Fast fashion may be taking the world by storm but in Hanoi, designers are slowing things down. Slow fashion, defined by some as a movement rather than a trend, prioritises sustainable garment production above quick turnarounds and high profits. Vu Thao, a Vietnamese fashion designer based in Hanoi, has been a pioneer in the city’s nascent slow fashion scene for almost a decade. Despite having countless garment factories in the city at her disposal – many of which are infamous for producing cheap clothing for international high-street brands – Thao’s label, Kilomet109, is a case study in slow fashion done right.
Elegant and graceful, 39-year-old Thao has been sewing since she was 10 years old. She studied fashion design in Hanoi before working for various designers in London and Berlin between 2008 and 2012. It was around this time that the potentially negative environmental effects of garment production started to surface.
While dreaming up Kilomet109, Thao found herself searching for a way to combine design and sustainability in her work. In 2009, her quest took her 200 miles north of Hanoi to meet artisans from the Nung An ethnic group, which still practises the traditional technique of indigo dyeing. In this technique, a piece of fabric is soaked in a vat of indigo dye a number of times over a period of up to eight weeks to get the perfect shade.
“To make this dark blue neck scarf I’m wearing, the fabric would need to be dipped in the dyeing vat at least 40 times,” she explains. Thao is also sporting a long, woven jacket speckled with different shades of blue. “This technique is so unique you won’t be able to find it anywhere else in the world.”
Thao wanted to create contemporary fashion pairing age-old dyeing ingredients such as indigo, bark and tea, with clean-cut, modern tailoring. She also experimented with unusual patterns using batik methods traditional to the Blue Hmong tribe and alternative types of weaving and fabric processing.
However, it wasn’t easy persuading the local artisans to deviate from the tried-and-tested path. “It’s not just about changing the fabric-making process; it’s changing people’s mindset,” Thao says. “People look at the traditional techniques and textiles as something from the past – they think it’s not exciting or fashionable enough.”
In fact, of all the Nung An women that Thao approached to help with these fabric experiments, half turned her down. And those who agreed had little idea that the new colours, textures and patterns they created would eventually become part of Thao’s distinctive slow fashion label.
Launched in 2012, Kilomet109 offers well-tailored garments that are comfortable enough for everyday wear but are statement pieces in their own right. The clothing is typically in shades of brown, navy or khaki – making it easy to pair with other items – and many of the garments are reversible for optimum repeat wear. True to its slow fashion ethos, the label only releases one collection per year, with production taking about six months.
Three months are spent planting, harvesting and weaving crops – a process that Thao oversees personally – and another three months are spent designing, creating and promoting the garments. “It’s a long process but I have no desire to scale up,” Thao says. In fact, Kilomet109 currently only produces around 1,000 pieces per year. “It’s about cultural identity,” Thao says, “I’ve always wanted to create something related to my roots.”
The appeal of slow fashion in Hanoi is not just about promoting tradition and heritage; it’s also about the fair treatment of the individuals who make the clothes. As one of the top garment manufacturers in the world, Vietnam is challenged by the exploitation of workers for quick profits, whether through low wages or the use of child labour. LanVy Nguyen, a former corporate development worker in the fashion industry, witnessed this unfair treatment in her previous job when visiting garment factories. Today, she’s the founder of Fashion4Freedom, an ethical garment supply chain and an advocate for fair labour.
Fashion4Freedom provides transparent, ethical garment production for conscious fashion retailers. “The quickest and easiest path to becoming eco- friendly is for brands to strategically re-examine their design and production processes,” LanVy says.
“Big brands spend a great deal of time and money on merchandising as well as fixing production or design mistakes. When designers and merchandisers plan ahead, less is wasted. This makes room in the system for investment in eco-friendly materials and human resource development at the factory level.”
Encouragingly, a new wave of young fashion designers is giving slow fashion a try. In December last year, students at the Hanoi-based London College for Design and Fashion showcased sustainable fashion pop-up shops as part of their graduate show. The display included upcycled denim pieces by Raw Again, handcrafted sustainable jewellery by Bijoux and eco- friendly silk sleepwear by True Silk.
Second-year fashion student Le Ngoc Ha Thu, known as Rhul, also presented research on zero-waste pattern-cutting, natural dyeing and vintage shopping. “The ethical market is booming and millennials are more environmentally and socially aware than ever,” Rhul says. “For my next project, I want to create a sustainable collection that is as inclusive as possible: gender-neutral, free-size and versatile so it can work as both office wear and casual wear.”
At the retail level, some local boutiques have also begun to offer incentives to shop sustainably, such as Nhat La, Da Ong Bo in west Hanoi, which sells upcycled and naturally dyed clothing. The shop offers discounts to customers who walk or cycle to the shop and take away purchases in their own bags. Furthermore, secondhand clothing stores are mushrooming across Hanoi, including Myriad in Tay Ho District and Magenta Vintage in Hoan Kiem District.
Sustainable fashion boutique An Store not only sells upcycled home décor items – such as lampshades made with hemp or recycled iron – it also displays its goods on secondhand furniture. Instead of buying new shelves, the store owners source for old doors and windows to repurpose as shelving.
However, just as the slow fashion movement seems to be gaining traction in Hanoi, the demand for fast fashion is rising, too. In 2017, fashion giants Zara and H&M opened their first stores in Hanoi, and were inundated. The companies’ success has encouraged many local garment manufacturers and fashion brands to make production times even faster.
Despite this trend, there are those that believe slow fashion and fast fashion are on completely different playing fields. Chula Fashion, a slow fashion label that works closely with small local communities and people with physical disabilities, produces beautiful designs that marry classic Vietnamese shapes and symbols with bold prints and colours.
Over the past decade, they have steadily grown in popularity and now boast five stores across Vietnam. “We cannot compete with the big brands,” says co-founder Diego Cortizas. “We are radically different – from the products, the systems and the final customers.”
The Spanish-born Cortizas also finds that the best way for slow fashion labels to find success is not by imitating big brands but by turning their limitations into selling points. “Fashion is a big ocean,” he says. “There should be enough space for both the big brands and the small sustainable labels.”
In addition, the barometer of success for slow fashion labels is also starkly different from that of the bigger brands. Presently, Chula Fashion employs 60 people, 70% of whom have a physical disability, and Kilomet109 employs 15 local artisans, having originally begun with six. “It’s about community,” Thao explains, “It’s about preserving traditions and techniques.”
“It allows me, as a designer, to track every step of the production process. It helps me to understand where the fibre comes from, how it’s made, who made it, who’s behind the product and what’s in it. I think this is a healthy way of growing.”
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.