When you’re on a team, there is room to be comfortable. Once you’re out on your own, everything falls onto your shoulders. Depending on who you are, this can be daunting or extremely exciting. Vietnamese-Canadian artist Tam Vu sits on the side of excitement having set out on his own, only a little over a year ago, after spending most of his time with different teams in the creative fashion industry. Now on a mission to bring the stories of his native country to North America through a fashion and lifestyle goods import business and visual art, Tam is keeping very busy and having fun doing it. We had the pleasure of speaking with Tam about his business, setting out on his own, how he stays motivated and authentic through his work and his keys to finding the secret sauce that can take any creator to new heights.
Hey Tam! Can you talk about the purpose behind your TKV business?
I was starting to burn out at the design studio I was working at and it was difficult not to notice that the racist micro aggressions were becoming more and more overt in my daily life during the pandemic.
Like, I know racism exists. It didn’t go away while I was too busy head-down-pedal-to-the-metal working. I faced micro aggressions on the daily – but I had learned to deal/cope with it by not giving it any energy otherwise I would just be angry all the time, and I just didn’t have the bandwidth, or personality, for that
When the pandemic hit, like many others, I had the time and privilege to reflect on what was going on personally and professionally.
This sounds so egocentric... but I thought about how unique and un-unique I was. My whole environment and context of being Vietnamese, being Canadian, belonging, not belonging, working in design and culture, skateboarding, basketball, my life experiences, language, code switching, on and on, makes me a unique person, but I also share a lot of the same challenges and experiences that other diaspora (Vietnamese or not) face.
With this line of thinking, I wanted to create something for others like me. I wanted to create a framework that could both support an artistic practice and also support my golf addiction… and to do it in a way that I could still sleep at night. I wanted to create something that I never had when I was younger, something Vietnamese, something ______, something in-between, something – maybe not to look up to – but just something that existed.
I want a 12 year old me to look at this project and be like WOW this is so sick, but also if the 12 year old me sees this project and thinks WOW this is so suck, I can do this, but better. That for me, is just as amazing. That’s why it was important to have my Vietnamese name be front facing, so people know – it’s Vietnamese.
I don’t know, the long and short of it is exactly that, exactly the name, TKV® Business & Fine Arts. It’s just biz and sometimes it’s not.
Do you find that the import business and the art business work together or are they more separate?
They definitely work together. The imports help support my art practice and the art practice helps support the business. They go hand in hand. I have a flowchart that I made for myself when I was launching the project that I’ll refer to from time to time that outlines exactly how.
It was important for me to create a financial framework where the business side and my art practice could sustain themselves independently of each other. I didn’t want to be put in a position where I had to make weird business decisions to fund an art project, or not be able to make a project because of a lack of funds. I don’t know – even the business side is an art project in itself.
At the end of the day, it all works together in one bank account and stews in one brain, so it is what it is.
Photo: Ryan Lebel
How do you choose which products to import for that portion of TKV?
Intuition? A lot of these items are goods that I’ve been drawn to from a young age when I would go to Vietnam.
I always liked the slides, dép tổ ong, and learned through my community and family about their cultural significance. There’s no How It’s Made or Wikipedia page on them, the slides have an oral history and I am happy to share this history through TKV. This same thinking is applied to the work suits that I import, the stools, the fans, the bags. These are all common place products in Vietnam – and I love being able to share their significance to a wider audience.
The suits are wild. They are labourer uniforms for blue collar workers, made all over Vietnam in hundreds of different colours and materials.
The crazy thing is – from factory to factory throughout Vietnam, it’s the same pattern, same cut, same everything, same every time. Having worked in apparel production domestically, I know from experience, even having production replicate a pattern, THAT THEY MADE, is sometimes a harrowing experience.
The stools are amazing, it’s like Vietnam’s monobloc chair. Cheaply made, abundant, honestly beautiful. I love going to a food stand and this is what everyone is sitting on. Obama and Bourdain sat on the XL version, but still, same same.
These are products that resonated with me and through this project I get to investigate why. When you land on my website – you get all the research, all the why’s and what I’ve found. I invite you to investigate the why’s with me and hope you fall in love with the items too. Or you just like the colour, that’s fine too.
Photo: Ryan Lebel
What have you learned from launching the project?
I learned that you need to try, to try.
It’s easy to get stuck trying to perfect the sauce, or what you think is the perfect sauce, but at the end of the day you need to be able to open the restaurant. And if you don’t want to turn on the restaurant OPEN light, at least open the door. You need to be able to do it and to keep it moving. I learn something from everything I do, good and bad.
