One of the best parts of my recent trip to Vietnam was meeting Thao Vu from Kilomet 109. As Thao and I had never met before we decided to do the interview first, it was great to get to know her before we shot. I was totally blown away by Thao’s story the depth of her learning. She has totally immersed herself in her craft and field. Her commitment to doing things the right way with the best people to create beautiful clothing, that lasts, that is second to none. There is so much depth and power in what she does. We started by speaking about her childhood and early influences.
Here is her journey –
D: What was the driving force for you to make clothes in the first place?
T: Well, my Dad gave me and Mum bought me a sewing machine, a 5 butterfly sewing machine from China. It used to be popular in Vietnam in the 1970’s in the North. Pretty much every family, the women, had at least one sewing machine back then. But it was a real investment and women were associated with sewing and making things. It was a very feminist (feminine) thing to do. They bought the machine when I was 17, for my birthday. I came home from school and it’s a surprise they had covered it with a blanket and were like tah dah, we got you this for your birthday.
I was angry, laughs, I was so angry, laughs, and I was like what, I don’t want to do anything with this machine. Laughs. I was a tomboy.
I did like making things I was good at it, because everyone was doing it you kind of learnt it without focusing on it, you have a natural sense of style and quality. When I was a kid, my grandma made fishnets, she crocheted and made pillowcases. Mum was also doing all of that sewing and my sister too. I was born and grew up with it. Because my female friends did it, my family, my grandma, my Mum, my sister, I was kind of, I don’t want to do anything with this. I wanted to hang out with boys, and not to wear girly things, I wanted to wear something different especially because I hung out with boys all the time. So, when I saw the sewing machine I was mad, I was so angry I walked out and didn’t even say thank you to them. Laughs.
D: Do you remember what you would have preferred at the time?
T: Probably a motorbike.
Dad was a diplomat he worked in the Czech Republic for 11 years. Because of that we dressed differently from the other kids and we rode different bicycles. Kids in my town looked at us sometimes like we were aliens but were also jealous at the same time, you know what kids are like. I have a brother who is 2 years younger than me and we liked to wear the same kind of clothes as we were a similar age. I used to wear a trench coat, a fur hat with a pompom on the top, which Dad brought from the Czech Republic and my brother would wear a gillet, fur coat and kids in the town didn’t like looking at us dressed like that. They pulled the pompom off the hat. They didn’t like us not fitting in. Sometimes I didn’t want trouble like that, I came home in tears, my brother was the same and we felt we didn’t want to wear these clothes. My Father said “these are good clothes they have done this because they don’t have the same. These clothes have style”, or in Vietnamese he used a different word that means flavour, ‘these clothes have flavour’. So, I grew up with that. But I was so attracted to the boys and boyish things that is why the sewing machine turned me off.
When I was 19 I went to college, my sister moved to the Czech Republic, where she still lives. She is a petite Vietnamese woman, even shorter than me. She is tiny couldn’t find clothes that fit her.
So, I had to make clothes and send them from Vietnam to her during the 1990’s. It was perfect for me, you know, a college student, we all want to make money, so it became my money machine (laughs). It turned out to be perfect for me, I brought it from home with me to Hanoi and I realised it was the gift from my Dad. Somehow he kind of saw it, he predicted the future. He had told my Mum ‘keep that sewing machine’, because of my reaction Mum had wanted to give it away, and he said ‘no keep it maybe one day she change her mind’. And I did.
During college I made something like 1500 outfits for my sister and for her friends. There is a big Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic the second largest outside Vietnam.
D: So, this was your 1st export business.
T: Yes, crazy, exactly. Also back then, late 1980s and early 1990’s Vietnam was shut down from the rest of the world. We didn’t have fashion magazines; we didn’t have fashion designers or fashion design. So, it’s completely new food for us, that fashion became a word. People starting to care more about what they wore, about appearance. Being a part of the world yet still not individual, or original yet. We didn’t have access to the internet of course. Most of the fashion and pattern books I had were from Thailand and were terrible copies. Sometimes the picture was like stretching out and had lost the arm or the legs, (laughing) because it was a copy version and really bad copies too and in Thai so I couldn’t even understand what they were saying. I started learning, I had a feel for it. Making patterns, making drawings from eye, so of course making a lot of mistakes. That is how I learned initially, very much self-learning at that time.
