Few visitors set foot in Cao Bang, Vietnam, a remote village in the mountains north of Hanoi, but designer Vu Thao considers it a creative second home. Collaborating with ethnic women who live there, Thao grows and produces natural dyes and fabrics for Kilomet 109, her eco-conscious clothing line. Thanks to Vacation With An Artist (VAWAA), a program we covered previously that pairs travelers with creators around the world, curious visitors can join Thao in Cao Bang to spend five days learning the secrets of cultivating natural dye from the land.
Craftsmanship is deeply ingrained in the culture of Vietnam. The country is home to 54 ethnic groups specializing in distinct artisanal traditions. The women of Cao Bang make a living farming rice and corn and raising water buffalo, but they also grow indigo and magenta plants that produce rich, traditional pigments. Once out of design school, Thao reached out to ethnic women all over Vietnam to learn the art of natural dyeing, silk production, and fabric weaving.
Thao first partnered with the women of Cao Bang four and a half years ago. Getting to the village takes eight hours on a bus from Hanoi, and she visits every two months, participating in the planting and harvesting of crops and experimenting with new hues. “They’re used to working with traditional colors, like black indigo, which they’ve produced for generations. So when I started working with them and wanted to experiment with new shades, they weren’t convinced at the beginning,” Thao tells The Creators Project.
“The first time I made a new dye, a very light shade of sky blue, they looked at me and laughed, because it was so ugly.” In the intervening years, Thao and the women perfected 10 unique shades of indigo that Thao uses in Kilomet 109 designs. She introduced the villagers to traditional dyes from her own ethnic group, and is constantly looking for new natural ingredients to source locally.
An avid collector of traditional Vietnamese costumes, Thao designs flattering, minimal garments with subtle nods to ancestral garb. “A lot of people look upon ethical or sustainable fashion as boring. They think it’s only earth tones, nothing exciting. But that’s not true. There’s so much out there to try,” Thao says. Adopting a hands-on approach to creating every aspect of a garment impacts the design process, too. “When you’re making fabric from scratch, your relationship with the fibers is so strong,” Thao says. “When you understand the fabric, you use it better. It’s a completely different relationship than buying fabric found in a market.”
Despite its rich cultural heritage, Vietnam lacks modern modes of passing down creative knowledge. The artist explains, “Working with these women, one-on-one, you feel responsible for finding a way to preserve their techniques. The kids from ethnic villages go to big cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to study, and they start wearing the same clothes as the rest of the world. Many Vietnamese see looking ethnically different as not fashionable, not trendy,” Thao says. Partnering with VAWAA is one small attempt to preserve the oral tradition of passing techniques down from one creator to another, adapting craftsmanship to an evolving world.