On October 10, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute convened a panel discussion on women, modernity, and sustainable fashion in contemporary Vietnam. Organized by WEAI member John Phan, Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University; the panel featured Valerie Steele, director of the Fashion Institute of New York; Hazel Clarke, professor of Design Studies and Fashion Studies at The New School; and Vũ Thảo, Vietnamese designer and founder of the Kilomet 109 line. WEAI’s Dorothy Ko, Professor of History, Barnard College, moderated the Q&A portion of the program.
The three speakers raised a wide range of issues related to the increasing popularity of alternatives to “fast fashion” choices. Each panelist pointed out the cost of the current global industrial fashion system on the environment and the communities where production takes place. Steele deconstructed the myth of fashion, showing it is neither a modern nor Western concept. She also introduced the increasing popularity of sustainable fashion as a reaction against the often exploitative system of fast fashion. Clarke expounded on the “slow approach” to fashion and noted that, in contrast to “fast fashion,” sustainable fashion can be characterized by the value it places on caring for local resources—both natural and human—throughout its production.
Clarke pointed out that Thảo’s line is an example of a collaborative endeavour where both workers and designers have agency in the process of manufacturing the clothes. The panel concluded with Thảo sharing the catalyst and ethos behind her line, which adapts traditional techniques and clothing to contemporary needs. Thảo emphasized her desire to work with local artisan communities and use design to address complex social issues, explaining that she feels a responsibility beyond making garments to protect the environment and safeguard the good of the community of artisans.
“Vũ Thảo’s work reminds us that human society propels itself–not simply through policy and governance, but through the interaction of art, livelihoods, and the meeting of tradition and innovation in individual lives,” Phan said. “The discussion by Valerie Steele, Hazel Clarke, Vũ Thảo, and Dorothy Ko revealed a contemporariness to Vietnamese fashion and design that speaks not only to global concerns of sustainability, social justice, and economic change, but to the intersection of the past and present, and the negotiation of tradition and innovation in our imagining of a sustainable future. From this point of view, Women, Modernity, and Sustainable Fashion in Contemporary Vietnam encapsulates the mission of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, to scrutinize, contemplate, and reflect on the dynamics of contemporary East Asian Societies, in this thoroughly global moment.”
Following the panel, a collection of Thảo’s pieces were on display alongside information about the techniques and materials used to create the pieces.