At the same time TV stared in Vietnam. We only had 1 channel which was controlled by the government. I remember in 1996 we had 1 programme called New World run by 2 men who had studied in Russia, writers and scientists. The programme was about science, music and culture outside Vietnam. They would report from around the world. On one show they talked about music, Michael Jackson and Madonna, I watched it with my sister when she was home to visit during New Years. I was frozen I was stunned, and my sister started talking about Madonna and all that, “this is you know, what’s happening outside Vietnam”. When I designed for her I kept honing in on that image. That’s the style to wear, pointy boobs and wide shoulders and baggy pants, what we called bomb pants. Massive big, very baggy and also colour blocks. As a result, my designs were over the top. Now it’s so ugly, such a disaster, (giggles) I have some upstairs I keep them, pieces my sister and her friends have sent back to me. So, I worked with that design, but it still hadn’t crossed my mind that it would become my career path.
D: What were you studying instead?
T: I studied literature to become a teacher. After teaching for 5 years I then worked for magazines for 5 ½ years, on fashion and cultural issues, movie reviews, in Hanoi.
D: Because Vietnam was opening up you were able to take part in all of that side of things.
T: Well exactly, it also helped me connect with the communities, the makers, master artisans and communities. But still fashion wasn’t my thing, it hadn’t crossed my mind at all.
In 2006 I gave birth to my first son, and I started making baby clothes for him when I was at home, also my husband is wonderful, really caring, encouraged me “I think its time you went back to study, take a design course” and I did it over night (claps hands). My son was 6 months old, my husband travelled non-stop for work as an NGO, he travelled all over the world and only came back for weekends, we were both really young. Having the baby meant I couldn’t work so he took the full-time job which meant intensive travel.
D: Tough when you are on your own and have a little baby.
T: And going back to school it was so stressful. I realised then that what I knew were just the basics, its good, but it’s not enough.
D: Did you learn pattern cutting?
T: Everything, drape techniques, trend forecasting, customer reports where we had to interview people on the streets, so you are able to build up the profile you know the fashion schools they do all of that. I am quite good at drawing but am more technical and am not in the colours when I design, more technical drawing very much line drawing. When I went to school I started using all the different styles, also cultural studies it was SO intense you realise wow - it just opened a whole new world. I went to London Fashion College; they have a school in Hanoi. I had to study Western Culture, different decades, different eras. It was completely new to me Edwardian, Victorian, and all of that (laughs).
D: Very different from your own perspective.
T: Totally, and youth culture, sub-culture and all of that you know. Japanese influence the eras and all of that. It’s was a really new thing for me but also it was so amazing when you step in and you see the vastness of the thing that you never, ever heard about. It’s fascinating and at the same time it’s very stressful. I was breastfeeding and having the baby I had to take him to the class with me all the time, he was such a good baby. He is well behaved, still (laughs).
D: He knew he had to be.T: Exactly, he had no choice (laughs). My classmates they were so cool with him being there in the basket, when he woke and cried, I would feed him and he went back to sleep super easy baby, could entertain himself so that helped a lot. Studying in a professional environment was completely, eyes wide open for me and every day I was learning something new it’s, wonderful.
D: After university, you now have your degree behind you in fashion, what made you take the direction you are moving in now rather than running into fast fashion, which you could have done. What you have now is more grounded its sustainable and ethical fashion which is fantastic. You know the farmers who plant the crop (the fibres) the dyeing and all the people that you work with. Your Instagram account is just fantastic, I love it and all the people. You are obviously very involved with everybody who works with you.
T: Totally hands on, every step.
D: It’s such a beautiful story.
T: Up until I graduated and just before I graduated, I was invited to join a brand from London called Victoria Row, she is now a very good friend of mine and very supportive of what I am doing. She is a lecturer now, not doing anything with design. I aIso worked for a German brand based in Berlin as a part-time designer with quality control too. At the same time, this is 2009/2010, London and New York the big fashion capitals started talking about Sustainable Fashion, Ethical Fashion.
I also taught part-time as a teaching assistant and sometimes as a lecturer and realised that Vietnam should be leading this because we have all the resources to do it, but in 2009 no one did. No one even understood the definition of Ethical Fashion, it was a very new term, I and my colleague May Cotzi, who came to Vietnam from the UK, the two of us took the students for a Vietnamese textiles and Vietnamese costume culture course. We didn’t use the word fashion yet as we didn’t have enough documents and information, so weren’t comfortable calling it Fashion Cultural Studies in Vietnam. But I focused on that and did heavy research on costume in Vietnam different styles not just about the major group which is the Kinh group which is my cultural background. The Kinh group lives in the big cities like Hanoi, which is the wrong way to see Vietnam. We are very much like the rest of the world. We wear jeans and t-shirts, we live in the big cities and towns. We do have a long history of textiles and making traditions as well but it has faded much more than the ethnic minority groups.
