Southeast Asian fashion designers push eco-friendly designs and save traditional culture and methods

On a trek through Southeast Asia, Walk Sew Good campaigners meet designers and producers offering sustainable alternatives to fast fashion’s wasteful consumption, while revitalising local communities and preserving techniques

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 7:12am

After almost a year on the road in Southeast Asia, eco-fashion campaigners Megan O’Malley and Gab Murphy are hoping a growing number of designers offering sustainable alternatives will help offset waste and exploitation in the region’s garment industry.

“The fast fashion model has steered this giant industry in a direction that exploits people and the planet in favour of cheap, speedily produced clothing,” says Walk Sew Good co-founder O’Malley. “It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t make any sense.”

She and fellow Australian Murphy have been walking through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since leaving Melbourne in November in search of eco-friendly lines produced in a fair and sustainable way. “There are so many people in the region creating diverse solutions to the problem and we wanted to meet them and share their stories,” says O’Malley.

The pair have met many progressive designers who are drawing on a long history of textiles, tailoring and weaving techniques.

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In Cambodia, local designer Vannary San was worried the country’s golden silk industry and cultural pride would be forgotten as the clothing industry grew to become the country’s major exporter, employing an estimated 700,000 people.

“I felt so depressed when I heard about Cambodian silk dying,” says San, who owns sustainable fashion house Lotus Silk in Phnom Penh. “Cambodia has a long history of producing silk. You can see it in carvings at Angkor Wat. It is part of our heritage but unfortunately it has nearly gone.”

San made it her mission three years ago to revive the silk sector, help reinvigorate creative communities and provide them with a sustainable income. An ethical fashion brand that offers fair wages and working conditions is her priority.

San works with three farming communities in Kampot, who grow mulberry trees to feed silk worms, weavers in Prey Veng and Takeo province, s organic cotton growers in Battambang and dye experts in Kandal provinces. Each step of the process is traceable and transparent, she says.

After training the communities to create quality items fit for the international market, she launched her Golden Silk Collection a year ago. It has already attracted overseas buyers, especially in South Korea, Australia, the US and Canada.

She also plans to open an interactive, educational museum, The Silk House, in the Phnom Penh in December.

“Not only are we helping to revive Cambodia’s wonderful silk industry, we are also showing local producers that there is value in what they are creating, that it is worth keeping these traditions alive,” she says. “Not only is it an important part of our history, these quality, ethically made products have potential.”

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Many of Cambodia’s textiles and weaving methods, which had been passed down through generations, were lost during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. The decline has been fuelled by the introduction of cheaper materials imported from other countries, including Vietnam and China, leaving little incentive to learn these intricate and time-consuming crafts.

“These skills are dying partly because of the factories,” says Alan James Flux, founder of AND, a fair-trade brand that sources materials and other crafts from local artisans to use in its designs. “We have fantastic hand weavers at this moment, but their children are going into garment factories, where conditions and salaries are getting better.”

The British-trained fashion designer works with skilled artisan families across the country, often incorporating the complex ikat weaving technique.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface of the potential in Cambodia,” says Flux. “There are many great products in Cambodian. Many different ways of weaving, many different types of tie-dying, jewellery-making and wood carving; the potential is endless.”

Similar grass-roots movements in the region have led to the rebirth of traditional crafts and methods.

In Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, indigo dyeing is being revived, with many young designers incorporating it into their designs.

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Fashion4freedom in Vietnam works with local artisans who create luxury items using Vietnamese methods in an environmentally friendly and ethical way. The result is diverse clothing, accessories and shoes geared towards the high-end international market.

In Laos, Ock Pop Tok is another social business focused on people and their culture. Founded in 2000 by Joanna Smith from Britain and Laotian Veomanee Douangdala, the venture is one of the most important textile and artisan institutions in the country.

“When we started Ock Pop Tok, I didn’t really know what ethical fashion meant,” says Douangdala. “We just knew we wanted to create something different. We wanted to do something to keep our textile traditions alive and this meant creating an economic value for these textiles outside Laos. We wanted to make products for a contemporary market that remain authentic to the culture and traditions of Laos.”

All products are handmade and raw materials locally sourced, with 75 people employed full-time and 400 weavers working across the country through Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver Projects initiative.

“Laos is such a tiny country with a small population but it is very culturally diverse. We have 49 official ethnic groups and more than 100 sub groups – each group has its own culture, language and textile traditions. These are a form of identity for the people,” says Douangdala, adding that each group uses different colours and techniques that are reflected in the designs. “We have so many different textile traditions in Laos including weaving, appliqué, batik and embroidery.”

As the ethical fashion movement continues to grow, hopes are high that almost-forgotten creative communities have a future in the modern world as age-old traditions are brought back to life.

“So many people we met who were using traditional techniques to make their products emphasised the love and joy that went into each item, and how that creates a superior product,” says O’Malley. “It also generates a human connection, and when you know more about the process, it gives you more respect for the people making the clothes and the actual clothing itself.”