Julie Vola is obsessed with the history of place. So, when the opportunity arose for the Hanoi-based French photographer and Word photo editor to shadow Vietnamese fashion designer Vu Thao on a British Council sponsored trip to Sapa, she seized it.
“The project was an amazing opportunity to be able to witness over a few days a process that usually takes months,” she says.
The process Julie refers to is the production, dyeing and weaving of hemp into fabric for clothing by women from Hmong communities. The story behind the use of hemp in the Hmong culture of northern Vietnam is more than 5,000 years old. Throughout their history, the Hmong have made the use of the plant, cannabis, and the weaving of its fibres as an indispensable part of their culture.
“I’ve always loved indigo and batik fabric from Sapa, so meeting these women and sharing a few days with them was great,” says Julie. “When you witness how long it takes and how much work it is for them to produce these beautiful fabrics, you come to understand why the items are expensive. You feel bad for every time you’ve chosen the cheaper option, and something which is lesser quality.”
Made in Vietnam
Somewhere along the line, Vietnam’s fashion industry has become known for two things — speed and low prices — not always a good thing. This has become damaging to the reputation of Vietnamese-made products, something made clear during Julie’s trip to Sapa.
“I realised that we, myself included, aren’t willing to pay a fair price anymore,” she says. “Fast, cheap fashion has skewed the system completely.”
Bucking the trend of the ‘cheap is best’ mentality is a growing global interest in high-end, ethically sourced fashion that is helping transform the negative perceptions of the Made in Vietnam label. In the process it raises the profile of some of the country’s traditions and artisans.
In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Julie’s chaperone for the trip Vu Thao, a Hanoi-based fashion designer and founder of Kilomet 109, an eco-friendly fashion brand that works with women from the Nung, Thai, and Hmong ethnic communities, said, “People are looking for something unique, valuable... Value is not superficial, it’s the culture behind it, the story behind it, the environmental issues behind it.”
Passing the Baton
Yet, the skills behind producing and weaving hemp into high-quality fabric may not be passed down to future generations. Vietnam is undergoing a cultural shift caused by development, threatening the traditional ways of life for millions of people.
“Their main challenge is being able to keep their traditional methods while being able to sustain their families,” says Julie. “They need to find more people like Thao, but also be able to transmit their knowledge so the next generation can take over.”
Ways of passing down creative knowledge in communities like the Hmong haven’t kept pace with change in the rest of society, which is compounded by kids from ethnic villages leaving for the big cities. There they study and begin living a way of life far-removed from that of the generations before them.
“Working with these women one-on-one, you feel responsible for finding a way to preserve their techniques,” said Thao in a recent interview with The Creators Project.
As for Julie, she plans to continue raising awareness of important issues in Vietnam through her photography and sharing the stories that arise from them. Her long-term goal is to document the work of NGOs around the globe. She adds, “But don’t we all want to do that in our field?”
Photos by Julie Vola