Tailor shop stitches together a three-decade legacy of fine craft

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(Right) Uyen “Wendy” Trinh, owner of Van Tailor, with seamstress Mei Yu “Susan” Chen busy at work in the shop. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

For 30 years, the shop at 987 South Coast Hwy. near Thalia Street has been a tailoring and alterations establishment run by Vietnamese-American immigrants. In 2017, Van Thanh Vu, owner of Van Tailor for 24 years, knew that he didn’t have much longer to live. Advanced lung cancer caused him to intermittently close up shop, resulting in his customers going elsewhere. Although he preferred that the shop remain one where locals could have custom items made and clothing professionally tailored, he knew he was running out of time. He was prepared to alter the pattern and accept an offer from a different type of business.

This could have meant the demise of yet another longtime resident-serving Laguna business. But it turned out to be a happy succession story when a friend introduced Vu to Uyen “Wendy” Trinh.

Knowing he was ill, Trinh started working with Vu to help him finish up his customer orders ––and to see if the shop was a good fit. During the weeks in the store, she became enamored of the cool ocean breezes and the friendly people who stopped in. When Trinh expressed interest in purchasing and taking over Vu’s shop, he was pleased, even though she expressed trepidation that the rent would be a struggle.

“Don’t worry,” Vu said. “It will all work out for you.”

Although Trinh’s family fretted that the shop had parking challenges and light foot traffic, she was confident she could build a loyal client base.

“And I loved the view,” she said.

Trinh learned English attending high school in Vietnam. Upon immigrating to Orange County in 2010, she started a college course in fashion design. She quickly realized she had far more experience and knowledge than her fellow students. Rather than complete more years of work-study, Trinh decided to take a job in a high-end Newport Beach tailoring shop. She worked there for six years, doing tailor work for customers and the luxury boutique A’maree’s. She then switched jobs, moving to a Dana Point tailoring and alterations shop. There, she worked for a year alongside the expert seamstress she then hired at Van Tailor, Mei Yu “Susan” Chen.

Trinh had just started reestablishing a steady clientele when COVID-19 hit. She credits her generous landlord and a retail neighbor, Kerry Cassill of lala, with seeing her through the lockdown.

“Kerry came in my store and liked the mask I was wearing. She asked me if I had made it,” Trinh said. “I said yes. She began placing orders for masks. She ordered more than 1,000 masks from me, plus pillows and umbrellas.”

Constructed from lala’s popular signature floral fabric, the items Trinh made were in high demand at Cassill’s store and online. Cassill turned lala’s mask sales into a charitable effort, donating $6,000 in sales proceeds to various nonprofit organizations. Trinh sewed every one of those masks since Chen was stuck in her native Taiwan for two years during the pandemic lockdown and only recently returned to the U.S.

“I’m so happy to be back!” Chen exclaimed with a broad smile, seated at her sewing machine.

Each workday, to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, Trinh and her cheerful seamstress greet a steady stream of clients, some new, others who fondly recall Vu’s fine skills. Like Van, the two women can efficiently repair, hem, and tailor clothing to a custom fit, including bridal gowns. They also love the challenge of rendering any type of expensive fabric –– fur, wool, leather, silk –– into a bespoke garment that will become a wardrobe favorite.

The spirit of Van Tailor shop carries on.

Van Tailor is located at 987 S. Coast Highway. Phone: (949) 494-7171

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