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History woven

Released at: 23:35, 01/11/2014

History woven

Ms Do Thanh Huong, owner of Tan My Embroidery and Design, has shown her mettle in the family business and has taken Vietnamese embroidery to the world.

by Linh San

From the windows of her striking three-story white house on Hang Gai Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Ms Do Thanh Huong looks out to her Tan My Design Shop on the opposite side of the street, which covers almost 1,000 square metres. Dozens of foreign customers, who love the art of embroidery and the latest designs of talented local designers, browse through the products on display at the elegant outlet, which gives Ms Huong the opportunity to promote Tan My’s items and those of other Vietnamese producers and designers. Ms Huong is managing director and owner of the Tan My brand created by her mother, Madam Bach, in 1969.

When her mother started out in 1969 it was a simple business. “My mother began with embroidered handkerchiefs and pillowcases,” she explained. “The handkerchiefs were taken by soldiers when they went off to war. They were symbols of love, like an engagement ring, given by a girl to her boyfriend. We also made embroidered pillowcases for couples, with their two initials and two birds.” The Tan My name has special meaning, as “Tan” means new and “My” means beauty. 

Ms Huong was initially reluctant to enter the family business. “I didn’t think it could succeed,” she says. “It was, after all, a time of terrible warfare.” Ms Huong’s family was forced to leave Hanoi and take refuge in the countryside, and she was left alone in the capital to tend to the shop. It was her first taste at running the family business and it wasn’t encouraging. Instead, she studied to become a nurse and for a couple of years worked at a State hospital while still holding the reins at Tan My. By the late 1970s her family had returned to Hanoi and she began to notice that custom continued to increase and even foreigners liked the shop’s products. She abandoned nursing and by 1980 had become the manager of the shop.

When the first Tan My shop opened it was the only embroidery shop in town and had just a small sign hanging outside that said “The shop is inside”. Later on new shops opened nearby and all were larger with shop fronts, but Tan My was still doing very well, with many ambassadors and VIPs paying a visit and shopping there over the last 45 years. The main reason, she believes, is the good quality of her products and the good service she provides. “From the very beginning my mother always taught me that ‘the best way to be successful is to have good quality and good service’,” she remembered. “What we have today is based on that.” This is why she has no problems with competitors, as she has always tried to be superior in quality and service.

Her second shop, Tan My Design, opened in 2009 opposite the first, combining traditional Tan My values of quality, service and value with unique designs. The shop also has a modern, spacious café serving real espresso coffee and delicious snacks and has the works of a number of Hanoi’s most famous artists on display. Over the years, as Ms Huong has developed the business, it has expanded its product range to include home ware, bed linen, clothing, accessories and artworks, but always with an emphasis on hand embroidery.

The Tan My shops welcome at least 50 customers every day and Ms Huong even works after hours if needs be. Sometimes customers came in at 6am or 10pm before heading to the airport, and she’s always happy to see them. Some customers joke with her and call her Ms Smile, not Ms Huong. “I think the personal touch and the family feel about Tan My make it special,” she said. “I always try to be there to welcome all of our customers and I think this is also the secret to our success.” 

In recent years she has created jobs for 500 people in Thuong Tin district in Hanoi’s south, who are all descendants of generations of embroidery workers. Ms Huong asked that all her products are done by hand by highly skilled teams who work exclusively for Tan My, to ensure the highest standards of quality are maintained. “It’s been my favourite place to shop for more than a decade,” said one of her French customers. “The owner works hard to provide top quality products, with traditional embroidery in a wide variety of creations from local and foreign designers.” 

Developing values

A prominent figure in Hanoi’s embroidery scene for many years, Ms Huong marks the passing of the torch from her mother’s generation and brings a more globalised perspective to the business compared to her predecessors, but does not plan to open Tan My shops overseas. “We have a number of long-term partners who sell our products in other countries,” she said. “We will continue to work with them so that the Tan My brand remains available elsewhere, from Australia to the US and Europe. I want to continue to develop Tan My Design as a showcase of not only the Tan My brand but also other Vietnamese designers. We are very lucky to have such a wonderful space to display a large range of products from some of Vietnam’s best fashion and home ware designers and artists.”

The Tan My brand grew out of the very difficult war years in Vietnam. Madam Bach, the mother of Ms Do Thanh Huong, began by embroidering pillow cases. During the war years she also embroidered messages from loved ones on handkerchiefs, which soldiers carried with them into battle. Named after her two eldest sons, the business started in 1969 in a small shop in Hang Gai, in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The second shop is now run by Ms Huong’s daughter, making it three generations of the family being involved in the business.

Ms Huong has always been inspired by the female leaders she counts among her customers and has been lucky to meet many political and business leaders as well as diplomats and even royalty. “They have all been prepared to spend time understanding our business and our history and I still love to tell them the Tan My story,” she said. Female leaders have shown her that no matter a person’s position or job, they can still relate to and care about others. “When I meet and talk with female leaders, we are businesspeople as well as being mothers and managing a family,” she said. “I am always inspired by how they go about it.” 

Now, Ms Huong’s daughter, Nguyen Thuy Linh, is managing the Tan My Design business - marking the third generation. She retains the original Tan My values of service, value and quality. “I am still convinced that these differentiate Tan My from others,” Ms Huong said. “My daughter will follow in my footsteps and continue the embroidery tradition.”

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