In Vietnam, the concept of sustainable fashion is still a novelty. However, over the past few years the community of supporters committing to fashion consciousness without compromise has been growing. That’s true both locally with designers like French-Vietnamese Linda Mai Phung, who we recently profiled, exploring the high-end sustainable market segment, and regionally with brands like Cambodian-headquartered Tonlé committing to zero waste and getting namechecked in the Guardian and Huffington Post.
With Vietnam becoming a battleground for the fast-fashion industry, and talk of Uniqlo opening soon, here we take a closer look into the country’s potential as a sustainable fashion hub.
Slow fashion and natural materials
First, to achieve sustainability, the materials used must come from natural resources and the production process needs to be eco-friendly. Vietnam is rich with biodiversity running from north to south, and luckily for us, that puts the country in a unique position to easily source a variety of green materials necessary to embrace the notion of slow fashion.
Lanh My A: The royal silk
Lanh My A Silk, also known as Tan Chau Silk, is primarily made in the northern province of An Giang. The delicate silk is woven from only the finest cocoon fibers. It’s white, initially, and so to achieve its glossy jet-black tint, craftsmen must dye it around one hundred times with an organic dyeing technique using Mac Nua (an ebony-colored fruit). The eco-friendly process of soaking, wringing and drying can take up to a month from start to finish, but crucially it’s safe for everyone involved.
Nowadays, Lanh My A Silk appears in an array of colors like amber, indigo and ash. The exquisite fabric is durable and breathable, and has even received international attention from Brad and Angelina who decked themselves in the black silk for the Hollywood premiere of Maleficent.
In fact, the demand has been so big that Tan Chau was revived as a trade village in 2006 after foreign clients began to place annual purchase orders.
Additionally, Vietnamese designer Nguyen Cong Tri used Lanh My A Silk for his No.9 Lua collection which was showcased during Tokyo Fashion Week 16, pushing the silk further into the international spotlight.
Bamboo: The miracle crop
In Vietnam, bamboo has long been utilized for everything from building materials to textile fiber and even food. What makes bamboo an ideal material is that it’s termite-resistant, fast growing (it’s the quickest woody crop to cultivate in the world) and easily biodegradable which makes overproduction almost impossible.
The economic benefits are another one of its assets. It’s estimated, unlike most crops, that farmers receive back roughly 60% of their total investment. As bamboo has become a sustainable alternative for the production of timber, Vietnam is perfectly placed to profit from this emerging new industry sector.
Considering bamboo’s versatility, it should come of no surprise that it’s becoming a creative replacement for an array of materials such as plastic, aluminum and even cotton. Take, for example, Viet Bamboo Bike who are conceptualizing bamboo bicycles or Ladan who are modernizing handbags, hats and even shoes.
With a 700-year-old tradition, hand embroidery maintains a long, rich history in the Vietnamese textile industry. By utilizing needles and colorful threads the technique creates realistic images slowly crafted stitch by stitch. Nowadays, artisans still nurture the traditional handmade process instead of implementing modern embroidery machines and techniques.
XQ trade villages double as culturally significant exhibition spaces as well as sizable workshops for hand embroidery. First established by artists Hoang Thi Xuan and Vo Van Quan in Dalat in 1994, as of 2017, there are XQ Trade Villages in Ha Noi, Hue, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City, housing over 2,000 craftswomen. These ‘villages’ celebrate this unique artform, and bring the long term benefit of eco-friendly trade to the craftspeople.
Weekly markets in northern Vietnam are where you could find hill tribe fabrics made and sold by ethnic minority groups like The Hmong, The Red Dao and Tay. Each person can create around twenty pieces a year, but before this process can even begin they have to harvest the farm-grown cotton, spin it into yarn and finally use a hand loom to weave the yarn into cloth. The hill tribe patterns can be different depending on the weaving techniques of each group. Hand weaving takes time and effort, but doesn’t require electricity, hence, it is completely carbon neutral.
Although the hill tribes have been hand-weaving gorgeous fabrics for hundreds or years, sadly many of them are not yet aware of the value of their skills. This has led to a depletion of craftsmen lured into more difficult, but more quickly rewarding manual work in the agricultural industry.
However, fashion houses like Chula Fashion, Kilomet 109 and Linda Mai Phung are working hard to change this. As they raise awareness to the locals about the value of their skills, they can hopefully increase the standard of living as the traditional techniques are re-employed, and Vietnamese handweaving progresses into the international consumer circuit.
Hue’s wood art developed during the Nguyen dynasty, and primarily served as imperial and pagoda design. Nowadays, supplies of natural wood are limited and often replaced by industrial wood products, forcing carpenters to leave the traditional medium.
Witnessing that, designer Lan Vy Nguyen founded Fashion 4 Freedom, a group of designers working closely with the local community to connect contemporary designs and traditional handicraft, in order to turn wood, initially used for large-scale construction and interior design, into smaller accessories. This new business model has helped to create sustainable jobs for over 30,000 people in Vietnam, and has served as a way to preserve ancient traditions.
What to expect in the future
Although sustainable fashion in Vietnam is still in its embryonic stage, things are rapidly evolving. As more and more brands are becoming aware of the need to develop fashion sustainably, Vietnam is slowly becoming aware of the need to close the gap on mass produced fashion accessories and textiles.
From luxury designers like Nguyen Cong Tri and Fashion 4 Freedom, to more affordable lines like Chula Fashion, Ladan and Leinne, sustainability is at the core of their business models.
This indicates that the demand for both natural materials and handmade products most certainly exists in many segments of the market. Consequently, there’s increasing job opportunities for Vietnam’s skilled workforce within an eco-friendly structure. Running sustainable fashion businesses in Vietnam is becoming increasing desirable as it benefits entrepreneurs, workers and consumers both environmentally and socio-economically. Although the foundation is being laid, there is still much work to do and, at this point, it’s exciting to see what will be next for Vietnam.