K-zao, a small studio on Rathbone Street in Providence, prides itself in delivering customers a distinct style of handcrafted suits: strong V-lines, peak lapels, single-breasted, one button, with a soft, natural shoulder.
Bao Vu, 26, the studio’s founder, custom tailors the one-of-a-kind bespoke commissions for a diverse clientele. Clients of Vu’s attest to garments that are strong yet simultaneously delicate, and say getting fitted is akin to dining at a high-end restaurant.
K-zao is gender-inclusive, and bills itself as “exceptionally queer.” In addition to the quality of the hand-stitched garments, which typically require little help from a machine, people seek out Vu’s work because the experience is carefully catered to the individual.
“I really think that a relationship that a person has to clothes has a lot to do with the relationship they have with themselves, their body, and their projected self-image,” Vu said. “And that’s very important, especially if you’re a queer person, trans person, or person of color, where it’s not always easy or safe to present yourself in a certain way.”
K-zao honors the vulnerability that comes with having clothes made to fit one’s body — especially around changes in physique and shifts in gender presentation, Vu said.
That’s why Vu spends time learning as much as they can about a client when taking on a new commission.
“I think about the person when I’m making the garment,” Vu said. “I like to know exactly who it’s for.”
The process of getting fitted can take up to four months, and includes several meetings with Vu. Two-piece suits start at $3,588, and take anywhere from 80 to 100 hours to make. Vu also makes 3-piece suits, sport coats, work jackets, and T shirts. Almost every seam is hand-stitched.
But there is certain level of care and attention to detail baked into the process.
“We talk, we drink. We really just get to know each other,” Vu said, adding that they pour over hundreds of swatches — or fabric samples — and discuss designs. “I don’t want to rush anything.”
Vu grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam, where there are custom tailors on every street. Much of their personal look was influenced by their mother and grandmother.
“They have to dress professionally, but always have to have their ‘fit be spotless and crease-less,” Vu said. “I like that look. But I’m also not one to be constrained. I want to have a little playfulness in it.”
“Grandma Suit,” an all-white oversized linen suit ensemble inspired by Vu’s grandmother, was part of one of K-zao’s first capsule collections, or key looks, from 2021.
K-zao is pronounced “ka-zao,” phonetically similar to “ca dao” — a Vietnamese word for folk songs, Vu said. The name is an homage to a movement among Vietnamese modernist and post-colonialist Vietnamese poets and writers in the 1940s to 1960s, “who experimented with the way language is written alternatively from the Franco-Vietnamese alphabet.”
“By naming the studio K-zao, I’m projecting a fresh new perspective on the historical craft of tailoring,” they said.
Vu, who has a cluster of sketches displayed in the studio next to archive black-and-white photography from Vietnam, only works with natural and ethically-sourced materials, including various blends of wool, silk, and linen. K-zao partners with small mills in Europe and emphasizes sustainable, “very slow” fashion.
Considering Rhode Island’s history — it’s home to the Slater Mill, the first successful water-powered, cotton-spinning mill in America, built in Pawtucket in 1793 — Vu called their craft “kind of poetic.”
“Being in Rhode Island, making clothes by hand, in a place that’s so historically rich with textile manufacturing. It’s really a privilege,” Vu said.
For Vu, their favorite part of the process is getting the garment ready for a first fitting — when it’s still “barely a garment” — and seeing a client’s reaction.
”You’re drafting something on paper and transferring it on to a few different layers of fabrics. And now you get to see how it’s going to fit them,” Vu said. “That’s very special to me.”
Vu said they have a lot of conversations with clients where it’s their first experience getting something made for them. In some cases, the moment has been so powerful, clients have left the studio crying happy tears.
“I have people who are in their 40s and they finally have something that fits them that they feel good in,” Vu said.
When it comes to doing the work, Vu finds the sewing process meditative. They sometimes listen to music and podcasts, but if it’s at the stage of finishing or making button holes — intricate details of the design — “it’s usually silence.”
Vu currently works with one other employee, and has about eight commissions to complete by the end of this year alone. In the three years K-zao has been in business, Vu has been blown away by the feedback.
“Tailors that I have looked up to for years are sending me messages about my work, like, ‘Wow, you’re in Providence? Where even is Providence?’” Vu said, laughing.
Over the summer, Derek Guy, a menswear writer with over 500,000 followers on social media, posted about K-zao, pointing to the “impressive level of handwork.”
“The in-breast pocket is done with a technique called ‘sculpt facing,’ which gives the pocket a stronger baste to sit in,” Guy wrote. “If the pocket ever rips, you can repair it without replacing the lining. This takes more work to make than the more common pocket style.”
Guy called the labor-intensive level of detail “unusual to see” today, because most customers “don’t care and few are able to recognize” it.
“But when you see it, it shows the tailor did something for the sake of the craft,” he wrote.
Clients of Vu’s have also attested to the carefulness of Vu’s talents. James Mark commissioned a K-zao suit and additional jacket.
“It fits like no other piece of clothing,” Mark wrote in a testimonial. “It’s simultaneously solid and delicate; I wear [it] on the subway, I wear it to the office, I wear it to dinner.”
Another customer found a unique comfort in stepping into the delicately stitched clothing.
“[Vu] listens from the heart,” the person wrote, “and will make you a garment that makes you feel like the best version of yourself.”