A fabric bridge

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The colors of ethnic minority outfits often obscure the verdant sheen of Vietnam's highland jungles in photographs.
Images of brightly outfitted women, trekking across winding market roads in Vietnam's remote mountains regions has come to define the landscape.
A model in a made-in-Vietnam dress designed by Vietnamese French fashion designer Linda Mai Phung. Inspired by H'mong and Bana weaves, Phung has given a chic and exotic look to traditional fabric.
In many ways, the clothes have come to define the people as well.
In the H'mong communities of Vietnam's Northwestern Highlands hempen, handmade skirts are symbols of tribal identity. Some feature intricate needlework, others are colored with deep naturally-derived dyes. The pattern on the skirt is defined by which H'mong sub-group a woman belongs to.
Despite the differences, all are handmade from natural hemp cloth by loving hands. Indeed, ethnic minority communities throughout the country expect a woman to be able to make clothes for herself and her family.
Recognizing the value of these traditional fabrics, Linda Mai Phung, a 25 year-old Vietnamese-French fashion designer has incorporated them into her first two fashion collections.
"I really like her style which is very fresh, modern and Parisian," said Catherine Nam Hee, Event and Member manager of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Vietnam. "She belongs to the new generation of designers and she adapts well to Asian style. Her designs are simple but nice and easy to wear."
Phung's collection appears fundamentally simple. Her dresses and skirts often consist of solid colored fabrics highlighted with snatches of Batik or embroidered trim. She offers both evening and day dresses for ladies.
Some chic and exotic items in her first line include the Loan bubble skirt, a black linen skirt adorned with striped embroidered trim around the waist (VND1,190,000), and "Red Kiss H'mong" made from an even blend of silk and cotton, and adorned with a warm, subtle swath of H'mong embroidery at the shoulders (VND2,690,000).
In 2005, Phung graduated from the fashion program at Esaa Duperre College in Paris. Two years later the Paris Jeunes Aventures grant brought her to Vietnam, where she made a photo documentary about crafts and fair trade.
"When I was in France I knew very little about Vietnam," Phung said. "My parent did not talk much about Vietnam because they wanted to move on. So I was very curious."
She learned about ceramics in the famous potters' village of Bat Trang in Hanoi and silk in the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat. What really hooked her were the clothes.
Phung was taken aback by the long and beautiful process of crafting each and every stitch of clothing.
"But these handmade products are not promoted much internationally," she said.
Young Vietnamese French fashion designer Linda Mai Phung at work.
At the moment, Phung's first H'mong-inspired collection is being sold at two shops in Paris. She has just introduced a second collection featuring design touches created by the Bana ethnic minority a culture that resides in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum.
The Bana, she says, are excellent weavers.
In her first collection, Phung incorporated small cuts of H'mong embroidery and Batik as accents. In her next collection, she will use larger swaths of Bana fabric which tends to be visually simpler.
Each item is carefully made and handled. According to Phung, to keep the colors durable, she washes the materials in vinegar and salt.
Phung has taken a consistently conscientious approach to the fashion world.
Last year, she began work with an organic and fair trade clothing company here in Ho Chi Minh City.
She has also produced clothing out of recyclable materials. When asked if she's at all interested in coming out with a more high-end line, she demurred.
"I do not want to [make clothing that is] too expensive and exclusive," she said. "Fashion is a dream for everyone and I want everyone (staff, supplier, customer) to be happy with me."
In Vietnam, the Linda Mai Phung collection can be found at Tan My Design, 65 Hang Gai Street, Hanoi and at L'Usine, 151/1 Dong Khoi Street (upstairs) in HCMC's District 1.

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