At the age of 22, Sylvie Nguyen and her husband decided to leave Vietnam on a boat headed for the United States.
Along with her 13 siblings, she fled the country. Some went to Iceland. Others went to Canada. She and her husband were bound for Dallas, where her husband’s brother offered to take them in and get the couple on their feet in the United States.
“That’s how I saved myself,” Sylvie said. “I was young, and I thought if I could leave communism, even if I died in the ocean, it would be okay because I would die free.”
Now, after 40 years working in the United States and 25 years as a business owner, Sylvie’s retiring, and her shop, Sylvie’s Alterations, will close at the end of May. She decided to close after the landlord changed and increased her rent, and she wanted to close instead of find a new location. Plus, her two children told her it was time to rest.
The day after the Nguyens arrived to Dallas in 1980, Sylvie started to work. Her sister-in-law started teaching her to sew and build garments from cutting fabric to sewing things together as contracted work. Step by step, Tanya taught Sylvie to be a seamstress. With Tanya’s help, Sylvie learned to adapt to America and how to drive.
“My sister-in-law was sewing at home already, so she taught me how to use the sewing machine and she taught me to sew step by step,” Nguyen said. “She gave me the wings to fly.”
From there, she worked in garment factories in Dallas and Arlington until 1994, when she saved up $4,000 to start Sylvie’s Alterations at 1005 W. University Drive.
She knew business could be slow, so she also took a sewing contract for a small company to make sure she had money coming in the door. Slowly, people started coming in for alterations on suits and prom dresses, and she built a book of business to include people like Ann Stuart, the former president of Texas Woman’s University, and various government officials.
“I’ll miss all of my customers and talking with them,” she said. “I want to learn better English, so I try to speak it more.”
In retirement, Nguyen said she wants to continue studying English to improve her skills and find ways to give back to the community, like volunteering to alter prom dresses for low-income students for free.
And she wants to say thank you.
“I want to thank this country. I came here for freedom, and I love it here,” she said. “My dream came true here. I owned a business. I have everything I wanted now thanks to this country.”