There are 54 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. And I thought it kind of insulting somehow to the other groups, not insulting, kind of untrue to my own culture to tell the story only one way, one side of Vietnam. So, I did extended research on ethnic minority groups and craft villages which I knew from my previous career when I worked for magazines. All of the craft villages outside of Hanoi and ethnic minority groups so I built up the course with my colleagues and we made a curriculum for the school called Ethical Fashion. But it is completely blurred with the Vietnam side, as the concept is kind of imported from the West, from the UK because it is a UK school, so we studied a UK curriculum we studied all Western style. Vietnam style has so much wealth and diversity but nobody was talking about it. The students are so attracted to globalisation, to be global citizens and you know global trends and movements, all of that, and it’s all still new, fresh and exciting for them.
D: Thank goodness that is beginning to shift again because the planet can’t handle it.
T: Yes, yes, right, exactly but we didn’t really care about that back then. I wanted to go back and look at our own archive and what exists locally and at the same time you kind of realise that the traditional methods, techniques and textiles have a really strong connection with being eco-friendly and social impact. You create jobs for local communities and you preserve traditions and also innovate, update those traditions with more modern lines. You can completely create something contemporary that you can wear in London or in New York but made with traditional techniques applied. I kept teaching this to the kids and they would listen to you for a semester while we did the project. Not many of them followed on after that or continued after they left the school. So I am like, “Hmmm forget that idea, I want to set the example. I want to do it.”
D: Now you are leading the way.
T: Exactly, and I think that is the only way to make change. It’s not about thinking about it, it’s about doing it. So (clicks fingers) am going to do it. I started with research on Natural dyes and traditional textiles from the ethnic minority groups first, from Northern Vietnam from Cao Bang, Sa Pa all over 6 different provinces. Indigo dye was the first one and I stared doing experiments at home I built up my home-made lab and played with the dye pigments, pushing it, experimenting with it, to create 5 different colours, shades from the indigo. After that I met a group of women the weavers, (that I share a lot on Instagram,) I met them in Ha Noi at the textile festival. I came to them because I loved the indigo shade and had done research about them too and also they are very remote. They are not like Sa Pa which is more exposed to tourists. I somehow wanted this group of Nung An women to have more support and I decided to work with them. Nung is the overarching name for the people they then break down into Nung An, Nung In, Nung Zine, many Nung. Like Hmong, we have Blue Hmong, White Hmong, Black Hmong, Water Hmong, Green Hmong. I also loved their indigo shades, very different from the rest of Vietnam. And they made me want to wear indigo from head to toe. They have very beautiful weaving. It is subtle but the fabrics, when you look at it closer and their costume their outfit, they are so different from the others subtle but very, very fine, not colourful like Hmong or other groups, with colour patch or heavy with embroidery embellishment. This group is very subtle, inside its so, beautiful, you have to see it to understand. They invited me to visit. I went there for a week to 10 days and we started making things and played with the dye and created a book of samples of different shades of indigo together. We stayed with indigo at the beginning. When I came home I decided to place an order, the fabric arrived after 3 months. It was a disaster.
T: So ugly. (laughs)
D: What had happened?
T: It was because of the shades I wanted to create, very light shades, sky blue, grey, tin green, all in between not dark indigo, not traditional. It was a very new thing for them and when you make a sample it is perfect, you’ve got a small piece, but when you make the massive roll it is a completely different story its dark and dirty, uneven. I stood there and thought, ‘Oh god, so much money and time’, and I kind of put it all in the corner for like 8 months. I thought ‘OK, I’ll just take a break’. During that time I focused on silk only, I didn’t bother to look at the indigo. That was until I watched a movie about indigo in India, actually I read about it first, in a book by a fantastic British woman called Jenny Balfour-Paul called 'Indigo' about blue, denim blue it’s one of my favourite books about Indigo. It’s an old book a friend got me from eBay or something. At the same time I was doing my research about it and I realised that I didn’t know anything about Indigo, and at the same time I also didn’t know about the women, about their community, their traditions, how they worked together, what they were doing outside of making textiles with me. There was no language in between.
I would show up there with a big idea, do this and that, you know. The women also wanted to try something new, but they did not come from a design background like I am, they come from artisan backgrounds. Making it and repeat, not changing it, not experimenting or making mistakes as a part of it, they did not accept that. Everything is perfect you know. Everything done in the right order. And I don’t come from there, I break the rules (laughs) it’s the opposite. So I realised that I have no idea about this community, I just love their textiles. I needed to go back. So I went, and spent time with them. Not to do anything, to be invisible in the community, observing things, how they live, how they interact with each other when they are making textiles. Most of the time it’s sort of like in their spare time so they mingle together. They become like sisters, women’s conversation next to making the textile so it’s much, much bigger than I knew. It’s so intimate, it’s so connected and its beautiful when you see that – their lives and life stories woven into the fabric. The eating, the roasting, the making corn and sweet potatoes or sticky rice, it’s like that eating, making conversations. It’s so great to see and also in the most beautiful part of Vietnam, so beautiful. No tourists at all – (You can see it on the Kilomet 109 Instagram). Its an eight hour drive from Ha Noi. And that’s it, (clicks her fingers,) that helped me so much. I now felt completely connected with the community, not just the community as a whole, but also each individual. I listened to their life stories, husband, family, kids and all of that. Also understanding about the land, where they lived, the story behind it, how the women and the men see textiles, how the textiles represent their lives, it’s a simple beauty, a spirituality, a depth, so many layers.
