Tucked into a discreet and modest strip mall, the Magic Needle’s location belies the beautiful and delicate handiwork that its staff of talented seamstresses creates. The storefront is seemingly unremarkable from the road, but upon a closer look, the space has large floor-to-ceiling display windows that showcase the intricate designs of Anh Tran, the head seamstress at the shop.
One window showcases a white, strapless wedding dress, simple in design but with a complex pattern of crystals arranged in a way that frames the sweetheart neckline of the dress. The other window holds a black, floor length gown, which Tran spent countless hours designing and assembling. It is slim fitting and sophisticated with hand-embroidered flowers covering the entirety of the bodice.
Tran designs wedding and special occasion dresses, completes intricate needlework and alters trousers, jackets, suits and tuxedos; however, the shop is owned and run by her entire family, which includes her son, Kevin; daughter, Vivian; and husband, Caca Ho.
The Tran family’s journey to opening the Magic Needle has been complicated and dangerous, but it has been an experience that has brought them all closer together. It began in 1989, when Tran and her husband, with the children, then ages 9 and 5, escaped Saigon, Vietnam. “We spent eight days in a boat trying to reach the refugee camps,” Tran says. She and her husband wanted to provide better opportunities for their children, which they thought would be impossible if they were to remain in Vietnam.
After days spent battling dangerous waters and border patrols, they managed to arrive at a refugee camp in Galang, Indonesia, where they lived for the next three years and two months, preparing for their eventual move to the United States in 1993. The Galang Refugee Camp held around 250,000 refugees from 1979 to 1996 and was split into two separate camps; the first was for those who were not permitted to go to the United States, and the second location was intended to educate the individuals and families about the life, culture and language in the United States.
After finally making it to the United States, Tran and Ho enrolled in ESL classes to learn English and soon after began taking classes at Minneapolis Technical College. For the next two years, they studied the art of sewing and learned how to alter and create custom clothing, which includes wedding and evening dresses. They practiced with a variety of colors, patterns and fabrics, so they could be successful when they eventually decided to open their own shop. “We learned how to do everything at the technical college, but my hobby is making wedding and evening dresses,” Tran says.
Tran worked for 10 years at Highland Tailors before her son bought and opened the Magic Needle and placed his parents in charge of running the business and providing the services. (Both of the couple’s children have graduated college and married, and they reside in Maple Grove, close to the original family home.)
Tran’s sister, Lan, remains in Saigon, where she works as an embroiderer. Unlike Tran and her family, Lan is happy to remain in Vietnam and has no intention of coming to live in the United States. However, she still contributes to the family business by sending her hand-embroidered flower pieces to Tran, who attaches the pieces onto her own dress designs.
Remaining connected to her sister, even though they cannot see each other every day, is important to Tran because she values her family more than anything else. Being able to create and design pieces for others to either wear or view as works of art is an irreplaceable way of feeling close to each other while separated by ocean waters and more than 8,500 miles.
The Magic Needle has attracted many local customers since opening in 2003. Mary Cimperman, who has lived in Maple Grove with her family for 27 years, has been going to Tran for all of her alterations for about 13 years. She discovered the shop on a whim. Knowing she had several items of clothing that needed alterations, she decided to stop in and see what kind of work the shop performed. Since that time, Cimperman has taken in her jackets and pants to be altered, and every piece has been meticulously sewn to perfectly fit her body. “You’ll know she is the person for the job because she has such heart and passion for what she does,” she says.
Cimperman and Tran’s relationship has grown into a kind of friendship over the years, which prompted Cimperman to ask about the magnificent flowered, black dress that is still hanging in the window. She simply had to find out the background story and artistic methods that went into making the piece. Cimperman describes the dress as the most beautiful article of clothing she has ever seen. Having traveled and shopped in several places around the country, including New York City, she still cannot find anything comparable to the intricacy of the dress.
Tran describes the process of making the garment as being taxing but incredibly enjoyable to construct. She created the shape for the black dress, and Lan worked to hand-cut every flower that is attached to the dress. Upon completion of the flowers, Lan sent them to Tran, who connected their two artistic contributions together to create one special piece that showcases their talents individually. “So many customers love the dress, but I do not want to ever sell it because I spent hours with my sister making it,” Tran says.
Most of the Magic Needle’s business comes from word of mouth since it doesn’t have a website or advertises. Cimperman wants to spread the word about the great work of the family-owned business. “We need to know as a community who Ann is …” she says.
Although quiet and reserved in her demeanor, Tran packs a punch with her clothing creations. She not only designs and alters wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses and other special occasion dresses, but she creates designs for herself and her daughter, so they can stand out amongst others, who are wearing standard department store clothing. “When I make something personal for us to wear, people ask where we got them,” Tran says. She uses bold hues of red, orange and blue, as well as details like corset backs, embroidered shapes and gold accents to make every angle of her dresses interesting to view.
Tran is often so busy during holiday and wedding seasons, sewing designs by machine and hand, that she hardly has any time to herself, but it is during these times when she is the happiest. “I make too many dresses to count, but I enjoy the work,” Tran says.