HO CHI MINH CITY — The fact that a helipad catering to multi-millionaires cantilevers from the 52nd floor of a skyscraper housing more than 50,000 square metres of office and retail space is ironic enough in a city whose name was erased 40 years ago in order to invoke the spirit of a Marxist-Communist revolutionary.

But the irony levels reach still greater heights when it becomes apparent that the Bitexco Financial Tower has been specifically designed to flaunt its helipad. So conspicuous is the platform — protruding from the building, a full 16 storeys below the structure’s tapered pinnacle — that one can’t help but gape up at it from virtually every neighbourhood across this smoggy and gridlocked but charming metropolis, formerly known as Saigon.

For their part, the architects have suggested that the tower’s shape is a tribute to Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus, but sceptics would be forgiven for thinking that the building’s design was little more than a simple nod to the sky-high rewards awaiting those able to make a capitalist’s fortune in what is still a single-party communist state (one of only four left on the planet).

But the contradictions don’t end there. After disembarking from their private aircrafts, uber-wealthy shoppers need not go far before entering Icon68, which the building’s developers describe as “an unprecedented shopping experience.” There’s just one discrepancy: almost every fashion tenant in the complex is positioned at the lower end of the market — mostly international high street brands like Mango, Warehouse and Topshop.

In fact, the vast majority of the brands found at Icon68 are controlled by just one local Vietnamese partner, Maison Joint Stock Company (Maison JSC), which works with Accessorize, Coast, Karen Millen and a number of other inexpensive labels, as well as at least two luxury accessory brands, Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo, although notably neither of these companies have stores at Icon68. Instead, Louboutin’s boutique is located in Ho Chi Minh City’s more established luxury stomping ground around Dong Khoi Street, while Jimmy Choo has set up shop in the sparkling Vincom Center shopping mall where brands of all price points and persuasions somehow seem to mingle well enough together.

In emerging and mature markets alike, it’s quite common to rent prime retail space to brands in clusters, according to the local partner or multinational group to which they belong. And although in places like Vietnam — where consumer sophistication is often evolving at several different levels and speeds simultaneously — it’s not unusual to rent a whole retail complex to just a couple of local partners, the cases of both Icon68 and Maison JSC paint a somewhat puzzling picture for international brands aiming to penetrate the Vietnamese fashion market.

“Vietnam is an incredible country with a marketplace that absolutely loves international brands. But they face a lack of knowledge about what makes a brand special, so I think there is a consumer awareness challenge that many companies must acknowledge when operating here,” says Collin Crowell, the Ho Chi Minh-based managing director of Ringier Vietnam, a subsidiary of Swiss global media group Ringier. “This is normal for an emerging market. But on a larger economic level, Vietnam would benefit from eliminating graft and corruption and fostering more competition.”

According to local sources and the news site TalkVietnam.com, just three years ago a Vietnamese importer of Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and several other Italian brands called Nam De Company — distributing through its multibrand retail store Milano and a monobrand Gucci boutique — was investigated for tax evasion, causing both shops to be shuttered. Gucci later reopened and Milano’s distribution rights were restructured and passed on to new owners deemed more credible: Gia Phat Hung (GPH) and managers DX Fashion. Then, less than 10 months ago, a 20-foot container of merchandise with Gucci, Valentino and Galliano labels was seized from yet another importer, Ton Nguyen Co. Ltd, by customs officials making similar allegations.

The country’s murky operating environment seems to affect media businesses too. Due to Vietnam’s opaque press laws and the government’s stringent control over the publishing industry, media outlets of all kinds have to be affiliated with politically endorsed organisations or institutions. Through its own government-approved partner, Ringier Vietnam has effectively — but not officially — operated Elle Vietnam (Elle Phai Dep) since 2010, as part of its stable of local women’s lifestyle magazines, including Thoi Trang Tre and Yeu Bep Gia Dinh. Although most multinational publishers with fashion magazines have been understandably slow to enter the market, things have finally begun to pick up this year.

Hearst Magazines International launched a Vietnamese print and iPad edition of Esquire earlier this spring, in partnership with Sun Flower Media, with whom it already partners to publish Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar in the country. But the decade-long gap between the initial arrival of luxury retailers and the more recent arrival of international fashion magazines did leave room for a handful of indigenous publishers, like Le Media JSC, to develop a couple of relatively sophisticated fashion titles like Dep, complete with popular online companion editions.

