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'Clothing Is a Language That You Can Write With': An Interview With Kilomet109's Thảo Vũ

As eco-fashion label Kilomet109 prepares for the launch of the latest collection “Miên” this month, designer Thảo Vũ sits down with Urbanist Hanoi to share the label’s awkward beginnings and what the label means to her now.

The story of your first sewing machine is not as romantic as people could think. Can you tell me why you didn’t want to get into textiles when you were younger?

I was a tomboy when I was a kid and just wanted to hang out with the boys. We would go fishing and play a lot outside, I preferred that to knitting and sewing which was what my sister, mother, grandma and girlfriends all did.

My parents got me a sewing machine when I turned 17. They were so excited, it was very expensive for a family back then, but I was so grumpy. I just didn’t get why they got it for me and I covered it with a blanket for months. For me it represented the feminine and being stuck at home, just doing things like everyone else was doing.

But when I went to college, I wanted to make my own clothes. I have always dressed quite differently and didn’t want to wear the stuff that you could buy on the street. When you're not living with your parents, you have to manage your money and I would always burn mine quickly, so making clothes helped me make extra income. Even now I'm not 100% sure that I was passionate about sewing, but it gave me a completely different vision of how to react to this sewing machine thing.

You have been living in Vietnam during periods of huge change for the fashion industry. At what point did it really become an industry?

When I went to college in 1996, “fashion” became a word, before it was just “clothes.” Then around the year 2000 we started to talk about “design.” Before the 90s, makers were just people working with their hands, they had skills that they learnt through generations but there wasn’t an interest in creating something new. Then the “design” word became very fashionable, people were really drawn into the term because of the creative element, that was not just presenting clothing culture.

Because of the opening of international policy, in Hanoi we started seeing people wearing different things, different hair, different eyes. It was an exciting moment! For my generation, there were so many things we had never seen before and I realized how limited it had been in Vietnam for so long. We realized that the world is so vast, so big and we had cracked something huge!

I arrived in Hanoi for fashion college and fashion magazines had started to appear but they were so expensive! It never crossed our minds to buy a magazine. There was only one shop on Trang Tien that sold overseas foreign publications like Vogue and it would be like a month's expenses for a student. So we would just copy them at the copy shop or rip out a page or two then take them home to stick on the wall.

So I would say by the year 2000, we had learnt the words, there were fashion weeks and runways and generally it was more structured. The industry had enough vocabulary to describe what they were doing rather than just making clothes.

When forming the direction of Kilomet109 you did extensive study on the dress of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Can you describe this process?

I have always loved not just ethnic but vintage clothing. I collect for myself and I still wear a lot of it. I love different shapes, silhouettes, textiles, color, patterns, prints, motifs. What is so strong about old clothes and textiles is their history. When I was a journalist working for different magazines, I wrote a lot of articles about craft communities, makers and traditions so I had a knowledge base through writing and then when I went to fashion school I appreciated this a lot more. I used minority esthetics as inspiration in design. Taking different elements and techniques like quilting or patchwork from the past. This supported me through studies and I realized the direction that I wanted to go. To be able to work with the local makers, artisans and communities, using what they have.

In the beginning when you started to approach ethnic minority groups to work with them what was the interaction like?

In the beginning most of them were confused and very reluctant to cooperate with me. I was very new to them, in their daily lives they are not exposed to other cultures as much as people coming from the city where there is access to different knowledge. They knew I was not at all local and that I didn’t have their skills.

We also had to deal with the stereotypes, as a Kinh person you are always told to be very careful not to cross lines, to respect in every word you say, and you always remind yourself of that. The language we were using was just not the same culturally or design-wise. When I first approached them I knew about that community as a whole but I didn't know them as individuals. We were more like business partners, and that was where I failed.

When I first experimented with indigo dye I tried to do different shades. Some that they thought were very ugly and I thought were very beautiful. You can see the differences there, looking at the same object and seeing different things. When we were doing the tests on a small piece of fabric it was easy to control. But when I wasn’t there they didn't have a belief in what they were doing and it was a disaster! I ordered hundreds of meters of fabric and when it arrived in Hanoi, everything was wrong. I was overwhelmed, so I just put the fabric in a corner.

And that was a turning point for me, after eight months I realized the problem came from me. I had come into their home, so I needed to at least take the time to get to know them better. When I came back, I spent time getting to know them as a community and individuals. Watching, cooking and just living. It helped me realize how little I really knew and also to see some weaknesses in their systems, things they could improve — like in weaving there were unnecessary processes, in spinning as well they could make it stronger or more refined. When you are a bit invisible in the community you can see the strengths and weaknesses that they have and also the skills of each artisan, maybe one is weaving, the other dyeing. Spending this time was definitely a turning point for me.

