I’m waiting for Kenn Smith at a chic French café so I can get measured for my suit. When he walks through the door, people turn and stare.
They stare because Kenn Smith is huge. He played American football in university and still seems like he could knock some heads on the field. He dwarfs the young waitress who escorts him to our table.
They stare because Kenn Smith is well-dressed. He wears a crisp three-piece suit, black with thin white pinstripes. Golden cuff links glitter at his wrists and his polished shoes sparkle brilliantly.
But mostly the people stare because Kenn Smith really, really looks like the Dos Equis guy.
The resemblance is no accident. As a tailor Kenn is in the business of image crafting, and he’s good at it. He has a businessman’s attention to detail, which makes sense because he was once the chief financial officer for a multinational corporation based in the US.
His business background is evident when he sits down at the table. His handshake is firm but not bone-crushing. When he speaks, his voice is deep and calm. He makes polite eye contact but doesn’t stare. Not once does he glance at his phone.
Kenn makes me feel like everything I say is interesting. It’s a practised skill.
“The most important aspect of human communication is body language and facial expression,” he explains. “You may hear a word, but that isn’t enough to tell you what the person intended. You need to see and feel the undertones.”
When Kenn talks, the rest of the room fades away like the blurry background of a photograph.
“55 percent of our communication comes from that,” he adds. “And 37 percent comes from the quality of our voice. How are we using it — are we raising it or lowering it, what’s the tone? That tells us a lot more than the words alone, also. The actual words we say only give us eight percent, which is why I don’t carry a smartphone. I prefer to communicate face to face with people.”
He’s like a professional hypnotist; I know that he’s exerting a subtle influence over me, but the effect is so pleasant that I don’t mind.
Also, although the café is full of beautiful women I find it difficult to look away from Kenn’s face. He smiles when I mention this.
“In face-to-face conversation, a suit augments the communication. It grabs the attention of your listener. If you’re wearing a dark jacket and trousers with a white shirt, it creates a natural spotlight on the face.”
He traces a V with his hands from his collarbone to mid-chest. Then he raises his wrists.
“We also want to frame our hand gestures when we talk, which is why jacket sleeves are a little bit shorter than shirt sleeves.
“If you’re dressed improperly for a situation, you’re allowing your listener’s mind to wander. People aren’t very good listeners to begin with — if they’re listening hard, they might retain 10 percent of what you’re saying. If you’re wearing something that distracts them, the percentage is even lower.”
The suit is not distracting. I think I may have retained as much as 20 percent of what he said.
The Price of Elegance
Still, the entire time Kenn is talking I’m silently worrying about money. By now I’m convinced that he can make a better suit than your typical tailor on De Tham, but I also suspect that I’d need to sell a kidney to afford one.
So I’m a little startled when he quotes a price that even an English teacher could manage. Kenn explains that I’m buying a fused-line suit, in which the lining is glued to the wool jacket shell. The price for these suits varies depending on fabric, but most fall between VND4 million and VND5 million.
If I was willing to spend VND9 million, I could walk away with a canvassed suit, which has a hand-sewn silk lining. Kenn regularly exports these to fashionable London boutiques, where they sell for over UK£1,000 (VND34 million).
He also has occasional orders for pure cashmere suits, which can run up to US$25,000 (VND530 million). I chuckle when he tells me that. Who the hell would spend that kind of money on a suit?
“Nobody in Vietnam,” Kenn says. “You’d sweat right through it.”
Apparently there are limits to the power of a suit. I order one anyway.
The Modern Gentleman
A few weeks later, I visit Kenn’s villa in District 7 to pick up my suit. His wife brings us chocolate milkshakes as we sit in the living room, watching the rain sizzle on the pavement.
Kenn’s in a three-piece suit again, seemingly oblivious to the Saigon heat. He asks me if I enjoy cigars. I say yes. This is the right answer — Kenn explains that he’s in the process of developing a new British-style gentleman’s club in Saigon. He envisions it as a modern-day salon, where members can mingle while enjoying fine whiskies and cigars.
“It’s no accident that the best known figures from the 20th century knew each other socially,” Kenn says, “and probably enjoyed cigars and whiskey together. I think that’s one thing that’s lacking here. There are a lot of great minds in Saigon, both local Vietnamese and some of the expats. But they don’t have a place where they can come together and talk without loud music and other distractions.”
I ask if he thinks there are enough rich, cigar-smoking people in Saigon to make such a club viable (personally I had my doubts). As it turns out, I was asking the wrong question.
“I don’t care who has the most money,” he says. “What I’m looking for are people who have something to contribute. Who has an idea that might be great? Can other people learn from him?”
If he’s wearing the right suit, why not?
Kenn Smith is the brains behind House of Brijuni, a Saigon-based fashion line. Find more on Facebook at facebook.com/www.brijuni.us