From Culture to Couture: The Rise of Lao Fashion

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Written by Hannah McDonald-Moniz, photos as credited

 

Photo by Mike Phetchareun
Although Lao textiles and handicrafts are common souvenirs, the country has not been known for its modern fashions – until now.  Since March’s inaugural Lao Fashion Week, the country has been abuzz with praise for a slew of rising Lao and international designers merging traditional motifs and fabrics with contemporary flair. Sabaidee Magazine examines how homegrown couture is emerging as an inspiring and exciting industry.

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Loom To Catwalk

Laos is a country rich in traditional textiles, with looms still common household items in the countryside, no shortage of beautiful natural dyes, and fascinating designs everywhere from intricate carvings adorning the tops of temples to exquisitely detailed sinh hems.  With these roots to draw upon, it’s no wonder that although the fashion scene in Laos is still relatively small, it shows incredible promise.

On March 5-7 Vientiane saw its inaugural annual Lao Fashion Week, a showcase of Lao and international designers Tamong Visouthivong, Nithaya Somsanith, Aluonphone Naarden, Viengkham Nanthavongdouangsy, Corry Foppes and Sudiana von Rimscha.  The couture on the catwalk ranged from sharp men’s suits to sophisticated evening gowns and chic cocktail frocks.  While the collections represented the unique flair of each designer, they all shared a common thread – the juxtaposition of tradition with modern trends.

 

The current group of Lao designers is small, but growing, and tightly knit by their ideals.  The Lao and international designers working in the country today share the common inspiration of propelling Lao handicrafts beyond the souvenir stall, and onto an international design stage.  All of these artists have a heightened respect for traditional patterns but a desire to spin them into something completely new.

 

Today’s fashion leaders also feel a responsibility to foster a new generation of local talent to ensure that the fashion industry in Laos continues to develop.  Many local designers consider it their duty to encourage other young creatives by training weavers, working in conjunction with village groups, and creating funds to seek out and foster new talent.

 

With increasing local purchasing power and rising tourism, local designers have an ever-growing market for their goods.  Stitch by stitch, these innovators have the potential to influence both the handicraft and tourism industries with their creativity, as they lead Lao style into the regional and international spotlight.

 

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 Ministry of Silk at Lao Fashion Week (photo by Mike Phetchareun )

 

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Who To Wear And Watch

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 Sabaidee Magazine chats to a host of local designers, and international talent that have made Laos their home, about their creations and the bright future of the Lao fashion industry.

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Pany Saignavongs of Ministry of Silk
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Ministry of Silk_ designer Pany Saignavongs (photo by Hannah McDonald-Moniz)

Pany has been working in marketing, PR, media and fashion in Vientiane for many years, and is the driving force behind Lao Fashion Week.  She seeks to start trends, and to use the fashion business to make Laos better known on a global stage.  Pleased with the success of this year’s small-scale event, she seeks to make 2015’s Fashion Week bigger and better, with international names joining local designers on the catwalk.

 

In addition to running Lao Fashion Week, Pany is the founder of Ministry of Silk boutique (www.ministryofsilk.com) which sells locally-made and imported fashion-forward pieces unified in their simple, chic, and distinctive appeal.  With an impressive debut at Lao Fashion Week, Pany is hoping Ministry of Silk will begin to expand regionally in the future.

 

Pany’s goals are not just to expand her own business but also to enlarge the local fashion scene overall.  “Laos is known as a supplier of textiles but not for design,” she says, while emphasising the potential to build a globally-recognised Lao label, like Jim Thompson of Thailand, or Artisans d’Angkor from Cambodia.  With this in mind, she is seeking to encourage young people to pursue a career in the fashion industry, with plans to create a foundation to generate funds to support talented newcomers to study, beginning with a design contest in the coming year.

 

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Heather Smith of Passa Paa
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Passa Paa_designer Heather Smith (photo by Tom Tavee)

Passa Paa, ‘The Language of Cloth’ (www.passa-paa.com), is the vision of Heather Smith, an English textile designer and graduate of the prestigious Chelsea College of Arts. Heather had been travelling to Laos since 1999 before permanently relocating to Luang Prabang in 2011 after falling in love with the country and its rich textile traditions of dyes and motifs.

Along with her sister Joanna and Lao weaver Veo (both co-founders of Luang Prabang’s Ock Pop Tok weaving centre), Heather started Passa Paa by funneling the wealth of inspiration she had from her new surrounds and traditional Lao handstitch and pattern-making methods into bold textiles, scarves, bags and other accessories.  “The challenge was to take these motifs and techniques and find unique ways to incorporate them into an aesthetic that pays homage to the traditional patterns yet can sit perfectly in today’s world,” she explains.

