“Have you seen Vân?”
“No, who is that?”
“An Asian woman who makes suits for nearly all the student board members at TU/e. She should be here somewhere.”
'Here' is the Auditorium, on the first of the Recruitment Days. Student Fabrice Fontein and I are standing at the balustrade and viewing the hustle and bustle below. He does not need a suit at the moment (because his graduation from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry is in sight) but he wants to say 'hi' to Vân. “She isn't here yet. I'll come back later.”
A half hour later I spot her. She is small. Very small, and even though she wears high heels, you could fail to see her. But the commotion surrounding her gives her position away. Her personal space is a busy place. Students come up to her for a chat, a hug, or asking for a button to be sewn on a jacket. “You've put on weight,” she's likely to tell them.
She is a bundle of contradictions. Very busy yet with all the time in the world for a chat. Small in stature, sweet-natured yet dominant. She can listen for hours, but is also decisive. Strict but fair, that's the person they know her to be. At our first meeting she talks about students who come and drink cocktails with her. And about her first tailoring company - ‘De Oost’ (The East) - that she built up alongside her studies in psychology at VU in Amsterdam, and which was stolen from under the nose after five years by her ex-business partner. And about the fishing boat on which her father arranged for his family to flee Vietnam's Mekong delta region. That was in 1985, when she was a little girl aged just five.
And then: “I don't like talking. It has become my strength, but really, Vietnamese people don't like talking.”
Something else she doesn't like is commerce. And yet her company is the reason that Vân Nguyên is here in Auditorium, and that many students want to be at her side. Sum - Consulting & Tailoring is the name she has given her second company. “Sum means ‘I am’ and it also refers to counting. I am a sum of character traits and external features."
She not only makes suits, she also gives training. What kind of training, I venture to ask. She looks at me in a way that I don't often experience: ‘Do you really not know that a suit cannot be worn without some explanation of etiquette and how to make a representative impression?’ her expressive eyes tell me. I didn't know.
“Before a fitting, in Amsterdam, I ask the students to come up with five key values they all feel apply to their board.” Koen Jongejan from Japie (study association Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, actually T.S.V. Jan-Pieter Minckelers) is with us in his cobalt blue suit. He still recalls that laagdremplig (approachable) was one of the words his group mentioned. “Really? Did I let that go?” laughs Vân. “I bet I suggested ‘open’ or ‘accessible’ instead.” That Japie is wearing cobalt blue radiates the message that these board members are youthful, fresh, and gutsy. “Don't I make you believe that?” Talking all the while, Vân pulls Koen's jacket straight. To me: “When Koen walks by, people should think, ‘What a powerful young man’ not ‘What a nice suit’.”
Vân is a ‘bespoke tailor’. That means her chats with the client inform the clothing she makes. “Tell me who you are, and I'll make you a product that suits you.” Student board members face a dilemma, she thinks. “They must radiate that they are capable and will behave professionally, and they must inspire trust. At the same time, to their association members they must radiate conviviality and accessibility.”
Then a former board member of the Recruitment Days committee walks past wearing a jumper. While he's happy to divulge that the jacket Vân made for him no longer fits, embarrassment keeps him from telling me his name. The pants still fit though; Vân always measures below the future beer belly. “I remember Vân saying that way the pants would continue to fit, and thinking that I'd never get as fat as all that.” But undeniably a board year takes its toll. There's less time for sport. You get home late and it's easier to order in food than to cook. And all that beer. It happens to almost everyone. On average a board member is a third-year aged about 21. “Every month adds another kilo,” Vân knows from experience. Women find their bust increases, their hips broaden, and their waist slims down, she sums up. “Many times a suit no longer fits at the end of a board year.”
But after a board suit, she can also make a work suit. And it has even been known for students to return to her for a wedding suit. That brings Vân enjoyment. “It is rewarding work when you can assist them at each important moment of their lives.”
Vân feels like a big sister to the students. I have heard her say 'kids', but she prefers to call them ‘young ladies and young gentlemen’. “They hug me, and yet we still have a business agreement. They are the leaders of the future. They don't yet realize how much power they have. I show them a reflection of what they don't yet see. And whatever is reflected I can embody in a suit.” That is her strength: “I get a strong impression of the person, and I reflect. I do no more than that, ha ha.”
Not exactly nothing; she takes measurements, chooses fabrics, gives advice, and creates the design. The sewing is done in Vietnam where she now has seventeen tailors working for her. “Seventeen men listen to me.” She visits them every year.
And on top of all that, she will also sew on a button if someone asks her to. After all, she always carries a needle and thread.
Top photo | Bart van Overbeeke
Vân: “For student boards we have a special offer with good quality fabric. Strong and affordable for a student budget. A board year is already expensive enough, they always complain. As a rule, a board orders a suit and vest with an extra pair of trousers or skirt, and a shirt.”
A two-piece suit costs € 300, an extra pair of trousers or skirt or vest costs € 100. For a bespoke shirt or blouse you'll pay € 70. “The ladies at Protagoras and CHEOPS also had dresses made last year, for 200 euros a piece, so sexy. Not that they'll ever admit that's how they look, mind you.”
Red vest for Lucid's 'Radiant Red' board
“We are satisfied with the suits, apart from the fact that, oddly enough, they have become a little tighter as our board year is progressing. Most of the compliments about our suits concern the daring, but certainly good, choice of the red vest. What we want to express as administrative officers is creativity and professionalism.”
