Vietnam designers sketch a future for 'ethical fashion'
CAO BANG, VIETNAM
LONG a bastion for cheap, fast-fashion manufacturing, a new crop of designers are trying to transform the "made in Vietnam" label and save the country's rich ethnic heritage in the process.
In the remote hills of Cao Bang, some 300km north of the capital Hanoi, Vietnamese designer Thao Vu is dropping swathes of hand-spun cotton into a large bucket of fermented indigo leaves.
Her label, Kilomet 109, is at the forefront of Vietnam's new "ethical fashion" movement - which seeks to benefit communities while minimising environmental harm.
The designer is tapping into this growing global trend by working with some of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minority groups, which have their own unique textiles and traditional clothing designs.
"I learn the techniques from them," said the 38-year-old, citing the example of Nung women in Phuc Sec who use natural dyes and weave on hand looms.
She then adds a more modern touch to the apparel that will appeal to clients in fashion capitals like New York.
Vietnam has in recent decades become a hub for garment factories that churn out reams of cheap clothes as quickly as possible for fashion giants like Zara and H&M.
The multi-billion-dollar sector has helped drive economic growth but also drew criticism for weak environmental and labour rights regulations.
Over in central Hue, another label is also helping local artisans market their skills to the global fashion industry.
Fashion4Freedom founder LanVy Nguyen, who fled post-war Vietnam and forged a successful Wall Street career, returned to her home country in 1998 and used her venture-capital acumen to save artisanal techniques.
"We knew these people had generations of skill, we just had to unlock it so the market could appreciate it as we did," she said.
Her company taught traditional woodworkers, who carve ornate pillars in pagodas or houses, how to make platform shoes that cost US$600 (S$810) a pair.
Do Quang Thanh, a carpenter who used to carve traditional wooden houses, said the idea of making shoes initially struck him as "strange" but he is glad he gave it a try.
Jimmy Lepore Hagen, vice-president of strategy for high-end US clothing line Nanette Lapore, said he is considering working with Fashion4Freedom, which also sells luxury jewellery and apparel.
"Taking a brand's idea (and) design aesthetic, and matching that with people who have an incredible culture and history and are trying to build something new for the US market, is a real opportunity," he added.