The art scene in Ho Chi Minh City is thriving – if you know where to look. Walk through alleyways, up worn concrete stairs, past ubiquitous tourist trinkets and kitsch paintings of smiling faces shaded by conical hats and you’ll happen upon art galleries and concept stores buzzing with bright young things.
L’Usine is one such discovery. The discreet entrance at the back of the Art Arcade on Dong Khoi Street leads to a boutique, café and gallery showcasing local artists and brands alongside international designers, with a counter serving bánh mì (sandwiches). “L’Usine is a place to relax, inform and inspire,” says co-owner Tib Hoàng. “It’s a platform for Vietnam’s new creatives, from painters and designers to graphic artists.”
Founded by four friends (first picture) in 2009, L’Usine was originally intended as a warehouse – hence the name – but it developed into something more. “It started as a side project,” says Hoàng. “However, the store quickly became a sensation amongst the expat community and, later, talented young locals, too.”
Housed in a 19th-century colonial building, the space has been reimagined in the style of a 1930s French garment factory – complete with antique Singer sewing machines and wood reclaimed from old looms. The cavernous, light-filled expanse, with its polished concrete floors and wrought-iron window frames, has a chicly intimate atmosphere in which to shop and dine. For though the toast of HCMC society flock to the exhibitions and live performances held there – past shows have included ceramics by performance artist Bui Cong Khanh and paintings by Vietnamese-American Tammy Nguyen – the retail space and café are a draw in themselves.
The imaginative offering is eclectic, mixing international brands with local fare. In the menswear department, Mr Simple striped T-shirts (from 465,000 dong, about £15) sit next to Baxter grooming products (from about £16), while Izola Three Sheets to the Wind engraved flasks (from about £20) can be found beside modern British brand Marshall Artist’s classic pocket squares (from about £6) and statement Clae leather-and-suede lace-up shoes (fourth picture, from about £77).
The women’s fashion and homewares focus on local talent with an ethical slant: Linda Mai Phung’s chic silk dresses (example third picture, from about £58) and shorts (from about £35), for example, and for the home there’s quirky lacquerware from Wetter Indochine (example second picture, from about £14). A penchant for French design means delicate La Fiancée du Facteur necklaces (sixth picture, from about £29) nestle next to Trois Filles deconstructed linen dresses (from about £20). The Marou chocolate bars (fifth picture) at the till are wrapped in silk-screen-printed paper from the Cholon area of the city.
“We want to preserve the essence of Vietnamese heritage, while promoting innovative brands that cultivate a L’Usine lifestyle,” says Hoàng. The walls and furnishings may be steeped in history, but all eyes are firmly on the future.