, sexy, kitschy, girly, fun with an undying pledge to glamour. I have a strong addiction to vintage pieces and refined workmanship. My designs are very much about taking traditional elements to new heights or bringing a new and modern dimension to what people consider traditional. [The bags are] about juxtaposition – bringing unlikely familiar elements together to give new surprises.
How would you describe your Spring/Summer 2001 line?
Our Spring/Summer 2001 line – "Disco Renaissance" – pushes for a lot of extremes. I have this party scene from the modern take of "Romeo & Juliet" in mind – feathers in the air, ballroom with interiors in gem-like colors, wild dresses, and Juliet in stunning white.
I have adopted those Renaissance colors for my Spring/Summer 2001 line – magentas, fuchsias, and range of gem-like colors. There are a lot of party bags with swinging tassels that remind me of divas and disco queens and waterproof braided plastic swirl totes with a sense of fun and humor. My rattan garden series is built on the romantic rendezvous the star-crossed lovers had on the ivy-entwined balcony. I used plastic crotchet in new ways, mixing vinyl and crotchet and sequins, matching organza with pompom balls, and hand-painted denim covered with sequins.
Who's your dream client? Who do you design for the rest of the time?
I often think of friends while designing; many bags were born out of an image a friend would evoke. In the darkness of my mind, my creations are for women who are fearless and in absolute control of their destiny. They are beautiful and intelligent women with integrity who dare to make a difference. As for my dream client, it'll have to be someone at least as eccentric, inspirational and larger-than-life as Madonna.
If you could compare your designs to anything in the world, what would it be?
Depending on my mood: a striking piece of jewelry or a fattening piece of cake! I love extremes and do not know how to consume with moderation.
How does Nature figure into your design philosophy?
[When] I describe my bags as "whimsical" and "sexy," that is all about Nature. Flowers and floral patterns have always been a classic element in my designs, not to mention the colors of a Moroccan sunset, of Bondi Beach, of fishing nets in the old village of Bodrum, Turkey.
Where do you go to find new materials and ideas? Also, tell me about "traditional" Vietnamese materials.
I go into the dark recesses of my mind where I wander alone like Alice in Wonderland. I really am not a method designer, if there is such a thing. I get bored easily and feel that whoever buys my bags needs as much entertainment as I do. The moment I have finished one bag, I want to do something totally different – this is my method.
Vietnam is rich in taffeta, silks, buffalo horn, fine hand-woven cottons, and mother-of-pearl. You can also source silver, lacquer, tribal patterns hand-woven by ethnic minorities, and skilled (at times greedy) craftsmen.
How are your designs influenced by your experiences living and working in Hong Kong, Hanoi, and the West?
I guess my experiences in Hong Kong have taught me the word "alternative." Hong Kong people are extremely fashion-conscious but, unlike the Japanese, they lack that "alternative" edge. [Hong Kong] is all labels. People dress in more or less the same way, piling on the same labels. They are stylish like a fashion magazine. I want "alternative" stylish – style with a personal signature.
Vietnam has brought me challenges of originality. There is a lack of street culture here and resources for fashion accessories are quite limited. I have to make the most of what I can find. Like most developing counties, there are a lot of copycats here and they drive me crazy. The lack of effective enforcement here made me realize that to be ahead of the game I have to be quick in turning around new designs and even more original than they think I can be.
What is "fashion" or "style" in Vietnam?
The way you formulated your question makes me laugh as there is very little to report in terms of street fashion in Vietnam. In the South, Vietnamese girls are quite Westernized and they wear their tight tees and their skimpy skirts or jeans with 3-inch platforms or high heels. In the North, they are much more demure. What I notice is that in spite of their feline form and their femininity, they are not very feminine in terms of dress sense. Pants are worn more often than dresses (they are constantly on motorbikes). The braver ones will opt for a sexy look as opposed to a stylish look. The shy ones will not go for anything more than sleeveless, round-necked tee with tight jeans. At most, they can be quasi-trendy but not stylish. Ironically, the most elegant and stylish ladies I have seen are those in their traditional "ao dai" (pronounced "a-o zai") which is quite similar to the Chinese cheong-sam except that it is an ankle-length dress with side splits up above the waist over long flowing palazzo pants.
I think there's a lot to be said regarding Western fashion ideas and Vietnamese fashion ideas. Western fashionistas are more exposed to different forms of fashion and have developed a keener sense of what works what doesn't. The Vietnamese are not so exposed and have few choices. Furthermore, they have different spending habits. Makeup, for example, is considered to be more important than clothes to most.
What are the major differences between working in Hanoi as opposed to New York?
Sources. You have to be very creative in terms of sources and, in a way, it makes you aware of your own limitations and pushes you to be inventive and innovative. You have to learn to take something at face value and find ways of pirating it to give it a new look or a new meaning. One thing is sure – if I had started this line in New York, I would have found it much easier at first but might not have been able to have my own voice.
How was the Clintons' visit to Vietnam? Do these international politics affect your work?
It affected my staff in a great way. They did not believe that Hillary would come to our showroom at all until she turned up at our doorstep. I think it was extremely inspirational to them that an international figure like her would spend the time to come and meet us. I definitely noticed a change of attitude after the visit; they feel a new sense of pride and responsibility in what they are doing which I have not seen before. I guess it has finally dawned on them that they are making quite a substantial mark for their country working for the first fashion label originating from Vietnam and making an international stamp. The press is great, but [her visit] has given our ambition as a company a new dimension.
I have always felt that what I am doing is not just building a fashion brand in Vietnam but also contributing towards the socio-economic growth of a developing country by providing employment and exploring a brand-new export market. It is satisfying to know that my belief and contribution has been recognized and that we are moving in the right direction.
Shortly thereafter you took a trip to America. How was the Ford Focus Fashion show?
It was a great experience for me to be able to work with some of the best "up and coming" designers from the States. I was invited to design bags to style the others designers' collections. [However, my bags] must have looked so outlandish that they really did not know what to do with them. So they created a new section for the catwalk show where models came out in black denim wearing my only bags. I was the only non-States-based designer. When I came onto the catwalk to take my bow (my first ever), everyone was like, "Who's that girl?"
What did you take away from the experience that you will apply to your work?
That fashion, to a certain extent, knows no limits. I was fascinated with the work of Debra McGuire who made a wedding dress out of air bags. It looked as beautiful as a traditional wedding dress made out of tulle, duchess satin or lace. I have also learned how to balance originality with commercialism in my work. I had always thought that I had to compromise one or the other. Things that I have seen at the show have taught me to approach certain materials and ideas from a different prospective.
How has your design aesthetic evolved in the past four years?
I used to do a lot of soft bags and now I am doing more structured forms. Construction comes with experience. After season upon season, you begin to know what works with a particular type of fabric and material. I am a less experimental than before with the choice of materials I use- partly due to production issues – but I am a lot more diversified in both design pattern and my combinations of materials. In general, I note that I am a lot more demanding on myself and my work. This is all part of the "growing up" process, isn't it?
What keeps you going?
I am inspired by many things- a beautiful painting, a particular pattern on an old carpet, an experience of a dear friend, a wonderful coffee table book…one thing I do not lack is ideas. Whether or not I have time to implement them is another story.
The world is my oyster. I travel all over the world and am like a sponge – I absorb trends and pulp/pop culture and find inspiration in the most unexpected sources. It's very exhilarating when you start to have cross-cultural exchanges and two minds start thinking on the same wavelength. You get this a buzz when it happens between two people from the same culture, but it is a real high when it happens in a place like Vietnam.