I am thrilled to announce the launch of a handbag collection by Rebecca Minkoff for Nordstrom using textiles woven by ethnic weavers in my project. The collection is the fruits of half a year of hard-work by Rebecca Minkoff, Piece & Co, the team at the Hanoi Design Centre and Thai ethnic weavers in Na Phon, Vietnam.
Starting with a piece of antique from the same village, locally referred to as pha luong, the designers at Piece & Co and Rebecca Minkoff adjusted the color combination to fit with their Spring 2015 collection for retail at Nordstrom. Twenty Thai women of the Dream Weavers project worked on the order.
Since Rebecca Minkoff and Piece & Co. have done a fantastic job telling the story of women empowerment and tradition appreciation, I would want to share some experience from the side of the producers, through which I hope to give a closer look into the production scene in Vietnam where I worked.
Story #1: Cotton vs. “cotton”
For Western markets, cheap cotton products have became as much of a commodity as bottled drinking water. Unfortunately, unlike China, India and the US, Vietnam is not a country of cotton. Access to good quality cotton – well processed, long thread – is often available only to factories that produce at an industrial scale. Limited supply and high price point gave weavers, whose primary market is local, low cost market, little incentive to use this material.
A common material that the weavers use is PE thread. Falsely referred to as “cotton” while true cotton are called “bông” (which means cotton in Vietnamese), PE threads are ubiquitous in the lower scale, local village markets. It is favored by small-scale weavers because it is strong and does not break during weaving, cheap, readily available at any quantity, and comes in many different colors.
Think about it this way, if knitting is your hobby and you knit everyday but your products don’t sell well and your customers are not willing to pay so much, would you aim for premium quality yarn? Probably not. You opt for a convenient yarn. In this case, my weavers went for PE threads.
It took the team a small cultural shock but Rebecca Minkoff finally approved the use of PE in the final products.
What comes with the switch from household to commercial production is standardization of supply. PE threads available to the weavers either come from small scale suppliers or, worse yet, local retailers. These suppliers and retailers oftentimes do not have control over the consistency of colors and the chemical content of the dye. On the other hand, qualified suppliers tend to not bother themselves with small orders. This is where I step in.
After qualified yarn arrived in the village, we were all confident that the project would take care of itself because pha luong is a staple of Thai weaving in Mai Chau. Except it did not. The next problem arose – compliance.
Story #2: Compliance
After many failed attempts to communicate with artisan ethnic weavers using technical drawings and Pantone chips, I learned a more effective and fool-proof approach – giving the weavers the sample approved by the client to replicate. Within a very carefully crafted PO and multiple communication threads, one condition got buried in the pile: the repeating of colors has to be exactly the same as the swatch in the PO. This means that the stripes would have to follow the exact order; the same goes for the color repeating of the birds and the tiny dots that flank the pattern.
As the first cut-out was delivered to my office, I found out to my horror that the weavers went all creative with the color repeat. Since the designers at Rebecca Minkoff had indicated a fixed look for the bags, changing color repeat on the textiles would cause one bag to look different from the other. At that point, more than half of the order has already been made and the deadline could not be delayed any further.
One more time, Rebecca Minkoff, Piece & Co and myself emerged from the “cultural shock” and the improvised color repeat got approved. The issue of uneven width of the stripe, inevitable when it comes to handmade, was also resolved. The shipment made it on time and the launch followed suit.
As the sun sets behind the mountain, Venetia from Piece & Co pulled out her computer to show Xuyen, the leader of the Na Phon weaving group, a rendered image by Rebecca Minkoff. With her tiny, pixelated Nokia phone, she snapped a picture. “To show my women weavers” – she said with a big smile. Hopping on her broken bicycle, Xuyen bid farewell to us and hustled home. The pigs are hungry, her husband will come home soon, and on the loom, meters of beautiful fabric patiently wait to be finished.