Lessons in ethical fashion – from Vietnam’s diverse ethnic traditions
Thao Vu, fashion designer and founder of Kilomet109, is on a quest to create eco-friendly, fashion-forward designs through centuries-old techniques.
Thao Vu’s fashion collections are made from nuts, wood, cotton, hemp, fruit – 100 per cent natural, ethical and eco-conscious. For her, creation goes beyond design. “Luxury here means that it’s not harmful to the environment. Most of the raw materials, we grow ourselves. We do the weaving, dyeing and designing in-house, so it’s a complete cycle,” she explained.
After graduating from design school, she explored her homeland, meeting Vietnam’s ethnic villagers, and discovering the century-old techniques of using indigo and magenta plants to produce rich dyes for fabrics.
About seven-and-a-half years ago, Thao Vu started working closely with women from Cao Bang, a remote village in the mountains north of Hanoi. This village has since become her creative base where she grows and produces natural dyes and fabrics for Kilomet109, her eco-conscious clothing line.
Thao Vu, 41, credits her diplomat father for stirring her interest in art and travel. “Listening to my father’s travel stories ignited my passion to learn more about other cultures as well as my own. He believed in artisanal craftsmanship and encouraged me to embrace new ways of understanding fashion and appreciating beauty,” she said.
Since she started her eco-fashion label, she has collaborated with 45 artisans from five North Vietnamese ethnic minority groups, learning not just indigo- and ebony-dyeing, but also calendering and batik printing. Now she is moving on to silk-making families in Central and South Vietnam.
The experience has been fascinating for her. “You learn a lot more than about making textiles. You learn about the place, the people, their culture. Each community has not just one technique or one textile, they have multiple techniques. And learning that has been such a gift to someone like me who appreciates textile culture,” she enthused.
For the many kilometres travelled visiting remote villages, she named her company Kilomet109, which is also the distance between her hometown and Hanoi, where her flagship store is.
Acknowledging that producing eco-friendly clothing using natural materials or working with traditional weavers is not unique, Thao Vu said, “I’m not the first one in Vietnam or in the world to try to work with communities or to use the old methods to create something new. But I am the first one to change what exists in Vietnam.”
It has taken years to build relationships and trust. Just to convince local craftswomen to move away from traditional black and indigo hues took several years. “Trust here is not about the money. It’s about sharing your vision of using textiles for real products.”
The hard work has paid off. Thao Vu has managed to use ancient techniques to create contemporary fashion that’s urban, well-made and trendy. “With every new collection, I try to apply one or two new techniques and introduce one or two new communities,” she shared.
Most importantly, Thao Vu believes in the storytelling of how each quilted jacket is a genesis of the creative journey she has with Vietnamese artisans. “I want people who put on my clothes to not only know about the garment, but also understand the story behind the garment as well.”
To showcase Vietnam’s ethnic textile craft to the world, Thao Vu went public with her brand at Elle’s Fashion Journey in 2017, followed by an exhibition at the London Design Biennale 2018. She was also selected as Young Creative Entrepreneur for Fashion & Design Award by the British Council. “I always prefer to present the work in the context of an exhibition; to be able to tell the story behind the products. People who are not in Vietnam will be able to look at this country in that perspective. And that is a privilege for me,” she said.
Her line is now carried in eco-centric boutiques in Germany and Portugal, and also sold online by ‘slow fashion’ stores in Bangkok and Los Angeles. “The part that I enjoy from my work is the collaboration, not just with communities and artisans, but also with other artists and creative communities outside of Vietnam. I love to tell people about my culture in a very modern context.”
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.