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Tarp, but Make It Fashion: A Saigon Trio Upcycles Canopies Into Backpacks

With a love for the environment and ample creativity, Kiều Anh, Trang, and Tú Quân have built a unique fashion brand named Dòng Dòng Sài Gòn. The line of bags and other items created from recycled tarpaulin encompasses a message of youthful experimentation: “Let’s just give it a try, should it turn awry, make a U-turn.”

Despite only being on the market for just under a year, Dòng Dòng has won over a number of customers from a wide range of demographics. Prior to that, the trio of co-founders had to weather through many hardships to form their brand and build a loyal following.

On a drizzling day last October, while chatting over a cup of warm coffee, Kiều Anh and Trang suddenly spotted a used piece of tarp in the trashcan along with some single-use raincoats and torn umbrellas. “The tarp was quite new. It was probably torn or no longer wanted after the event it served was over, but for sure no one would reuse it,” Kiều Anh — the group’s oldest member — chronicles Dòng Dòng’s inception. “We had a discussion and decided to give it a try.”

Old tarpaulins are transformed by Dòng Dòng into unique fashion items. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Right away, the duo embarked on days of experimenting with sewing together some simple items using hiflex, a PVC-based material commonly seen at outdoor events. The source material was not hard to find, as they have many friends working in the media industry, where events are commonplace. Their journey hit the first speedbump, however: the tarps are brittle. After countless changes in design and sewing techniques, the problem didn’t go away. This dampened their enthusiasm for several days as they were sure that the idea has gone bust.

“At the moment, we saw in the corner the canopy tarp that’s been thrown around but still seemed so sturdy, so we tried again with that and it worked,” Kiều Anh adds. “Then, we realized that just the two of us wasn’t enough, as we’re both designers, not very business-savvy. So we sought out Tú Quân, our friend working in marketing.” In March 2020, Dòng Dòng Sài Gòn was born.

Custom-made colorful bags made out of tarp.

The name Dòng Dòng is the phonetic approximation of how Saigoneers pronounce the Vietnamese word “vòng vòng” — meaning to wander around town. The trio often had to travel “vòng vòng” in Saigon and even nearby provinces to source suitable materials for their brand, along Ly Thuong Kiet Street, in Cho Lon, at times dropping by garden coffee shops to seek old tarps. Scouring every nook and cranny in town and trying different materials, they eventually settled on the decision to use canopy tarp to make backpacks, wallets, and pencil cases, while hiflex is only for delivery bags.

Currently, Dòng Dòng Sài Gòn doesn’t have a physical location, but only a small production workshop on Nguyen Huu Canh Street in Binh Thanh District. They usually collaborate with other shops and cafes, which carry their products, while they focus on creating bags and devising new products at the workshop.

The group disassembles an old hiflex-covered banner.

At the workshop, there are two full-time tailors and two assistants. This is where the entire process of reincarnating old tarps into backpacks takes place. The steps include cleaning, drying, categorizing, cutting, sewing and sanitizing the final products.

Outside the place lies a small courtyard where Dòng Dòng processes sourced tarps. Each piece is washed with water and enzymatic detergents to minimize environmental impacts. Once washed, they are dried and folded neatly on a shelf. Then, depending on the design, they will be divided into pieces according to the blueprint, each corresponding with a segment of the final item.

“Our cutting board is placed inside our workshop. When it was first assembled, it was spotless, but after a while, many ‘scars’ appeared. It embodies the journey we’ve been through,” Tú Quân says. “Tarp pieces, once cut, will head to the sewing room to be worked on by our seamstresses. We use sewing machines, but they have to exert a lot of effort as the material is quite tough. When done, it’s washed once again and then moved to our display right next door.” With a small team and a process that’s entirely done by hand, Dòng Dòng’s designs don’t look mass-produced, mainly because no two pieces of recycled tarp look the same.

“Chơi Cam Đoan” bag

“Quần Trôi” backpack

When queried about their key values, Kiều Anh said: “Each creation is like a child one gives birth to. Each has its own appearance, identity and quirks. What they have in common is their history spent outside under the elements, sheltering everything below, now including our vow for environmental sustainability. Every product at Dòng Dòng bears our three core values: functionality, sustainability and uniqueness.”

“Tri Ca Pu” clutch

“Tri Ô Lét”

Even though their beginning was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the founders are still sanguine: “We always keep the most positive attitude we can to create products of high quality, with a lot of thoughts and precision. Dòng Dòng is still young, but it doesn’t mean we can excuse unprofessionalism. We feel lucky to have gotten this level of attention for creating things out of recycled materials. What’s to come will come.”

Ton-sur-Ton is a series highlighting local brands in Vietnam that have a strong personality and compelling story. More than just textiles and colors, they bring a breath of fresh air to the nation's fashion scene. Know a distinctive local brand? Write to us via contribute@saigoneer.com.

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