Our editor Juliette Tafreschi moved with her family to Hanoi/Vietnam in October 2020. Here she reports about her impressions and introduces the label Kilomet109.
While many European countries are again facing a hard shutdown, which also strongly affects the stationary retail sector, normal life goes on in Vietnam as we knew it before Corona.
Motorbikes zoom through the streets of Hanoi and stores there are bustling. The alleys and streets are crowded. The big department stores are decorated for Christmas and people are doing their shopping. Distance rules? No need. Because Vietnam is mostly Covid-19 free. Only the taking of temperatures and the wearing of masks (which is often part of everyday life in Vietnam anyway) is a reminder that there are certain precautions.
For many in Europe this sounds almost like a preserved life before March 2020. While a day hardly passes without the topic of Corona, here in Vietnam it is almost never mentioned. This also explains why the word “Corona” is not even mentioned during the entire interview with designer Vu Thao.
The designer started her sustainable brand Kilomet109 (the name derives from the fact that her hometown, Thai Binh, is 109 kilometers from Hanoi) in 2012. She chose to live in Hanoi for many reasons. The most important one was the vicinity of the craft businesses in the area with which she works. And even though the pollution in the city is a burden, it can't tarnish her love for it. In the last five years alone, Hanoi has become a hotspot for the creative scene. Regular exhibitions and pop-ups by young Vietnamese designers, architects and product designers make the city a creative hotspot–and she is one of them.
I met the designer in her store in Tay Ho which is located directly at Westlake.
Thao, can you tell us something about your background?
I am a trained fashion designer. I started to study at the London Fashion College in Hanoi when I was 30 years old, I know, that is quite late. I mainly worked for magazines before but I always made my own clothes. I didn’t find things that made me satisfied with what I like. As my dad was a diplomat in the Czech Republic, he brought a lot of clothing back home. So, I have worn trench coats, bomber pants and biker jackets at a time where dazzling fashion wasn’t a big issue in a socialist influenced society. When my first child was born I made clothes for the baby, but I wanted to make a professional training so I decided to go back to school. During my study I came in contact with the German brand, A.D. Deertz. The designer, Wibke Deertz, who I became very close friends with, was looking for someone who could help her starting her brand in Vietnam. By doing this I learned much about the production site and the day-to-day business. After the brand moved to Thailand, I started to work for another womenswear brand and gained more experience.
In 2012 I decided to start my own brand Kilomet109. I wanted to set up a business model that made me able to work with artisans in Hanoi e.g. button makers, embroiders, seamstresses, weavers. The first collection was made of 70% percent silk all from around Hanoi’s communities. It was very well received.
I realized when I went to trade shows all you learn about the textiles is from the sellers, but you don’t know who made it and where. However, I wanted to know who makes my clothes. Men, women, children? I'm a craft person, I know how to design clothes from a sketch, so I'm always interested in who's doing it. When I worked for the different labels, I didn’t know all that. I realized that I will never learn it, when I don’t ask and figure it out and that it is unfortunate for someone who loves textiles. That’s the reason why I started to do research.
So, what did you do?
I really went deep into the topic of indigo dyeing because once I made a horrible experience. For a dyeing project I worked with a community and the result was not satisfactory at all. As I got deeper into the subject, I became aware that I had no idea about indigo dyeing and no idea about the communities I was working with. I realized that the initiative had to come from me and that I can't just come up with ideas and work with people without knowing anything about their tradition, about the fabric about their dyeing techniques. That was the turning point for me and I decided to go back and learn from them by watching. I stayed for over a month and learned a lot about the Nung An people. The time there helped me see more clearly what I want and how I want to work. I learned so much about handwoven fabrics and dyeing processes during this time. I saw, for example, that you can't weave by yourself, but that it takes at least four women to prepare the loom. There are so many intermediate steps between spinning and weaving: the cotton seeds are separated, then spun into yarn, fermenting, stripping, manufacturing and, and, and. I try to earn the techniques to help me to see which part we can improve or with what we can make some experiments. But the methods of making it are pretty much how it exist in the communities. Your approach and view on fashion has a very sustainable aspect. Why is that important to you?
I see myself as a textile artist, not a designer that is chasing after trends. In 2018 I participated in the London design Biennale, I regularly do exhibitions and I’ve been involved in a lot of social projects. I want to do things that are attached to humans. All the work that I’ve been doing is human centered. We work together with artisans in five different communities. I meet each artisan face to face. We create together, find solutions and solve problems together.
Do you know how many people worked for your clothes? Weavers, dyers, seamstresses and embroiderers all work on one garment. I want to focus on the people behind it. For too long, the covers of fashion magazines or the runway have been all about style or trends. To me, that’s superficial because it's not just about the individual, it's also about the community. The fashion industry only promotes the people at the end of the supply chain. It's not fair; it forgets the most important thing, the root, the people who make the fashion. I think the fast fashion system will collapse. The pressure is so great and issues like climate change and fair labor conditions put pressure on many. The supply chains of big brands are so long and wasteful. As a designer, I am horrified when I see the processes of fast fashion suppliers.
But Vietnam is currently one of the most economically dynamic countries in Asia. Even if the financially strong middle class only makes up a small part of the population. Aren’t fast fashion providers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo very popular?
There are a few different categories. Most students buy fast fashion. But in Vietnam we have also some independent local fashion brands like MoiDien, Ivy Moda or Blue Exchange. It’s Vietnamese mainstream fashion, more local designer range, but also mass-produced. Even if the group of kids that show interest in sustainable fashion is still small, I have a good feeling that this group of people will grow. The younger Vietnamese generation is much more aware of sustainable topics, than we were. I get a lot of messages through social media by a very young audience and even if they can’t afford my clothes, they appreciate what I do. And on top, here in Hanoi there is a lively scene of secondhand/vintage groups, buy-less-movement groups and swap market events among young people. Kids today are so connected via platforms like Instagram or Facebook. Their impact of change is so much bigger nowadays. My customers tell me, that it’s their kids who say to shop at my store. They educate their family and spread the word. It’s a small group but it is growing.
If you don't follow seasonal trends, what does your collection look like?
I am not doing seasonal collections. I do one collection per year. The style is timeless. I don’t follow crazy seasonal circles of fashion. The last collection took 2 ½ years to make. Each collection has 35 to 40 different styles–that includes men and women. I usually have more women’s styles. Each style is made for ready to wear and has 12-15 garments. I produce two to three color shades. I am just changing fabrics to make winter garment and some pieces are to order by measurement. We don’t have leftovers and have zero waste. If you go into our studio you won’t see any garbage. The fabrics that we don’t use anymore are collected from design students for their projects. In addition, I don’t carry stocks. That saves me a lot of money because I don’t need an extra fee for storage. We do everything ourselves, from planting all the fiber cotton, to new techniques of botanical dyeing, weaving and sewing. We make the button from wood, shell and glass–the whole circle of production is in-house. It is a different way of creating things.