“Ethnic is in,” a phrase that my friends in New York started saying two summers ago, became a kind of joke because what does it actually mean? However, the statement has since taken on more depth for me, with a somewhat closer approximation of what ethnic looks and feels like in northern Vietnam.

 

Handmade fabrics from ethnic minority villages have been tourism classics since Vietnam started accepting visitors in the 1990s. Colourful scarves, jewellery, handbags and wooden instruments that will probably never be played are the traditional items that tourists traditionally buy when visiting traditional minority villages. Tourism has become a significant source of income in some of Vietnam’s rural areas.

 

For the past ten years, Dirk Salewski  and his wife have travelled to ethnic minority villages to select fabrics for their handicraft store, Mystere, on Saigon’s trendy Dong Khoi Street. They travel every other month to different areas in Vietnam searching for new products for their store. For the past three years, though, their most regular destination has been the northeastern province of Cao Bang — home to the Tay, Muong, Dao, Hmong, San Thi and Lolo ethnic minority groups. After hours of driving on paved and unpaved roads, then hiking up mountain passages, the pair looks for pieces that will attract customers back in Ho Chi Minh City. They always keep the tastes of the market in mind.

 

“It is not so easy because many tribes make products that customers are not going for,” they say. “Some of the very traditional things that are made cannot be sold.”

 

This wear-ability question is a familiar one to others who support the minority women weavers by introducing their textiles abroad. How do you take products from a small ethnic minority village and translate them to an urban setting without winding up in the land of clichéd and kitsch?


Prints The World Over

 

French-Vietnamese designer Linda Mai Phung uses her trained eyes for fashion to negotiate this tricky terrain. She is aware that when her clothing line hits the streets of France, Italy or Belgium, people are weary of looking too “crazy,” even if it’s simply a colourful Hmong belt on a black skirt. Her compromise is a blend.

 

“I try to modernise the ethnic style,” she says. “At the last show in Paris, people thought I was going to sell skirts [straight from the village]… or traditional outfits that are very colourful and un-wearable in the streets.”

 

The show in Paris to which Linda refers is the annual Ethical Fashion Show. Not to be confused with ethnic fashion, ethical fashion means all clothing is well sourced. Linda works with recycled materials left over from factories and brings prints from small mountain villages in Vietnam to Paris, infusing ethically sourced materials with ethnic designs. Like Dirk, she has done her share of travelling and is familiar with Hmong and Dao styles in Lao Cai and Bac Ha, and the Bana and Cham from the central region.

 

Promoting Vietnamese-made products in a global market and giving work to women who otherwise may not have any is what motivates Linda, who remains balanced about what she is doing.

 

“I’m not saying I’m saving the world, but I’m trying to live my passion and keep it in line with my values,” she explains.


Weaving a Story

 

In life, the story is what makes the difference. And from the growing and cultivating of their own cotton, to the hand weaving and dyeing, from the batik painting to the individual embroidery of traditional motifs, even an occasional pleat on a skirt, the history of a single piece of ethnic fabric is rich. For Dirk, the power of this story keeps business moving, with tourists making up the majority of his customers in Saigon.

 

“If it’s handmade and you tell the customer, the customer will accept [the strong smell of indigo or the fact that it cannot be easily washed].”

 

For Linda, her customers in Europe seem more concerned with the ‘does this look nice on me’ question.
“The customers can know the story but it’s hard for them to imagine it. People come [to ethical fashion shows] because they are interested in the cause, but then get seduced by the style. Very few people are attracted to the story. Of course, when I explain it, it’s better.”

 

To trace the journey of ethnic clothes back even further involves talking to Mrs. Huong of a local Cao Bang NGO called Decen. Since December 2010, the organisation has been developing the handicraft sector in remote areas of the province. Huong works with village women who produce fabrics and helps them to generate an income through sales in bigger cities domestically and internationally. Even for Huong, who works in close proximity to the weavers, the story of the process is complicated.

 

“We cannot tell how many days or hours the women spend making their products. They start planting hemp in March and then after tending to the crops, there are at least 14 steps to get the finished hand-woven material, which is usually ready to be sold in December.”

 

Before her NGO's involvement, Huong says that handicrafts generated very little income for the people of remote areas. 

 

“If there is no income, they have to give up the activity and this part of the culture disappears. We try to keep the traditional culture alive and help people understand the value of their work.”

 

As Dirk and Linda are both aware, the preservation of culture demands some negotiation. Huong reveals that after her project began involving local weavers, the fabrics themselves had to be slightly changed. 

 

“The main target-clients in big cities [mostly in Japan and western markets] don't like synthetic material and don't like the overly bright prints. We introduced colours that are still warm, but not so bright and colourful.” After the changes increased sales, Huong says that the people in the village also started to like the better quality material and the new line of colours.


Customer Connection

 

From the practiced hands of women in distant mountain villages to peaking out from beneath the black leather jackets of Hanoi, the end of the fabric's journey is not difficult to spot if you're looking.

 

Seen manoeuvering along Tong Duy Tan’s bumpy brick, a pair of stylish turquoise flats sport an ethnic flair at the toe. When asked about her shoes, the wearer thoughtfully reveals, “I like the idea of having something connected to a place where I am a visitor, but it being something that can be incorporated into my life in a way that’s not just me completely adopting something different”.

 

Another city dweller wearing a denim vest with lapels infused with Sapa-style embroidery describes the appeal of the blend.

 

“I saw this and thought I could wear it without being totally symbolic of something different; it's part me and my style.”

 

Some may argue that combining fashion from around the world causes cultural confusion and dilution. Others may argue that it educates the public and supports people in remote areas. And some may cherish the story of how it came to be, or the simplicity of something handmade. Maybe it’s just because the colours are beautiful. Maybe it’s because Glamour magazine told us to. Whatever the reason, it's pretty 'in' right now.

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