Viet Kieu social entrepreneur shows Vietnamese artisans the way

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Nguyen Lan Vy, founder of American social enterprise Fashion4Freedom, which helps provide skills and sustainable income for craftspeople in central Vietnam, speaks about the project at the TEDx conference in 2011

A Vietnamese-American social entrepreneur based in Hue and New York has taken it upon herself to foster small craft businesses in central Vietnam.

Nguyen Lan Vy, a designer and the founder of Fashion4Freedom, raises funds to buy equipment for craftspeople, who have to pay back through community services like vocational training.

The company, which makes the luxury shoe brand Saigon Socialite  - with wooden soles carved with dragons to fuse ancient symbols with modern comfort - has helped more than 45 businesses in rural areas in the last four years.

Vy said she was driven by her background as a refugee in the US after the Vietnam War.

The only jobs available for her family members were in garment factories in Los Angeles and the family worked there briefly until they received guidance on how to become productive and independent.

As a professional designer traveling through Asia later, she witnessed for herself labor exploitation and abuses in many countries including China, Malaysia, and Vietnam, mostly in sewing factories.

“Fashion matters, it has impact, and for some of these workers, the impact is very personal, very emotional and sometimes very violent,” she said while speaking about the project at the TEDx conference in 2011.

She started the project in Vietnam with experience at all levels of the fashion supply chain from designing to quality assessment besides expertise in corporate finance and strategic development in which she had worked for a decade earlier.

Rachael Carson, supply chain manager of the company, said they started with a project in 2010 with an American NGO and have been following the guidelines of helping stimulate the local economy and humanity.

For instance, a wood-making business recently got US$2,000 worth of machines from the company, and has paid back by training locals and making wooden doors to gift families in the area, she said in a Tuoi Tre newspaper report.

Carson said when Fashion4Freedom was set up they realized that local businesses lacked machinery for design and were also unable to promote their products since they were behind global consumption trends.

As a former capital of Vietnam, Hue possesses a rich legacy of arts and culture which still manifests in the scattered traditional craft villages.

But they were facing the risk of being lost unless they could create new products that were in demand.

“So we established Fashion4Freedom to resolve the social challenges,” Carson said.

The company’s operations are geared toward social influence rather than mere economics.

“We prioritize social impacts through investing in and developing suppliers in Hue.”

The business model removes middlemen to reduce costs and ensures a sustainable and fair supply chain.

Carson said they want to see the effect on the community for at least three years before increasing the focus on the commercial aspect of their business.

Unlike many foreign investors who target poor countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam for their cheap wages and a workforce that is too poorly informed and trained to make demands, Vy said Fashion4Freedom seeks to offer an alternative.

A social entrepreneurship needs help from all partners, she said.

Each pair of dragon-sole shoes, for example, takes 18 days of collaboration between the designers, craftspeople and marketers, she said.

The first Saigon Socialite model was introduced in 2011, and the company has produced four more since.

She said they needed to get on board three different crafts villages – renowned for making wood sculpture, shoes, and lacquer - for the shoes.

The sculpture village was only accustomed to working for temples and pagodas and royal projects, and it took the company time to persuade it, she said.

The shoes, which cost around $450 a pair, exposes the sculptors to another kind of product besides worshipping objects, she said.

Profits from the shoes are put back into local training programs.

Fashion4Freedom’s motto is to redefine luxury through rural economic development, which pushes its relationship with local suppliers beyond the normal trade partnership, Carson said.

The company has also been helping women from the Ta Oi ethnic group in the nearby A Luoi District make and promote beaded woven cloth.

Each piece of cloth has a story to tell.

Vy said the Ta Oi do not have a written language and use the craft as a way to communicate.

Since they traditionally use only dyes from plants, the company has been providing them seeds and helping with cultivation to help sustain the tradition.

“We think what they bead, what they put together is actually a story. It is how the women communicate about where they are, how they live, what season it is,” she said in an interview with Voice of America radio.

Women in the group would make a large cloth whenever there is a major event in the family like a birth, wedding or death.

“That is the way of communicating how they feel.”

She said the company is trying to revive the fabric language that is gradually dying out, and make it economically sustainable for the group.

“Once the fabric can be traded and recreated into modern designs and we can find a market for them, they will get to speak and tell about their livelihoods.”

The project would be a success once she manages to grow it into a network comprising more than 300 villages and win more orders, Vy said.

“We want to demonstrate that a network of villages can provide meaningful scale to the supply chain.”

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