The Ta Oi tribe's hidden existence, reminds us that a map's borders are distinctions drawn by civilizations made dominant through unified culture. The Ta Oi speak a hybrid indigenous dialect, influenced by their Laotian - Vietnamese roots, a language little known outside the insular A Shau valley of Central Vietnam. The most basic instrument of supremacy, is written language. It is an advantage lost to the Ta Oi tribes of aLuoi , whose experiences are transcribed only in textiles.
An aLuoi weaver, will read when a fabric has been woven. White beads on a black ground are strung in symbols that play out in concert with the seasons. Constellations, flowers in bloom, and migratory birds, those of "great longevity," are recorded. The symbolism has been passed through hundreds of years . While men farm, women weave the almanac.
A weaver stretches the thread in a hand - picked loom. Simple bamboo dowels are manipulated through tension applied with the thrust of a weaver's legs. The dowels are brought closer together for the application of beads, which are strung by hand, directly onto the threads, then embedded in a woven surround. The last symbol depicted in the beaded portion of every aLuoi textile matches the wood carving outside a weaver's home , often found positioned skyward, crowning a pitched roof . It is a signature, which much like taking a married name, will change over the course of a woman's lifetime, as she moves, from her father's home, to her husband's.
That the fabric consummates with, "the symbol of the man who possesses her" has become a uniquely empowering love story. Residing, in a valley where most of the agricultural products have been poisoned by the scourge of war, men can feed their families but have little desirable produce to sell. It is only the women, who "read," record history, and create marketable goods to trade.
Fashion4Freedom, a Vietnamese ethical-sourcing agent and design incubator conceived, to resurrect Vietnam's dwindling craft traditions is committed to giving the Ta Oi weavers of aLuoi a voice. Begun by LanVy Nguyen, a former corporate climber , who returning to Vietnam to recapture her own heritage, witnessed the economic benefits of industrialization with a perspective tempered by the importance of preserving heritage. Fashion4Freedom finds the beauty in artisan craft and revives those expressions by incarnating them in new markets.
The road to the aLuoi is through a jungle thinned with chemical defoliants, over a road dotted by land mines, three hours from Fashion4Freedom's base in the Vietnamese city of Hue. That makes it difficult for most NGO's to work directly with people of the valley. By the time Nguyen's team discovered the Ta Oi tribe , the craft was plied by only 31 weavers, a number today reduced to 17.
The Ta Oi people were understandably weary. In their 700 years of recorded (textile) history, contact with outsiders has usually meant a swindle: their land lost, divided by war, or materials surrendered to unscrupulous agents. In seeking to make a direct impact, Fashion4Freedom's local team, lead by Quynh Le and Rachael Carson has forged a close partnership with authorities, tribe leaders, and master artisans. To retain that trust, Fashion4Freedom commits to buying the weavers' annual output.
In telling the story of the Ta Oi tribe, Nguyen alighted upon the icon of female empowerment, the jacket. Working with Vietnam's storied tailors, and seeking to preserve as much of the textile as possible Nguyen discovered, the aLuoi's social order woven deeply in the fabric. It must be cut at, or near the border, that symbol for community, "home" and "family name," otherwise, the fabric falls back into thread. Inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Ta Oi women, and the arduous path to reach them, jacket silhouettes reference motorbikes and gangsters. Imposing and structured shapes designed, to "safegua rd the skin."
The project exemplifies Fashion4Freedom's commitment to the preservation of cultural heritage, while offering the marginalized a voice. The aLuoi venture, is possible, as an aspect of a larger portfolio which incorporates the slow hand of artisan production with conscious manufacturing practices. At one point, Fashion4Freedom gave the textile to those willing to pass along the story of the Ta Oi and their history in aLuoi. Capsule collections that sing in the market have proven a more lucrative model. The initial run of 500 jackets in 3 styles , all size 4 are sold out.
In calculating the venture's sustainability, Nguyen simultaneously runs the numbers in the languages of commerce and design, "It can be 500 Jackets, 2000 pillows or 1000 bags...that doesn't matter." The priority is that, "a hidden culture survives and is recorded."
The Ta Oi's motifs aren't characteristically Asian. Tempting with a length of the graphic yardage Nguyen always asks travelers, ethnographers and textile aficionados to guess its origin. The fabric is usually assigned to an African or Latin American tradition, generally, a mountain tribe. Nguyen speculates there is something, in the collective human experience that leads to the artistic rendering of geometries among people whose lives depend on trekking the difficult passes down the mountains, and returning. The Ta Oi and their distinctive language become, from that vantage, not less civilized, but a critical piece to what is essential about our human puzzle.
The Ta Oi weavers are grateful, it is prohibitively expensive to travel and when they do, it's to a market they don't yet understand. "They've been beautifully generous in their time and in their ways to help us 'it's amazing that you're coming to us' they say," shares Nguyen. Th e Ta Oi Master Artisan and co-op leader, Thoa, who is at age 33, an elder weaver, witnessed her art, language and culture both endangered and reviving. In gratitude she offers, "This is the way that we can communicate, and sustain the tradition for our daughters ."
Fashion4Freedom welcomes designer and brand collaborations. Anyone interested in purchasing yardage or exploring the textile language of the Ta Oi is welcome to reach out to Rachael@fashion4freedom.com. For more information, please visit www.fashion4freedom.com.