“When Louis Vuitton set foot in Vietnam all those years ago, there must have been a reason,” says Tran Thi Hoai Anh who, after witnessing the early success of marquee brands 10 to 15 years ago, decided to set up her own luxury retail distribution enterprise in 2006. Called Globallink Co Ltd, Tran’s company is the franchisee operating monobrand boutiques for luxury brands such as Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Loewe and the parent company of four multibrand stores in Ho Chi Minh City (in Vincom Center, Diamond Plaza and Crescent Mall) and one in Hanoi (Suncity Tower). Tran’s futuristic multibrand concept store, Runway, stocks labels as diverse as Alexander McQueen, Vionnet, Maison Martin Margiela, Lanvin and Viktor & Rolf, while her more affordable but lavishly decorated RRR boutiques focus on diffusion lines, designer childrenswear and upmarket contemporary labels.

“Vietnam has been changing so fast, you can’t even recognise it. The last five years mark the coming of many more big fashion brands and the market is becoming seriously challenging for everyone. There is a huge potential, but it is not an easy market. No official statistics can truly help us measure its growth and maturity yet, so we can only ever really estimate how the competition is performing,” Tran continues.

Having opened its first store in Vietnam in 1997 at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, which became an early luxury hub in the country’s capital city, Louis Vuitton was one of the earliest fashion brands to set up shop in Vietnam. The brand opened a second store in Ho Chi Minh City ten years later. A third store bowed this summer in Hanoi’s neo-colonial style shopping centre Trang Tien Plaza. With neighbours like Dior, Burberry, Cartier, Bulgari and Ermenegildo Zegna, the mall’s newest tenant seems testament to the country’s voracious appetite for big brands at the top end of the luxury pyramid.

“Hanoians are more likely willing to spend for luxury products — iconic pieces easy to recognise like the Lady Dior, LV monogram or Chanel 2.55 for their social image — while Saigonese (residents of Ho Chi Minh City) prefer the latest trends and easy to wear pieces,” explains Nguyen Thuy Linh, managing editor of Elle Vietnam. “Hanoi (in the north) has four seasons, so people there tend to be more well-dressed. Ho Chi Minh (in the south) has only two seasons, dry and wet but hot all-year-long, so people prefer light materials, simple cuts, more vibrant items — no coats or boots. But they’re both afraid of the heat and sunshine so they always cover themselves like a ninja when on the street.”

Vietnam’s prospects are largely positive but come with caveats. Euromonitor International forecasts that Vietnam’s apparel market will have almost doubled in the five years from 2012 to 2017, reaching $4.2 billion. A July report by the global market research firm concluded that “in 2012, apparel continued to perform well despite the current economic downturn in Vietnam which tightened consumers’ spending, although the growth in both retail volume and value were lower than in 2011 but that the economy is expected to recover in a couple of years.”

The fashion sector seems to mirror the bigger economic picture. The World Bank’s July update indicated relatively stable macroeconomic conditions, but mixed signs from foreign investors, notably a decline FDI/GDP ratio which is a key indicator representing the proportion of foreign director investment in terms of the overall size of a country’s economy . The IMF lowered its projection for Vietnam’s growth to 5.2 percent this year from 5.8 percent previously, blaming slow reforms in banking and state companies.

“The two next years will not be easy,” concedes Tran of Globallinks. “It’s commonly said that the luxury segment is still capable of growth, but with more competitors coming in and a market unwilling to spend in this uncertain economy, there will be a great challenge for everyone. Customers are well informed and attracted to brands but they naturally have a strong tendency to save instead of spend when the environment is risky… On the bright side, the economy is still growing, but the past two years have been more difficult. Still, mega malls have opened and are attracting more and more consumers looking for new brands in all segments, starting from mass through middle-range to luxury. And big investments are being made in real estate. These don’t happen without a reason.”

Vietnam’s fashion retail top tier is occupied by a handful of powerful operators, meaning international brands are still rather limited in their choice of local partners. Once a duty-free operator, Imex Pan Pacific Group (IPP) has transformed itself into a giant in the market and recently transformed the Rex Arcade inside the Rex Hotel into a luxurious shopping centre. It also serves as a showcase for many of the brands that the firm distributes including Chanel, Burberry, Cartier, Rolex, Salvatore Ferragamo and Ralph Lauren. Alongside Keppel Land and Indochina Land, IPP has become a leading player in developing commercial spaces suitable for fashion retail — including mass market brands like Gap and Banana Republic.