Kilomet109 is much more than a fashion brand, you are engaged with safeguarding techniques and traditions as well as advocating ethical practice in the fashion industry. How do you measure the success of the brand?

I measure my brand’s success through the two major elements. The brand stands for artisans and design esthetics. Firstly, if the artisans have work, an income and are able to keep their tradition alive. If they can invest in more tools for their agricultural life, more water buffaloes, pigs, and expand their fields. If they can provide for their family and send their kids to school. When I first worked with many of them their kids didn't have schooling, now many go to college. In this way, I can measure the brand’s success if the community can live healthily with what they make and what they are good at. It is very important to me, and to be honest, I think it is the most important.

Secondly is the design, I measure the success through designs that we create that are unique and culturally attached to different communities and traditions. Of course we modify and change things, but the base is what already exists. You can’t really find these pieces elsewhere, the hands-on level is extreme, from planting to weaving to dyeing and of course design. So even if you don't want to look at the social impact aspect, we make solid signature fashion with a recognizable style. That is important to me. It helps the brand travel within Vietnam and expand internationally with a style that is very contemporary, easy to adapt and made to last. It's not ethno-wear with boring color ranges, or yoga wear and one-size-fits-all. We make things that look good, with structured pieces that are fitted like bias gowns and multifunctional pieces that you can wear four or five different ways. It's contemporary, functional and practical.

The Mien collection that you are about to launch, how is it different from your previous work?

This collection has the most communities we have worked with, five that are spread across Vietnam. From Cao Bang, Hoa Binh, Lao Cai to Bao Loc and the Mekong Delta where the Khmer group live. We usually make one collection a year but this one stretches over two, we cover all four seasons so in a way it's season-less. So the span, the number of artisans and the number of techniques that we apply make it the biggest collection I’ve ever made!

Can you describe the journey to make one piece in the collection?

The piece I am wearing right now is made from handwoven Tussah silk from a Khmer family of artisans in the Mekong Delta. The father is a master of silk making and also ebony dyeing. The ebony fruit creates a black dye that is one of the rarest in Southeast Asia. Only in the Mekong, Thailand and Cambodia do they do it but in Chiang Mai or Cambodia the depth is not comparable. In Vietnam, it is a really dark, thick black and they use it on silk whereas the other countries only use cotton. It is very unique and difficult to do. After dipping the fabric 40 times twice a day, over two weeks non-stop, it is buried in mud to fix the color. Then you pound it. To melt the dye into the fiber and melt the fiber together. When you touch it, it's waxy and it's very matte, almost like leather, making it waterproof and stainproof, super warm but breathable.

When they bury the fabric in the Mekong they have to wake up very early in the morning at about 3, because the dye oxidizes in the sun and you can't let that happen. I love going to see that, in the early morning light and you hear the sounds of the artisans kicking that fabric, the sound of the mud and the water and the people's heavy breathing in this massive empty river scene...it's so magical. If you have the chance to visit that community during textile season, it's the most beautiful thing. You see from afar the whole village is black, with the southern sunlight, it sparkles like a wave.

What does Kilomet109 mean to your family?

Unfortunately my parents did not know I was going in this direction. When they were still alive, I was still working for magazines so they had no idea that I would do fashion design. But I think sometimes, at least many people have convinced me that my parents knew because they bought that first sewing machine for me. And I think from the other world they look at me and say “We told you!”

Do you have any advice for young aspiring designers in Vietnam?

Yes. I think young designers should not focus only on their trade. Clothing culture is so much bigger than just being a fashion designer, it can be a global movement, it can be involved in the political landscape or with cultural traditions or very simply with one artisan making one really unique thing. The scope of the fashion designer is so much deeper than how we have been looking at it and fashion students should look at other things rather than what they are already good at. For too long we think design is just about a beautiful sketch, being on stage, being on the cover of the magazine. No, you should be behind the scenes, hands on working face to face with the artisan. You need to know how to make things too. And when you do that it will change the way that you view your career and appreciate meaning rather than just making clothes.

Clothing to me is a language that you can write with. And you can write about anything, not just about being cool. Be an activist, a writer, be a cultural ambassador, the career you want to create can go in different directions if you are willing to look at it and you can write anything with clothing. Right now the world is changing so fast and the fashion industry is facing so many problems with the economy and the post-virus stages. It is hectic and designers should play by other rules rather than just creating more beautiful garments.

The Miên collection is launched today October 26 at the Goethe Institut of Hanoi. More info is available on the event page. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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