Sapa Design Initiative

There are 54 ethnic minority tribes in Vietnam alone, not to mention the ones abiding in Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and China.  They have no nationality, no status, no social benefits, and different economic standings.  They are different from each other in terms of language, how they build their houses, religion, traditions, where they originally came from, and most beautiful, their tribal clothes, here is a really good account of some of the costumes written by Haute Culture:  Hill Tribe Fashions.

The majority of these tribes live in Northern Vietnam, very near the Chinese and Laos border. I only met 3 of these tribes , the Dao (pronounced Zao) Hmong,  and Lao Lu, which make but 1% of the tribal population, but still close to 2 million people.

I can only tell you my first hand account, but was sad to learn my friends of the Red Dao had never learnt to read or write, in any language, for you see ,they have no written language.  Some Hmong know Vietnamese, and have schools, and some woman can speak English due to their close proximity to Sapa town, selling Chinese knock off textiles to quick traveling tourists.

These Chinese-made  cheap purses, blankets, pillow cases, stuffed animals, and tacky key chains is all you see lined on any empty bit of pavement in town, not to mention the swarms of young woman waiting for unsuspecting tour buses to arrive.  How sad that their traditional textiles have been exploited and now are produced on such an ugly scale using synthetic plastic materials. Not only that, there are government signs lining the streets, saying “do not buy from the ethnic minorities.”

Selling these cheap imitations is a way for them to feed their family, but is there a better way?  Just makes me think, if only one girls started to make her own purses, and put up a little cardboard sign saying “handmade, by me” would that be a catalyst? Could something so small work, instead of stalking and guilt tripping people?

Obviously I’ve thought further than that.

There is a social enterprise, it’s a tour company, with only Hmong and Dao guides, where most of the profits go straight into the woman’s pockets.  They teach traditional textiles, taught again by the local woman.  Without making a fuss, they even take in woman over night who have travel hours Sapa in hopes of selling her tribal textiles, in hopes to buy enough seeds to plant her crops.  They provide solutions to medical needs, and recently  helped a little boy with a clef palette undergo surgery.  They hold English classes for anyone who wants to attend, bring awareness towards the trafficking of Hmong girls to China, and most importantly, take time to explain, the life of these people, to travellers from around the world who come to do trekking/touring in Sapa.

They are apart of the solution, by just being really good caring people who take actions to create change. They are called Ethos click here.  Ethos is run by Phil, who has live in Vietnam for 18 years, with his wife Hoa, who is Vietnamese. They are determined not only to help the ethnic minorities in terms of social change, but are determined to keep their traditions alive, especially their heritage textiles. They hope to preserve the garments in hopes to one day open a museum.  They also are keen for the craft of batik,indigo, and embroidery, to be kept alive by the younger generations.  They have asked me to help, and together we are starting the Sapa Design Initiative.

Aside from the low literacy levels, and social issues, there is a problem towards the perceptions of these people.  They are equal to us in every way, the only difference is they haven’t been given a chance, instead they have been taken advantage of.  The Dao and Hmong woman are incredible artisans, but the question I want to look at is, can they learn how to design, and become independent makers with their own on-line shop?

Can you teach creativity? Can you teach western design aesthetics? Can you teach problem solving? Fashion? These are hard questions to answer as conceptual ideals do not exist to most ethnic people. There is one way to do things, the way things have always been done, that is what they’ve known.  They have never had the privilege of time to think about these ideas, they’ve had only time to raise their children and tend their fields.

The reason I want to help these amazing people, is, I don’t feel I have the right to profit off their heritage materials, but instead, want them to be able to evolve them into beautiful unique products, so they themselves will be the creators/makers, and independent designers with their own on-line store.

I think that in art, as well as design, ideas are simply stolen, and re-hatched, re-developed.. If something works and sells well, and could for someone else, especially someone who’s had no opportunity to work it out for themselves, could it be the best gift you could give someone, your ideas and your experience? We are so blooming lucky to have the time and resources, wouldn’t it be amazing to just give it away to those who haven’t.

When thinking about sustainability, you can’t just give a blue print away, it will be massed produced, and become worthless. Pillow cases and plastic zip purses hold little value, although simple to make. What would sell? What would stand out and give the textiles the credit they deserve?

This is what this is initiative is all about, to answer these questions, and help the Hmong and Dao woman evolve their amazing craft, into product designs, by learning from existing makers and designers, creating a sustainble solution.

Melinda Gates said it clearly

When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest.”






  1. Hold workshops at Ethos to show what is possible to make with their heritage materials, with fabric pairing, making simple designs. Introduce on-line resources such as pinterest, giving each one a product to work on, at home or at Ethos, letting them trial and error with free material to experiment with.
  2. Once there are enough students interested, begin a mentoring initiative, bringing art teachers, designers, makers to Sapa on a skill exchange holiday where they would be the teachers and the students, building relationships which could be continued through Skype calls, photograph exchanges.. really no limit to this.
  3.  Once a woman finds a project she’d like to create, the mentor would be chosen. For example,  someone who wants to design bags would be paired with someone who makes bags. They would give feedback and guidance, creating a range of from 1-5  pieces. Each piece would be hand-made by the woman only.
  4. A professional photographer would go to Sapa, take photographs, whilst teaching photography principles.
  5.  A graphic designer would build a simple website, and etsy page, where all the individual would have to do is package and post the item out when it sold, refresh it, and make it again.  They could also help with branding, logos, business cards..etc..



  1. Make items with the fabric I bought in Sapa to show what is possible, sell it online, with all profits going to this project to buy pairing materials with which they can practice with.
  2. Send some fabric to existing artists/makers to see what they create, also to show what is possible.
  3. With the help of Ethos, collect as many willing participants, create a working space with tables, hand-sewing machine, and all making materials. Woman would also be encouraged to work at home.
  4. Take time to create.
  5. Work with existing designers/ publish website  =  independent designers
  6. Percentage of sales going back into the pot to support new members.


This would not be a charity, nor an NGO, it is a sustainable textile initiative working with individuals who want to become textile artist/designers.  They have sewn,woven,  embroidered, dyed with batik, and worked with their hands since most were 8 years old.  They have the skills, they are amazing woman, they only need some guidance and a chance.

Here are some designs I have been working on, and are for sale on my etsy page, with all profits going towards the Sapa Design Initiative.




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This entry was posted on April 20, 2016 by in research and reflection.


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