Hard at work in her office at the top of a candy-coloured rococo building in downtown Hanoi, Christina Yu is thinking about colour and shape and line and texture. Four floors down, the Ipa-Nima showroom is bursting with her rainbow creations: handbags in hues as varied as burgundy, olive green, deep purple, hot pink and scarlet; embellished with appliqué, feathers, metal studs, buckles, embroidery, fur, and fabric trimming.
The Ipa-Nima empire stretches worldwide, employing seamstresses, sales staff and factory workers in locations as far afield as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh city, Hong Kong, the US and Tokyo. Yu’s Ipa-Nima handbags have featured in international fashion magazines from Vogue to Marie-Claire, and they have adorned the shoulders of fashionable celebrities, Dutch royalty, and even one of the most powerful women in the world: Hillary Clinton.
Once a successful litigator in the high-pressure world of corporate Hong Kong, Yu now has to balance a life crammed with a yin-yang of industry and creativity, as well as finding time for her artistic and musical pursuits, her passion for travel, and her love of dining. Wearing a buttercup yellow dress and elegant slip-on shoes, she grins broadly and say her life mix is about right. “I work hard and play hard. It’s just that I am those lucky few – that when I play it actually enhances both quality and the creativity of my work.”
When she is away from Vietnam, Yu spends as much time as possible soaking up art; going to exhibitions and installations, visiting galleries and museums. She is a stern critic, intolerant of repetition or lack of originality, and she likes the cutting edge of creativity. Vietnamese galleries, she explains, rarely feature really avant-garde art installations. In Tokyo, New York and London she keeps an eye on the fashion on the streets – a spike-haired teen in a crinoline fills her with joy; and she likes art-house films, as much for their aesthetic ethic as for the story line. And as counterpoint to this sheer delight in the arts world is her business acumen and her ability to hold together a global business based in a country where she is not a native.
“I like travelling,” she says. “I find that being in Vietnam, it’s very closed to the outside world. There are very limited resources. You don’t see the fashion coming out. You see more in Ho Chi Minh City than Hanoi; the people there are more fashionable. But it’s a very pretty, bling-bling type of look.”
Yu’s interest in fashion blossomed in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Juggling the demands of her legal career, she managed to find the time to write about style trends for “City” magazine, even using all her annual leave to go to fashion shows. Married to an Australian lawyer, she moved to Hanoi to join him in 1995 and started looking about her for a different kind of employment, something removed from the legal field; something that would satisfy her artistic leanings.
Accessories appealed to her, she says, because she would not need to be concerned about sizes, and in Vietnam she would have the field largely to herself. Her burgeoning creativity took centre stage, and Yu began to combine startling colour with new textures, producing range after range of handbags that shouted originality, adorned with intricate patterning and decorative extras. “Vietnam is very good at embellishment,” she says, thoughtfully. “In China, a lot of people are losing their skills; it’s cut and sew, cut and sew.”
Her first collection was an immediate success, but it demanded a lot of personal effort from Yu, who found herself hand-trimming the vibrant red and yellow baling strips she had chosen to make the baskets. “I created a range of rainbow-coloured baskets out of baling strips that I found on the local market, and I had orders for 10,000 to 20,000 baskets,” the 44-year-old (DOB 13-5-1966) says, laughing. “But safety regulations meant all the corners had to be rounded. I sat with my assistant in a warehouse for a week, using my scissors, rounding corners by hand.”
The days hand-trimming are long over; Yu simply wouldn’t have the time. She spends about one-third of her year travelling, criss-crossing Asia and Europe. Before the financial crisis, she went to the US every year, and she visits Hong Kong every six to eight weeks – both for business and to see her father, her 93-year-old grandmother, and a younger sister she is very close to, not to mention a crowd of aunts, uncles and cousins.
Yu’s creativity bubbles through most of her life. In Hanoi she takes art classes, revelling in the formal rules governing line and proportion. “It needs a lot of patience, but I find it quite soothing,” she says with a grin. Always ready to try something new and ever-energetic, soon Yu wants to learn sound mixing, spinning different beats and combining music; whether it be rhythm and blues, jazz, classical music or disco.
Fittingly, for a woman whose creativity marks nearly everything she does, Yu has no exercise schedule as such. She likes to maintain her remarkably trim figure by dancing a lot at parties and climbing up and down the four flights of stairs in the Ipa-Nima building in Hanoi. Luckily, she doesn’t have to watch what she eats, because dining is a passion. Yu cooks as well, regarding it as relaxation rather than a chore, and even grows herbs in a spare bathroom – if she leaves them outside they are eaten by stray cats.
“I try to find great food when I travel,” she says. “If accessories are a reflection of the wearer’s personality, great food is a reflection of a country’s culture and history, not to mention the sensibility and the passion of the creator behind it. It is a rare art form of art that appeals to all my senses. It also appeals to my adventurous side – my most memorable meal was trying blowfish in Japan, which was like playing Russian roulette on the dining table.”