Saigoneer

Back Arts & Culture » Ton-sur-Ton » A Gia Lai Entrepreneur Brings Her Hometown's Brocade Art to Modern Jewelry

A Gia Lai Entrepreneur Brings Her Hometown's Brocade Art to Modern Jewelry

Vũ Thị Thanh Vân had a simple wish: she wanted to find a well-crafted brocade gift for a friend but the only items she could find were generic, run-of-the-mill fillers sold at tourist sites. Thus began Vân’s dabbling in fashion entrepreneurship three years ago.

Incorporating brocade art into fashion designs is nothing groundbreaking, but the practice’s application had been limited to all but a few items in one’s wardrobe, and authenticity is lacking, more often than not.

theMay, a Saigon-based accessories brand founded in 2018, is on a mission to prove that these beautiful patterns aren’t just doomed to be on sourvenir headscarves, but can be preserved and presented through crafted pieces that accurately reflect their worth.

When entering theMay’s little shop on Hai Ba Trung Street, the first thing visitors will notice is the abundance of wood decor, greenery and natural light. The interior looks more like an art gallery than a retail store. Here, every single product on display, from earrings and bracelets to necklaces and handbags, is inspired by unique brocade art from different ethnic groups in Vietnam.

Bamboo (left) and Ashes (right) earrings.

Vân didn’t get the idea for her business until she crossed paths with cultures different from her own. As a new graduate who just earned her degree in international economics, Vân was able to secure a well-paying job in the chemical industry in Japan. Her early success was a feat that many young people wished they could achieve, but the experience she got abroad brought her attention back to Vietnam.

Having witnessed Japan's success in embedding traditional elements into contemporary designs, Vân began pondering the cultural heritage of her mountainous hometown in Gia Lai, and its potential and significance. After two years of doing market research, in mid-2019, she quit her job in Japan and returned to Vietnam to create theMay, much to her family's objections.

Vũ Thị Thanh Vân, theMay's founder.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel around, and what I’ve seen is that many of our neighbors, such as Thailand and Cambodia, are putting in a lot of effort to protect and promote local textile materials and patterns. In Vietnam, we love to talk about áo dài and nón lá, but there are also 53 other ethnic groups out there whose cultural identity and community haven’t been appreciated properly. They are our country’s wealth of unexplored artistry because brocade arts are where ethnic groups tell their stories. And I want to bring those stories to more people."

So far, theMay has featured in its collection some of the most distinctive brocade arts from the Chăm in Ninh Thuan, as well as the Ba Na in Gia Lai. These include Chăm people’s mắt gà (chicken's eye) and chân chó (dog's foot) embroidery motifs, and Ba Na people’s Juji, a shape inspired by a local fern called rau dớn. In addition, Vân has also worked with Chăm artisans from Bau Truc, a pottery village in Ninh Thuan, to create accompanying details for the accessories.

Juji, which frequently makes appearances in theMay’s designs, is an embroidery style inspired by the shape of a fern, rau dớn. Not only is it woven into fabric, this pattern is also employed in the architecture and visual arts of the Ba Na and other ethnic groups in the Central Highlands.

As having products grounded in ethnic culture involves serious social implications, Vân must tread carefully when it comes to doing her research. Field trips and conversations with artisans are essential, as they help her gain a better understanding of the clothes, the thread, and the way of life behind them. These narratives are shared by Vân on social media, so that people "don’t just find them beautiful, but know what they mean." theMay also sources its materials directly from ethnic communities in hope of providing incentives for people to maintain their traditional craft.

When it was just founded, theMay struggled to operate as a business due to its low volume of sales: "We didn't have many customers then. It took us three to four months just to get some stock sold." Part of the reason was that the brand’s early pieces designs were too complex and too dark-toned, which weren’t ideal for modern outfits.

"Because we were one of the first, we didn’t really have anyone to look up to. We designed, produced, tested everything and drew our own conclusions," Vân said. Since “culture is always changing, and absorbing new ideas," she realized that what her products needed was contemporary elements to find themselves in the daily rotation of snappy dressers.

Sóng Biển (Waves) mini collection.

This modification was evident in theMay’s latest releases, including Cát, Sóng Biển và Đại Dương (Sand, Waves and Ocean). These collections feature bold colors and funky shapes that can be easily mixed-and-matched, but the presence of brocade arts is still a constant in all of the designs. For instance, to make the Cát necklace, which is inspired by a constellation, the design team spent a year figuring out how to roll the Chăm brocade fabric into a zig-zag shape and adhere the pearls in between the nodules.

A constellation-shaped design from the collection Cát. 

When asked if there was a lesson she wanted to share with like-minded designers and start-ups, Vân said that there must always be compatibility between the product’s design and message. "Customers care about how it looks before they want to know what it means.”

She also considers brocade fashion to be a niche market, as public interest remains limited, though certain customer segments have been paying more attention. Thus, designers need to keep a close eye on prevailing trends to see which would fit their own identity, and create a fusion that could ride the success of both.

Finally, "a balance between profit and social sustainability" is the most important thing to keep in mind. For Vân, the best thing about running her own business for two years is not just finding customers who love her style, but also meeting and supporting knowledgeable artisans who are working diligently to preserve their community’s handcraft tradition in the age of mass production.

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 [email protected].

Related Articles

in Ton-sur-Ton

Enjoy the Simple Things: The Essence of Hanoi's Gian Don Clothing Store

Gian Don is not much of a commercial fashion brand but a "family shop," where Diệu spends her days delivering stories on "friendly" fashion, and puppies are “employed” as sales associates. I visi...

in Ton-sur-Ton

How a Vietnamese Ethiopian Designer Built Her Fashion 'Dynasty'

“I’m young so I still have big dreams,” Kim Berhanu begins our chat on an early September day. At the tender age of 23, Berhanu is already the CEO and creative director of the fashion brand Dynasty th...

in Ton-sur-Ton

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 tar...

in Ton-sur-Ton

Vietnam's Traditional Indigo Dyes and Kimono Come Together in Kimono Ơi's Designs

Will there be a day when the image of a woman wearing a helmet, clad in a kimono with ripped jeans while driving around the streets of Saigon becomes the next trend?

in Ton-sur-Ton

From Discarded Denim, a Young Vietnamese Designer Crafts Artisanal Fashion

Dương Hoàng Hảo founded Beauty Time, a secondhand clothing brand to provide sustainable fashion that aims to pave the way for circular consumption. But far from your average off-the-rack thrift picks,...

Michael Tatarski

in Ton-sur-Ton

How Local Brand Re.socks Spins Discarded Plastic Bottles Into Comfy Socks

How much thought do you put into socks?

Partner Content