Both multi-sector conglomerates like Openasia Group (partner for Hermès, Chopard and Kenzo) and specialists like DX Fashion (partner for Canali, Escada, Etro and owner of multibrand boutique Luala) and the Four Seasons Group (partner for Valentino, Moschino and owner of Bon Mua multibrands) are considered IPP’s main contenders. Parkson’s eight department stores across the country are also a force to be reckoned with, selling brands at all tiers of the market, and anchoring some of the most coveted real estate including Vietnam’s tallest building, the 72-story Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower in Hanoi.

The main obstacle to a fully flourishing fashion market in Vietnam, according to many observers, is that this handful of power players limits the emergence of a truly competitive environment. Others like Crowell of Ringier Vietnam sees brand awareness as a fundamental hurdle. Tran of Globallinks, however, believes there is something else at work.

“The biggest challenge is psychology,” she says. “Culturally, there has always been high brand awareness in Vietnam, but the creation of lifestyles around that is still a new phenomenon. Fashion needs to be backed up by art, architect, history and so on. So, education and access to information allow people to learn a lot about fashion, but the communities driven by these inspirations and lifestyles are still young and need to be developed. There’s no really exciting style culture here yet.”

Nevertheless, there are more than enough reasons to remain excited about Vietnam, at least in terms of potential profits. According to Bain & Company’s May 2013 update to its Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, Vietnam’s luxury market alone is worth €300 million (about $405 million, at current exchange rates). The number of high net worth individuals (HNWIs) is forecast to increase by 85 percent in the coming decade, according to The 2013 Wealth Report by Knight Frank Research. Vietnamese with (reported) assets of over $30 million will reach 344 by 2022.

Moreover, Euromonitor estimates that over the past five years, the number of affluent households in Vietnam (those with annual disposable incomes of over $75,000) has already more than doubled from 36,600 in 2007 to 81,300 in 2012. This year the number is projected to reach nearly 100,000. And it’s not all down to numbers either. Michael von Schlippe, Robb Report Singapore’s publisher at Indochine Media Ventures, was reportedly very bullish about Vietnam’s luxury market at the magazine’s Asia Luxury Summit earlier this year characterising its potential as “huge”.

Crowell too remains optimistic over the mid-to-long term: “High end fashion… will need to continue courting the ultra-wealthy to generate great sales, while continuing to invest in media campaigns to educate larger audiences as they mature in wealth. Now is the time of educating the consumer and laying the groundwork for great returns ahead. What I continue to be impressed by is the relative youth of the Vietnamese people. It’s a very young population and they are consuming social media, smartphones, pop culture and much more at incredible speeds. You can see this energy rumbling through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi every day,” he says.

The population of greater Hanoi stands around 6.5 million, just a million less than Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital. With 90 million people around the country (twice as much as Spain and many more millions than Germany), Vietnam’s ever increasing income levels make it a lucrative prospect despite the somewhat cautious sentiment held by many based in Vietnam itself. Elle Vietnam‘s Nguyen even sees potential outside the two major cities. “For the middle market or the likes of H&M and Forever 21, it could work especially well in Da Nang. Also, beach cities like Nha Trang and Vung Tau attract lots of tourists, and they do have shopping malls but there aren’t many brands there yet though,” she says.

Vietnam is a country that only truly opened its economy seven years ago by joining the Word Trade Organization after the ‘doi moi’ market liberalising reforms in 1980s and 1990s. Keeping in mind that it only reunified 40 years ago after decades of calamitous war causing millions of deaths and destruction, suffered an invasion by Japan and was dominated by a century of French colonial rule before that, it is more than understandable that the country requires some special attention.

“Brands should be ready to expect the unexpected, be flexible and adaptable to cultural differences. For non-mega brands, it all comes down to finding the right way to build up a community based on a close-knit relationship. Word of mouth is very important in Vietnam, and the recommendation of one good customer weighs more than hundreds of pages in press. But networking and relying on influential partners is the key to success,” says Tran.

By Robb Young - The Business of Fashion - October 16, 2013