I came back home and I said ’that’s it I am going to stay with these 3 colours always and forget the rest’ (laughs). The first collection was in 2014 fully organic fibres, cotton, with some hemp and some linen based, but organic fibres. We planted everything, we weave and natural dye but to start only with one group of Nung An women. I started my research in 2009 and in 2014 we finally launched the first collection. Since then with every collection I try to work with one or two new communities or master families to apply new techniques. Also to expand. Right now we work with 5 different ethnic minority groups and 2 master families, silk weavers. Its 45 people we work with now, from different parts of Vietnam 4 groups from the north and mountainous areas in Ca Bang, Ca Bing, Lao Cai, Sapa and one from the central highlands for silk weaving and another in the Mekong Delta area in the South for black dye, for ebony dye. That does not include 2 master families for silk outside Ha Noi. So it’s expanding in that way.
D: And you still create a collection a year?
T: I try to but the last collection the latest collection is two years, extended. Because of the people involved, the amount of people involved.
D: Well you are extending your makers and your masters.
T: Exactly. And we are also not only applying traditional methods but also applying technology, digital print and other kinds of dyes, steaming and other types of methods, to support our textiles. To make them last longer or create more effects for the design part. More people are working with me increasingly by year, by month. Each group can do one or two techniques only. For example the Nung An weavers they create the natural dyes, indigo, yam root dye, red chea bark dye, multiple natural dyeing techniques and they weave. But they handle only cotton and cotton weaving, as that is where we plant our cotton. They are also raising silk but they are not weaving silk, so we have to send the silk to Ha Noi and we weave the silk in other mills outside of Ha Noi. So my fabric travels between different parts of Vietnam for this to happen.
D: People talk about the handprint of fashion you know exactly the handprint of yours.
T: Absolutely I know exactly where it came from, how it’s made, what goes in there for sure, and who made them. Because I am involved in every step. I also know how to make everything too, you need to, if you want to teach someone, you need to know and sometimes you need to be really good at it to be able to tell them, to change this and to change that. If you don’t know how to do it it’s hard to tell masters (laughs), they are not going to listen to you (laughs).
For me it is so good to design something that you know completely from A to Z. You know where the fibre is made, when it is planted, how its weaved and how its dyed and how it’s is decorated because we use some block printing and batik and embroidery too, so you know, it’s all by hand.
D: I saw some of your beautiful batik sitting on the table downstairs when I came in.
T: Yes that one arrived yesterday and it’s from the Blue Hmong group in Ha Bing that is another beautiful place for you to see when you come back. You should come back in the summertime. You have to come back it really is an amazing country. It’s so diverse.
When you know the workers and the material you work with so well you work with a completely differently mentality. The attachment with the material is so strong and you always want to maximise, you always put a second thought into the design. Take time to make things. You want it to last longer, so you don’t want to waste any piece of the cloth, even with the cutting and the small pieces of fabric that we cut, if I can’t use for my design I send it to other shops for other people or students to do their recycle or upcycled projects.
And I have 2 companies who use the scraps for filling inside toys for kids, in birds, bears, pigs and chickens and all of that. And some kids in central Vietnam too, I send it by train for them to make jewellery because it is a beautiful textile you know and they can add their creativity and create something really new.
D: It has so many lives.
T: Totally and you can extend it you know.
Arriving at Thao’s home you would never know from the outside the magic that is happening behind her gate. Like all Vietnamese houses hers reminded me of the houses in Amsterdam, which are tall, narrow fronted and close together.
Straight off the street is her workshop and initially I was greeted by her closest team of makers all busy cutting and sewing the beautiful fabric that so much love and attention has gone into.
They are a happy team. While I was listening to and transcribing our interview, I could hear the sounds of the studio team in the background, at work downstairs, Bay the pattern cutter whistling and the ladies chatting as they worked. They were so sweet to let me photograph them. This is how all clothes should be made, everyone and everything, every part of the process approached with love, care and thoughtful consideration. Bravo Kilomet 109.
First row from left to right:
Quynh, senior machinist, Tu, embroidery master, Hue, studio assistant
Thuy, advanced machinist and Bay, pattern cutter