Lucid, Kevin Bekker
The boisterousness of Japie's sixtieth board
“We feel extremely comfortable in the suits, and they look neat and manly. We do wonder whether the suits shrink, or whether we ourselves grow in girth a tad during an administrative officer year. The cooperation with Vân is still a great success. As soon as there is anything wrong, you know that you can simply send her an app or drop by at the Career Expo event.
The day when we had to fit our suits in Amsterdam, we were over an hour early due to a miscommunication. Vân subsequently escorted us outside and over a beer, some sandwiches and fresh meat and cheese we were positioned on a bench along an Amsterdam canal. She gives very useful advice. According to Vân, the last thing we needed to do was decide on black suits. That would be especially for old bankers or businessmen who have got stuck in a rut. The bright blue color of our suits, says Vân, expresses the youth and boisterousness of us as the persons we are. We definitely agree with that. Of course, while we ourselves think that we look very important indeed, it is above all the bright color of the suits that clearly displays our friendliness and openness.”
Japie, Bart van den Bersselaar
Three-piece greyish blue for CHEOPS
“The suits are really to our taste and of good quality. The service is very good as well as totally personal. Vân is a fun person and was a positive surprise during the first fitting session. Although we thought it would boil down to taking a few measurements and choosing a fabric, the session actually involved a conscious choice of the presentation of an association and the executive officers of that association. We were told some beautiful stories about the difference between Rabobank and ABN AMRO, about corporate cultures and the kind of suits that go with them (Rabobank is an agricultural loan bank and wears dark blue suits, open to change. ABN AMRO is a corporate bank and wears three-piece black suits). We decided on three-piece greyish blue.”
CHEOPS, Joris van der Zwet
Thor radiates coolness
“A bespoke suit seems a bit confrontational for the physical change that some of us go through during our year in office. They cost us a small fortune, but fortunately we have some sidelines to make up for that…. My grandmother thinks I look like a proper gentleman, and our girlfriends find us super sexy in our suits. So we have done a good deal, all considered. Vân actually managed to handle our loutish humor quite well. She says we radiate that we are cool, but of course we were so even before we had the suits.”
Thor, Laurens Kok
Recognizability and openness for Recruitment days
“The suits are very narrowly cut, so that they are sometimes a bit tight, but this does make the wearer look smooth. The blue color of our suits makes an open and approachable impression. At our events I was often asked – because of the combination with my handheld transceiver - whether I was one of the security people, but ‘m sure my stern appearance is to blame for that. Also, it is a conspicuous color for a suit, and we appeared to be clearly recognizable among the crowd attending our business fair.”
Recruitment days, Jan IJzerman
Protagoras radiates pride
“We really like the suits and they are very comfortable. They look good on us and we radiate pride. In these suits we represent our association properly.”
Protagoras, Jesper Schouren
Industria: professionals with responsability
“We want to present ourselves as professionals with responsibility, because we have an exemplary role. The suits are found to be very neat and we like them a lot. The cooperation with Vân was excellent, she was always very cheerful, though a touch chaotic sometimes.”
Industria, Tara Veldhuizen
Suits that represent change for Simon Stevin
“Our suit represents a fresh, new administration. Of course, we are a group of students and an administrative year involves a lot of change. This is what our suit should radiate, then. The color is rather light, it fits snugly and you can see that everybody wears it with pride. It is quite cool, naturally to wear a three-piece suit as a student (surely that is not usual for every student in his early twenties) and it looks good. The suits are quite tight, but they really bring out the whole group to advantage. It so happens we have chosen the same fabric as CHEOPS.
The cooperation with Vân went smoothly, although she can occasionally be quite direct. Vân has a distinct opinion on how things work in the world of fashion, which you suddenly tumble into when you order three-piece suits.”
Simon Stevin, Lex Veberne
'Stewardess blue' for GEWIS
“If you ever need a direct opinion, it’s Vân you turn to. Our cooperation was good, we call her working method friendly professionalism. Now and then she is in Eindhoven for a day and she received us presenting a glass of gin. On that day we could be measured for our suits and decide on a color. Some time later she came back so that we could actually fit the suits. This was done at a central location for several associations, because she is the person with whom many associations order their suits.
A five-year-old nephew of one of our administrative officers thought we looked like stewardesses in our suits.”
GEWIS, Guido Janssen
Purple ties radiate warmth at Intermate
“The suits are of a good quality and still fit perfectly today. Especially in combination with our purple ties, we are told that we look very professional and that they radiate a certain warmth. Of course any board would be glad to hear this.
Vân is a congenial woman who knows her business very well indeed. When we got our suits, she had forgotten to have them dry-cleaned in advance, but to make up for this we were presented with novelty pocket square handkerchiefs with our logo printed on them. Very considerate and awesome!”
Intermate, Bert van Gestel
Once you've met Vân, you've experienced she doesn't just tailor a suit for you, but gives you a free personal analysis on the go too. Surely we can't end this article without Vân giving all students some last tips and tricks.
1. The first impression is everything and is made in the very first second you meet someone. The way you look and dress are of great importance at this point. Trust me: your résumé comes in second.
3. Never underestimate the power of colours
Red stands for active, assertive and adventurous. However, if more than 70% of your clothes is red, the association would be one of aggressive, demanding and impatient.
Black resonates discretion, reserve, detachment and a sense of ceremony.Too much black results in a static, rigid and dull presentation.
Blue means merciful, reliable and civilized. More than seventy percent blue, though, can create a depressed and compelling impression.
4. Devote attention to the following questions:
What is your goal today; application, internship or presentation? What is the image of the company where you are? What type of client will you be meeting? Who are you and how do you want to present yourself?