Sometimes I like the feeling of being scared, standing on the top of the cliff getting ready to jump in the water. I’ll stand there for a while, and think about how scared I am, and how cool it is that I am so scared, because how often in life do I feel this scared. Then I jump. The trick for me is acknowledging that I’m scared but that I still need to do it, because I don’t want to climb back down the cliff, dry, and all my friends are there, and they will all post stories on IG that I didn’t jump, and they will laugh, but in a supportive way, and I will feel sheepish, and regret that I didn’t try.
I know sometimes this is easier said than done but you really just have to do it. It’ll say on my gravestone “At least he tried” [laughs].
Couldn’t agree more with that. Let’s talk about the art side more. You recently exhibited ‘Their Country’ in Montreal, a painting series which depicts your interpretations of your family’s stories of immigration and painted by painters in Vietnam. Was it challenging working with painters overseas and why was it important for you to pursue that path?
So, those painters actually lived three blocks away from my family home in HCMC. I used to walk by them every day and so the communication wasn’t really any more challenging than speaking with apparel suppliers overseas. Being able to speak Vietnamese obviously helped as well.
It was important for me to work with the painters in HCMC because they were an integral part of the artworks. The paintings are the “art objects” but the entire process is the art. The communications through the supply chain to make the paintings, the conversations with my family, the translation of the memories, these are the vital and critical parts of the work. For me, outsourcing the paintings to oil painters in Vietnam was not a means to find cheap labour, but to engage the Vietnamese painters into an artwork that also speaks to their experiences and perspectives. The War impacted an entire population and continues to have ripple effects through generations and isn’t bound by geographic borders. The conversations that emerged from these paintings are extremely valuable to me.
What was the exhibition experience like?
This was my first art show as an artist. It felt like a bootcamp putting everything together. There is some crossover from my previous work doing pop-ups and seeing what it takes to do that, but this is really another learning experience.
I was able to see what worked, what didn’t work, what took too much energy, what needed more energy. It was low stakes enough that I could experiment with what felt right to me, but also high enough pressure that I didn’t want to fail.
I often struggle a lot with perfectionism in my work but, with this, I really just put it out there and enjoyed myself.
Shout out to the ARTCH exhibition team, Sarah, Margot, Myriam, as well as all the participating artists. Everyone was amazing.
Well whatever you did, it definitely worked! You also have some other unique ventures in the works; Cheers Mate Soda & Piano Golf. What’s the story behind these?
With Piano Golf I wanted to find a way to bring a new perspective to golf. It always felt out of reach with huge cultural barriers. During the pandemic I got into it, and found that it had so many similarities to things that I loved like being outside, competing against myself, hitting a ball. In a way it felt a lot like skateboarding, like knowing where your body is in space, trying the same motion over and over again. Once again, I found that there wasn’t anything out in the golf world that really connected with me. I started this fun business (emphasis on fun) with my friends Myles Perkins and Dylan Bourdeau, it’s a way to intersect golf with other aspects of our interests. Plus it was a way to find more excuses to golf.
Cheers Mate (mah-teh) Yerba Soda is an opportunity that presented itself to me at a time where I was looking to work on a project that was a little more biz focused. It’s still in its infancy, a classic – we’ve opened the door to the restaurant but the OPEN sign is not on yet. It’s been a great experience working on this project so far and I’m looking forward to where it’ll lead next… cheers!
In an age where everything we see on social media is so calculated, you seem to just have fun with it and post whatever is on your mind. How do you feel about the current state of social media and do you think we all need to be a bit more chill?
When I was getting ready to launch TKV® Business & Fine Arts, I put so much time and thought into how my Instagram was going to be, and look and feel, and had this realization like, damn – if I stress like this every time I need to make a post or story, it’s going to be horrible. How do I find a way to make this easy?
So I just really post what I think is funny, pertinent and easy, and if my business fails because of this – then there are bigger issues with my business than that. Some of the content have planning behind them, but I do that because I enjoy it – and because I feel like it’s important to tell a certain story a certain way.
Honestly I’m just trying to try here.
For others, it’s so subjective and so hard for me to say what others should do.
People should just do what is comfortable for them.
Feel that! Before we let you go, what’s next for Tam Vu?
Well, I’m going home to have dinner and that’s exciting [laughs]. I am moving into a new studio which I’m super excited for. I’m going to be setting up a showroom and a space where I can execute more stuff. A severe lockdown mandate in Vietnam was just lifted, so a lot of things are about to start coming in. The supply chain is still a mess, so a 3-4 month forecast is murky, but I have the next few collections and coloured suits coming in. I received some funding to do some more paintings and have some other art projects on the horizon too.
I also just received a hand me down golf simulator, so hopefully this will keep me busy over the winter. I’m also learning to play piano… The winter is usually my most productive time… I try to stave off the winter blues this way.
Check out Tam's Instagram for news on his upcoming releases and hit the TKV Shop to cop some sweet Vietnamese gear. Keep it locked to Pier Five for more interviews and stories with the coolest entrepreneurs, designers, artists, activists and more.