Tran Thuy is living her best life, working for herself and making a living off her two passions: leather and motorcycles.

“Working for someone, no matter how highly that person thinks of you, means you have to live up to their expectations,” she said.

“I prefer the freedom to make things I love instead of the confinement of an office space and predictable salary.”  

Command and conquer

“I developed a passion for leather when I was in college,” Thuy said.

“I used the Internet to learn more about it and found it to be quite interesting. At that time, leather craft in Vietnam was nowhere near as common as it is now.”  

Thuy’s passion for leather led to several job offers.

According to Thuy, working for others had several upsides, including learning about management, but overall, the four years she spent as an employee, rather than an employer, left her with a bad taste in her mouth.

“Two employers refused to pay me for work I had done,” she recalled.

“I managed to get my money in one of those situations, but had to give up in the other because it became too exhausting.”

Now, as a manager herself, Thuy makes sure not to repeat the mistakes of those she has worked for.

“Ever since I started my business, I’ve made it a point to stick to payroll deadlines. I sometimes even pay my staff early.”

Thuy believes a friendly work environment is the key to motivating the 12 designers and craftsmen that work out of her shop in an alley of Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City.

“I listen to them and make sure they have a comfortable workplace that they can consider as a second home,” she said.

“We need to have a positive mindset if we want to offer positive values to our customers.”

The positive values are how she proves to customers she is worthy of caring for the high-value motorcycles, including Harely Davidsons, Honda CD 125s, Triumphs, Royal Enfields, BMWs, and Kawasakis.

Besides leather products for bikes, Tran Thuy also designs leather armor suits for entertainment events and movies. Photo: Le Van / Tuoi Tre
Besides leather products for bikes, Tran Thuy also designs leather armor suits for entertainment events and movies. Photo: Le Van / Tuoi Tre

Luong Anh Thuan, an owner of a Honda CD 125, is a loyal customer at Thuy’s shop.

“I saw her ads on a biker group and contacted her,” he said.

After visiting Thuy’s shop, Thuan was so impressed by her work that he asked her to reupholster the seat on his bike.

“I watched her at work and I believed in her. She’s creative and she builds the final products to her customers’ needs,” he said.

Over the years, Thuy has found it easier and easier to earn the trust of her customers.

“The owner [of the first expensive bike I worked on] was watching very closely. He didn’t even want my fingerprint on the gas tank,” she said.

“Eventually, he came around and asked me to do all the leather work on. He even recommended me to his friends.”

Hoang Hai Thoai, a Harley Davidson owner, is also one of Thuy’s faithful customers.

“Original accessories are limited and mundane. People like Thuy offer a wider variety and more artistic options,” he said

“I love the work she does,” Thoai added.

Thuy’s success is due, in large part, to her dedication to quality.

Though such dedication occasionally means missed deadlines because a piece is not perfect, her customers still appreciate her work and are typically willing to wait extra time for a perfectly made product.

But despite her success, her shop has not been spared from the economic devastation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Rent, payroll, and tools amount to more than VND100 million [US$4,350] per month,” she said.

“We’ve been on edge for quite a while. There have been many months that we’ve spent more than we’ve earned, and many others we’ve merely broken even.”

Restrictions on movement due to the pandemic have not helped either.

“My neighborhood has been placed under quarantine,” Thuy said.

“It’s been difficult, but we’re trying to finish our pending order. I have two employees here to help me and the others work from home. Our landlord has also been helpful by slightly reducing rent.”

Building a homegrown brand

Thuy hopes that by incorporating Vietnamese culture into her work, she can continue attracting customers who appreciate traditional values.

In this way, she hopes to continue growing her businesses and her passion.

“Some of my customers purchased things from overseas at a much higher cost without any insurance or after-sales services,” Thuy said.

“I want to make a name for myself, but I also hope that the Vietnamese people switch to Vietnamese products and believe in the hard work of their fellow nationals.”

Aside from leather motorbike accessories, Thuy also makes purses and jackets.

She has even tried her hand at armored suits for the entertainment and movie industry.

When she is not busy at her shop, she works as a visiting lecturer at her alma mater, Ton Duc Thang University, giving lectures on craft design to industrial fine arts students.

“I always try to help graduate students with their final projects,” she said, explaining that many of her employees are college students.

“I’ve found that those who do internships at my shop tend to choose leatherwork for their graduation projects and future careers.”

Huynh Minh Tien, a senior in the industrial fine art faculty of Ton Duc Thang University, is one of the many students who is thankful for Thuy’s mentorship.

“I’ve learnt so much from Thuy. She’s an inspiration for my future career,” Tien said.  

In return for her help, many college students have also offered to lend a hand to Thuy as she struggles to stay afloat during the pandemic, providing shipping and customer services.

“[My university students] talk to me a lot and are willing to help with my financial issues,” she said.

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