In Southeast Asia, a new breed of designers is disrupting the fashion industry — in the best way possible.
For the past decade, this region has been a fertile ground for international fast-fashion brands. In the Philippines alone, one of the biggest retailers in the country gained a revenue amounting to 6.9 billion in 2018. Southeast Asia has also become a place booming with factories dedicated to producing cheap garments. But against all odds, this new batch of homegrown talents are breaking norms. They embrace their heritage and showcase it in their designs, celebrate inclusivity instead of exclusivity, and are at the forefront in the fight for sustainable fashion.
Meet the Southeast Asian designers who are reshaping the way we dress.
Thảo Vũ from Vietnam
Thảo Vũ, founder of Vietnamese label Kilomet109, has her eyes set on "the new type of ready-to-wear couture," where each phase of production is meticulously and consciously made — from the weaving and dyeing of the fabrics to the hand-stitching of each piece.
"Established fashion houses are known for their design and creativity and often it's only the designer that gets the spotlight but I believe transparency of the whole process is also important," she said. To Thảo Vũ, the brand is never just about her, it's also about the people that contributed to making the clothing. "Behind each design is a group of people — the embroiderers, cutters — you never hear about them and I intend to change that."
True to her word, she goes to villages and works alongside local communities in Vietnam such as the Nung An who resides north of Hanoi. "It's very much a collaborative process," she said, sharing that it takes six months to produce a batch of clothing. "It takes time — the planting, harvesting, stitching and so on — it’s a slow process but I don't intend to change it. Faster production isn't really the goal, but maintaining the quality is."
Vũ was inspired to take on this advocacy during her stint as a reporter for magazines covering cultural topics. It's when she discovered the local communities in Vietnam producing natural fibres and dyes. "I became more and more fascinated with the rich heritage and unique techniques of these artisans," she shared. As her country saw rapid development over the last decade, she also witnessed how these traditions became underappreciated. "I thought to myself, 'I need to act and do something quickly or else all these techniques will disappear'," she said. And so she founded Kilomet109.
Eight years on, Kilomet109 is now known as one of Vietnam's truly sustainable clothing brands. "Fashion isn't just about looking good, it's also about feeling good and knowing that your clothes support the local community, provide jobs and fair compensation to women in remote locales, and does not exploit anyone," she said. Vũ's work is also grounded in sustainability. "We only use natural dye and fibres. Our pieces are made to last but if you decide to throw it in the trash it will not take 40 years for it to disappear."
Although Kilomet109 is still incredibly underrated, the brand has already garnered a following in other countries with a growing customer base in Germany, New York, Thailand and the Philippines. Just recently, Vũ has put up a website for her brand with a shop page to become more accessible to patrons from all over the world. Explore her designs here.
Lyn Ng from Singapore
As a former apprentice at a local design studio in Singapore, Lyn Ng saw firsthand the production waste from furniture-making. Little pallets of wood are discarded by the bulk each day and would just go straight to the trash. Until one day, she came up with an idea on how to upcycle them: using them for wood jewellery.
Since then, Lyn’s philosophy has been to minimise waste as much as possible through fashion-forward accessories. She has also expanded her selections to include slow-made woodcraft bags and lifestyle products. "Wood has been seen as a very masculine material in today's world and I really want to show the feminine side of wood through crafted wooden jewellery and bags," she said. "That is why we are called Studio MU YU — meaning the language of wood — where we inspire to showcase the different sides of wood as a material," she said.
“No two pieces are the same,” Lyn shared. It’s because these upcycled pieces of wood have unique characteristics like different shades and textures that are showcased rather than hidden. To her, this is the language of wood. Check out her sophisticated, sartorial accessories here at Sift & Pick.
Cheetah Rivera from the Philippines
In a country where mental health is still widely considered a taboo topic, Cheetah Rivera bravely raises awareness about the issue through her recent collection called "Limitless." The designs are laced with messages of social change. Through this particular collection, she hopes to inspire people to be "limitless" and unbound by their diagnosis.
Aside from that, she’s also been vocal about gender equality. She has released gender-neutral fashion and is one of the firsts in the Philippines to include transgender models in her runway shows.
Even at the start of her career, Cheetah has always made it a point to shed light on social issues. Her Fall/Winter 2015 “Aviona”, her most cherished collection, was inspired by the great migration of birds and aimed to showcase how beautiful nature is when it is cared for. “Right now, we are experiencing catastrophic events and natural disasters due to climate change and humans profiting from nature despite knowing the negative and horrifying effects,” she said, sharing that she hopes to educate people about the negative impact of fast fashion to the environment.
Fast forward to today, Cheetah is in the process of putting together her upcoming collection that will highlight the importance of sustainability. “I’m doing a collection using scrap materials from my past collections. It’s my simple way of helping the Earth and send a message to the people that each of us should contribute to change,” she said.
We're excited to see more of her designs in the future.
Panisa Sidasamuth from Thailand
While currently based in Australia, Panisa Sidasamuth, the brain behind KEAR, turns to her homeland of Thailand for inspiration. While visiting, she was mesmerised by the skill of traditional Thai craftsmen who were able to transform mere fibres to fashionable items. But she didn't buy a single piece from them and this led her to a realisation. "I really appreciated the design for this one particular bag, but I didn’t buy it. It was beautiful but not practical for daily use," she shared. "It got me thinking about why we would avoid local artisanal fashion products. I think it’s because we don’t believe that local raw materials are good enough to make trendy fashion pieces deserving of a high price tag."
She also observed that these bags are not always the most practical pieces especially for women with a hectic lifestyle. "So I started sketching designs, experimenting with different local materials and incorporating modern shapes and coloured leather combinations," she said.
She sets on to transform and preserve these traditional Thai techniques and use it to make something chic that any modern woman would like to have. Panisa shared that it took time and many failed prototypes before she came up with their signature Bono bag.
Like many sustainable fashion designers, Panisa Sidasamuth doesn’t mass produce her designs. Her brand uses only raw materials that are woven to become trendy wicker bags. Each piece has unique spots and variations that she doesn’t try to camouflage in order to give each bag a distinct flair. "I want to make people think and focus on the value of fashion itself rather than the brand name or the level of luxury", she said. "I’m trying to prove that my brand is sustainable by not only using eco-friendly raw materials but also creating products that have a positive impact in the life of people who use them and people who produce them.
You can browse her bestselling selections here.
Next, find out which Southeast Asian city will become the next fashion capital.