A Vietnamese Designer Tweaks Traditional Fabric Production

Working with some of the country’s ethnic-minority groups, Vu Thao has added her own ideas to the routine sourcing process.

HANOI, Vietnam — In 2010, the fashion designer Vu Thao asked her suppliers in a remote corner of northern Vietnam to alter their traditional indigo-dying technique. They were skeptical.

She wanted them to stir the vats during the process, a break with village practice. And, sure enough, it appeared to bring the normal chemical reaction to a halt.

“It’s dead,” one supplier said.

But the finished cotton fabric had a cloudy, teal-colored look, recalled Ms. Thao, who is Vietnamese, and her suppliers from the Nung An ethnic group eventually saw her request as a design innovation. They now call that fabric “dead indigo,” and the story of the first batch still makes them chuckle.

“To me, that’s how you evolve the techniques and keep them going,” Ms. Thao said during an interview at her home studio in Hanoi, the country’s capital, nearly 200 miles south of the village. “It excites the artisans as well: They’re seeing their tradition in a totally different way.”

Ms. Thao, 39, is the founder and designer of Kilomet109, a fashion label that modifies the traditional fabric-production techniques of some of Vietnam’s 54 officially recognized ethnic minority groups and their subgroups, to create a distinctly modern style. Her annual collections are long on subtlety and earthy textures, and they highlight an attention to detail that raises the concept of “slow fashion” to another level.

Kilomet109 supplies clothing to just one boutique in Vietnam and does not advertise formally. Yet it already has a following in Asia, Europe and the United States, and it fills regular orders from boutiques in Germany and Portugal and an online “slow fashion” store based in Thailand and New York.

“I’ve been to the villages and seen how much work goes into” the clothes, said Wibke Deertz, who carries Kilomet109 shirts and jackets at her Berlin boutique, A.D.Deertz. “It’s incredible.”

“Sometimes I think it shouldn’t even be sold, you know?” Ms. Deertz added with a laugh. “You should apply for it.”

Many of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups live in the country’s mountainous hinterlands, and some are known for producing colorful fabrics using small-batch, nonindustrial techniques.

All of Kilomet109’s dyeing, weaving, batik drawing and calendering (a finishing process) is done by nearly three dozen women artisans in four separate ethnic-minority communities across northern Vietnam, and much of the work is surprisingly labor-intensive. Nung An artisans, for example, typically dip a single batch of cotton fabric in indigo dye twice a day over a period of about two months.

Ms. Thao does not simply turn up in villages and pay for raw materials. Instead, she works with her suppliers to determine how much indigo and other crops should be planted, invests in them before they are in the ground and even works in the fields during the harvests. She also plans and executes major modifications to the fabric-production and color-fixing processes, and experiments with the villagers on new dyeing ingredients, such as yam root, green tea and tree bark.

The changes improve overall quality and give her more control of the design process, Ms. Thao said, even as they increase operating costs and require her to spend several weeks a year in her suppliers’ villages.

“You just have to be patient and build trust,” she said.

In one example, Ms. Thao studied a calendering process in which her suppliers from the Black H’mong ethnic group rode a rock weighing about 50 pounds, seesaw style, over hemp fabric to soften it. She suggested that they boil and spin the raw yarn longer, to make it extra soft, and to add more beeswax than they normally would, to increase its sheen.

The finished fabric was later cut into cropped bomber jackets whose shimmering surfaces vaguely resembled patent leather, but with an indigo undertone.

Some of Ms. Thao’s designs reflect serendipitous twists. When she asked artisans from the Blue H’mong group to draw polka dots with beeswax on indigo-dyed cotton, preparing for a batik dyeing process, they complained that the pattern was making them dizzy. So she encouraged them to make spiral patterns instead, creating a “starry night” effect.

The spirals became a central motif of Phieu, or Unburdened Journey, a Kilomet109 collection that Ms. Thao unveiled in April at an exhibition of her work in Hanoi that was sponsored by the British Council.

Nguyen Phuong Thao, who runs the council’s arts and creative industries program in Vietnam, said Kilomet109 designs would not appeal to most mainstream Vietnamese celebrities or style setters, but its business model is a pioneering one in a craft sector that generally is associated with disadvantaged communities and often viewed merely as a source of low-end products. “The way she blends it with the contemporary style is beautiful,” she said.

Compared with many other Vietnam-based fashion brands, Ms. Thao has a more reciprocal relationship with her suppliers and spends more time researching her materials and the traditions behind them, said Marta Gasparin, a design and management lecturer at the University of Leicester in Britain who studies the intersection of creativity and innovation in Vietnam.

“She has all the capacities to grow, but I don’t think she’s driven by growth or competitive advantage or making a profit,” Ms. Gasparin said. “She’s really driven by passions.”

Kilomet109 is named for the distance in kilometers between Hanoi and the village in Thai Binh province where Ms. Thao grew up during Vietnam’s rocky postwar transition to a market economy. Her parents gave her a sewing machine for her 17th birthday, she said, but she did not initially consider fashion design as a career. “It was either become a teacher or an army officer,” she said. “That’s what society respected.”

But as a college student in Hanoi, she made clothes for Vietnamese expatriates in the Czech Republic, where her older sister had moved. She later went to design school in the capital, covered culture as a freelance writer for Vietnamese lifestyle magazines, and worked for two European designers, Ms. Deertz of Germany and Victoria Roe of Britain, both of whom were living in Hanoi at the time.

In 2009, Ms. Thao met artisans from the Nung An ethnic group and placed her first order for indigo-dyed cotton, which mothers in that community typically give to their daughters as wedding gifts.

The fabric was not as flashy or colorful as that made by other ethnic-minority groups in Vietnam, she said, but she loved its understated complexity.

When Ms. Thao founded Kilomet109 in 2012, she said, the idea was to merge what she had learned about so-called ethical fashion in design school with an appreciation for the ethnic-minority traditions she had explored as a journalist.

“It motivated me to see the whole circle of the fiber,” she said.

Right now Ms. Thao produces 750 to 1,000 men’s and women’s pieces per year, for retail prices that typically range from $100 to $500. The label has primarily grown through word of mouth, social media and what she calls “soirees” and trunk shows for friends and prospective clients in Hanoi, Washington and New York. (Full disclosure: I previously bought an indigo blazer and a yam root-dyed dress shirt.)

The designer recently introduced a website with an online sales portal and said that she plans to open a flagship store in Hanoi next year.

Yet Ms. Thao has no immediate plans to produce more than about 2,000 pieces per year, she added, and still prefers to meet prospective clients in person and describe her process. “To make people willing to pay this much,” she said, ”you have to make people understand the value of the making.”