Thao Vu is the sort of woman people look up to — elegant in an unstudied, natural way, used to getting things done but also unhurried, taking the time to get things done right. When we arrived at her house/studio, she welcomed us warmly and ushered us into the living room. Every object in the house revealed her good taste; her green tea, her furniture, her beautiful wood floors, and of course, her clothing, which is almost more art than fashion.
Kilomet 109 is a sustainable clothing brand created and designed by Thao, who first got into sewing when she was 10 years old.
“Many Vietnamese girls were told to sew… I didn’t see it as a career at all,” she says. “Later on, I worked for newspapers and magazines that focused on Vietnamese culture. Through opportunities to get to know my own culture at a deeper level, my interest in the arts started coming back.
“I took a fashion design course at the London Fashion College in Hanoi, and worked for a couple of international brands after I graduated before starting my own brand.”
A Sustainable Approach
Thao’s studio contains a rack of traditional costumes from ethnic minority groups, which she collects and uses as inspiration for her own designs. She showed us one of her pieces that was displayed in the Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts; a long white coat made from a blanket that is over 100 years old. The blanket itself was made from fibres of the bark of the rare Sui tree, and Thao’s coat is embroidered loosely with silver birds and colourful hanging threads.
In her studio we also found piles of raw and dyed silk, organic cotton, the dried nuts to make the soap with which she washes her fabrics, as well as leaves from the plants she uses to dye the cloth, giving them gorgeous, subtle colours. Thao uses a wide variety of natural materials for buttons and other trimmings, including nuts, wood, coal, stone, bamboo and bone. Her conscientious efforts to be completely sustainable are impressive in an industry famous for its lack of social or environmental awareness.
The name Kilomet 109 comes from the distance between Thao’s home province of Thai Binh and Hanoi. She chose it because it reflects the type of customers she has in mind — travellers who need their dress to be both fashionable and flexible. The clothes are simple, yet sophisticated and stylish, and can be worn in many different ways, allowing her customers to pack only a few versatile pieces for any trip.
“[The name implies] a movement, a journey,” Thao says. “It’s also a measurement, which relates more directly to what I do.”
For over five years, she has worked with four different ethnic groups (Dao, Nung, Muong and Thai) from the northern mountains of Vietnam to produce the textiles she uses in her designs. Each ethnic minority performs different parts in growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving the various fabrics, and she knows who they are and what they do at every step of the process. Her connection to every part of this process shows her passion for her work, resulting in a very close relationship with everything she makes.
It took Thao four-and-a-half years to design and launch her first line of clothing, which taught her a lot about adapting traditional fabric-making techniques for use in the modern world. Originally, for simplicity’s sake, Thao wanted only one ethnic group to grow and produce everything she needs.
“I tried to stick with one group, but it was unfeasible. In 2009, I developed a range of indigo colours on my own, and then I asked my Nung ladies in Cao Bang Province to dye my colours with their traditional techniques. They told me it was impossible, then tried anyway. But the colours turned out to be a disaster. They gave up. I was bummed.
“I realised that changing the tradition which had existed for thousands of years was like trying to move Fansipan Mountain... it’s better to adapt their techniques, learn and develop from them, but also respect their traditions. Slowly, we created a number of exciting colour ranges, using all-natural dyes from indigo, yam and magenta plants.”
So Thao stopped bringing outside techniques to different ethnic groups, which she finds challenging in its own way; it spreads her business around and complicates the supply chain.
Keeping it Natural
Since its first clothing launch in 2012, Kilomet 109 has done well. Clothes designed by Thao are sold at Module 7 on Xuan Dieu in Hanoi, as well as at boutique stores in Berlin and Portugal. Her latest ecologically-friendly collection, Seed, was successfully launched at Manzi Art Space last December, and featured not only organic fabrics but also natural dyes and beeswax batik prints.
Thao’s other new line of clothing is more dressy, and requires fabrics that are impossible for her suppliers to produce in Vietnam. She imports these from sustainable producers in Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan. Although she hopes to eventually be able to produce everything here, she says it is a hugely ambitious goal.
For now, she is focused on designing more pieces and expanding her business by selling to stores in Saigon, the rest of Vietnam, and all over the world. Although it might take a while to do things right, I have no doubt that Thao’s beautiful clothing will go far.