By, Tracie May-Wagner
As I was seated at my window side table, at the opulent Café Cardinal on the 6th floor of the Reverie Saigon Hotel, I awaited the arrival of Trang Le to interview her for this piece. As I gazed nervously at the High Tea menu, I thought about my own personal journey which, unbeknown to her, utterly revolved around my manifesting the opportunity to meet and speak with her.
In 2019, when I was considering the possibility of uprooting my life and relocating to Vietnam, as a 20 plus-year-old Fashion PR and Runway Show production veteran, the first thing I did was dig Google deep into the Vietnamese fashion scene. I read up on local designers, researched Vietnamese “Street Style”, which US brands had moved their manufacturing to Vietnam, and most importantly, if there was indeed a legitimate “Fashion Week” there. I remember having a chat about my plans with one of my besties, Miss J Alexander of America’s Next Top Model, and after his questioning my utter sanity, he mentioned that he had once been flown to Ho Chi Minh City to be a guest judge of a Season Finale of Vietnam’s Next Top Model. Wait… WHAT?? A production company in Vietnam had licensed and produced America’s Next Top Model?? Ok… NOW I have some real direction!
I researched the enterprise behind VNTM, followed MultiMedia JSC on Facebook and low and behold, I learned that they were in process of hiring a PR manager for the company. So, on day two of my arrival to Saigon, I took a GRAB (Vietnam’s UBER) to their offices to present my resume, as I was quite confident that couldn’t possibly be anyone applying for that position with the same level of global fashion PR experience as me; I was sadly turned away as they would only consider a local Vietnamese applicant. Undeterred, I put it on the back burner, knowing that I would eventually invoke the opportunity to meet the company CEO, who was also the CEO of Vietnam International Fashion Week.
Later in the year, I was invited to attend the closing night of last season’s VIFW, I was personally introduced to Trang and gave my 30 second pitch. We exchanged WhatsApps, took photos together, and I kept her information for a future exchange. Several months later, I was assigned by a local Vietnamese publication to interview Trang, I sent her a message, reminding her of who I was, and she graciously accepted my proposed meeting and magazine interview. As I watched her descend Café Cardinal’s grand staircase, dressed to the nines, with personal assistant diligently in tow, I took a deep cleansing breath, knowing that my year-plus-long mission had finally been actualized. She sat down, we exchanged our pleasantries, ordered our decadent High Tea service and I turned on my IPhone’s Voice Memos. The below interview is redacted from the 2.5 hour recorded conversation I shared with my now dear friend and professional colleague Trang Le.
T.M.W: You have become one of the most renowned and prominent figures in the Vietnamese fashion industry. Why fashion? What inspired you to pursue a career in fashion?
TL: My career in fashion has been a long journey. I never intended to get into fashion. I received my undergraduate and master’s degree in finance and accounting. So, I thought I would pursue a career as the Finance Controller or the Finance Director of a large multinational corporation… I honestly knew nothing about fashion and never imagined that I would ever end up in the fashion business.
TMW: Really? So, how did it happen?
TL: I worked for a time as the accountant for a Vietnamese television production company. They licensed and produced the Vietnamese version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which was wildly popular here at the time. Unfortunately, the company ended up folding, I found myself out of work, and realized that through that job, I had garnered a real passion for media and television production. So, I started thinking that maybe I should just create my own opportunity, rather than work again for someone else, doing something that I really did not love. So, I launched MultiMedia JSC in 2005. We began as a distribution company for international tv shows, where we would broker the licenses to Vietnamese TV networks for airing rights. I would travel to various international tv market events to see what licenses were available for my clients, I happened upon the CBS Television display on one occasion, and saw a poster displayed for America’s Next Top Model. That particular project intrigued me on a personal level and inspired me to try my hand at producing a show myself through my company. Again, at that time, I did not know a thing about fashion. But, I did believe that it was a format that could work very well in Vietnam, as it would not only benefit Vietnamese women as a whole, but also allow for opportunities and career paths for so many beautiful young people within my country. The truth is, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I strongly believed in myself and knew that I would somehow make it work. After a lengthy bidding war with several other production companies, CBS granted me the license for the show, and through intensive study, and learning as I went, we were off! Thankfully, the series was a big hit here, which spearheaded my later producing Project Runway Vietnam and my other television projects. It also inspired me to launch my modeling agency and to create Vietnam International Fashion Week, as a platform to showcase both our country’s magnificent models and our incredibly talented local fashion designers.
TMW: Ok… let’s talk about Fashion Week. Vietnam was the only country globally to have produced an in-person series of runway presentations, with a full audience, in 2020 due to the pandemic. How did you make that happen with the government’s strict Covid-19 restrictions? It must have been touch-and-go whether or not you would be able to proceed with the shows?
TL: It was indeed touch-and-go. We had already postponed our scheduled shows in Hanoi, and had invested so much time and money into producing the shows in Ho Chi Minh City, that I needed to do everything in my power to try and proceed, no matter what. We followed the health guidelines to the letter. Every attending guest and staff member were required to wear a mask, we had multiple hand sanitizing stations available, we took temperature checks upon check in, etc. And, due to our vigilance, the government allowed us to proceed. It was incredibly stressful, as you can imagine, but thankfully it worked out in our favor.
TMW: You are such an inspiration for so many. What advice would you give to a young, inspiring female business person?
TL: There are three key methods I always discuss when speaking at various leadership seminars.
- BE FEARLESS: If you allow yourself to experience fear, then you have already limited your potential.
- BELIEVE IN YOURSELF: You must always believe in yourself, because if you don’t, you will not have the self-confidence to pursue your dreams, and achieve your goals, no matter how big they may be or how many obstacles may block your path. I would have never achieved what I have in my career if I did not believe in myself and my abilities. I refused to give up and continued to fight for what I wanted, and that sheer tenacity stemmed from my strong belief in myself.
- BE UNIQUE: Always try and create something that is different. Of course, you must do your research, and you may garner inspiration from others, but then it is your responsibility to make whatever it is you are developing your personal signature.