 

One of Heather’s main inspirations is to draw on the patterns of Lao ethnic groups and traditional techniques, such as appliqué stitching and indigo dye.  She works to recreate the depth, colors and textures of the landscape, using the historic surroundings of Luang Prabang as her muse.

 

The Passa Paa shop and studio are open to the public, making the creation of these unique pieces an integral part of their story.  Heather works closely with the Lao makers at her studio and a group of Hmong women in surrounding villages to create authentic, modern designs.  In the future, Heather seeks to grow her team and share Passa Paa’s vision and story with a wider audience.  “I’d like us to bring in skills and techniques from other ethnic groups to help preserve their crafts as well as move Lao textiles into the future,” she says.

 

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Nithaya Somsanith of Nithaya Somsanith Couture
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Nithaya Somsanith Couture_designer Nithaya Somsanith (photo by Hannah McDonald-Moniz)

Raised and educated in the world’s fashion capital, Paris, Nithaya Somsanith has emerged as a game-changer on the Lao fashion scene.  After graduating from fashion school, Nithaya resisted runway trends and began showcasing his designs as art rather than fashion – creating his own style on his own terms.  He came to Laos in 2005, and now splits his time between Paris and his Vientiane showroom where he creates custom pieces and fashion lines.

 

He believes Lao fashion must be born in Laos but should draw also on European style.  “Lao fashion is a new way to communicate and promote local silk and textiles,” he says.  “We can be respectful but still modernise traditional styles.”  He seeks for his pieces to embody a meeting of cultures, often using Western styles and incorporating Lao motifs through fabrics, painting or shapes.  His designs are edgy and bold, and it is for this daring that he is celebrated.

 

As Nithaya becomes more well-known in Laos, his talents have become desired in diverse sectors, from designing costumes for Lao singer Alexandra’s music videos, to custom red carpet wear for the Lao Music Awards, and a line for an upcoming Samsung launch. His nonstop creative energy ensures that Nithaya Somsanith Couture will continue to be a dynamic force in the world of Lao fashion.

 

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Viengkham Nanthavongdouangsy of Phaeng Mai Gallery
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Phaeng Mai Gallery, Viengkham

With roots in Sam Neua, home to some of the nation’s most beautiful textiles, it’s no wonder Viengkham has been a skilled weaver from a young age.  She and her sisters grew up using a loom, and weaving remains one of her favorite activities.  “It’s like meditation,” she says, “I forget everything when I do it.”

 

Viengkham and her sister began a textile business in 1993, and in 2002, started their fashion line.  These days she produces clothes, bags, and fabrics, and textiles for export.  After studying abroad, she fell in love with Western design, and knew she wanted to combine these two worlds.  She felt Lao fabrics were too attractive to be limited to only one use and Phaeng Mai’s fabrics have even found their way onto Japanese kimonos and obis – with the label garnering a following in Japan.

 

In addition to running her boutique, Phaeng Mai Gallery (117 Nongbouathong Tai Village, Sikhottabong District, 021 217341), Viengkham designs new styles whenever inspiration strikes.  Her idol is Giorgio Armani, and she seeks to emulate a simple, clean and elegant style.  For her Lao Fashion Week line, she focused on a modern and sheer look, playing with the concept of transparency.

 

Through her work, Viengkham is passionate about retaining cultural knowledge.  She has been involved teaching weaving techniques and also mentors over 100 young weavers at her studio.  With her daughter currently studying design in Singapore, it’s certain we can expect to see more on the runway from Viengkham and her family in the future.

 

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Tamong Visouthivong of Elégant
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Elegant_ designer Tamon Visouthivong (photo by Hannah McDonald-Moniz)

Tamong, the custom tailor and designer behind Elégant boutique (www.facebook.com/Elegant.Laos), began her fashion career in Thailand, where she graduated from Uangdoi Design and Dressmaking School in Chiang Mai.

 

Tamong draws her inspiration from the human form, studying body shapes and skin tones to create garments that best complement the wearer like a piece of art.  Although she produces off-the-rack lines for her shop, she remains passionate about the art of tailoring.  Her appreciation for shape and aesthetic overflows into interior design and she also creates silks, lamps, curtains and pillows.  Elégant has also recently expanded into silver jewelry, now occupying two shop spaces in the Namphou area.

 

Tamong adapts traditional touches to contemporary style, always more interested in creating new designs rather than following trends.  Her dream for the future is to establish a gallery of textiles from around the world for customers to sample before choosing one for their custom creation.  Following positive recognition from her showcase as Lao Fashion Week, she is eager to prepare for next year’s event and seek to join shows abroad.  With this momentum, there are surely exciting creations around the corner.

 

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This article was originally printed in Sabaidee Magazine, Issue 16, May 2014. You can pick up Sabaidee Magazine free from cafes, restaurants, spas and hotels across Vientiane, and stay up to date with their latest articles and local events through their Facebook page:  www.facebook.com/sabaideemagazine.