Founded in 2000 by Englishwoman Joanna (Jo) Smith and Laotian Veomanee (Veo) Douangdala, Ock Pop Tok is an artisan social enterprise based in Luang Prabang, Laos. Over the years we have grown from a small shop selling only a few designs, to becoming one of the most important textile and artisanal institutions in all of Laos and South East Asia. Ock Pop Tok is now a team of over 78 employees. Meet the rest of the team here!
Ock Pop Tok (meaning “East Meets West” in Lao) was founded on the principles of fair trade and sustainable business practices and the original concept was to bring people together through textiles to exchange knowledge and ideas. The company was pioneering social business and ethical fashion before these terms were even a part of our cultural lexicon.
The partnership between these two women dates back to 1999 when Jo was on an EU funded assignment to photograph development projects in northern Laos. At that time Veo was carving out her own unique niche and making a name for herself among the Lao artisan community. Coming from a family rich with textile and artisan roots, Veo was constantly challenging old ways and methods. She was designing unique sinhs (traditional skirts) and patterns that differentiated her from her peers.
While Veo was busy trailblazing a new path for Lao textiles, Jo was becoming increasingly enamoured with the intricate weavings and the women who produced them. Veo’s creativity attracted Jo like a magnet as she was looking for like-minded artists with whom to collaborate. They had a shared commitment to preserving and promoting these textiles and a similar creative energy. Seizing the opportunity when Veo asked Jo if she wanted to start a project together, the answer was “Of course I bloody do!”
Veo and Jo realized early on that in order for hand loomed textiles to survive and thrive as a craft, they had to create economic value for the textiles. Weaving, which is still done primarily by village women, is often considered domestic work that is not representative of progress or economic advancement. By deciding to operate on fair trade principles, specifically by providing competitive wages, opportunities for continued learning and professional development, Ock Pop Tok gives weavers the ability to earn a sustainable livelihood for their families and communities. By opening a venue where visitors can see and practice the craft they are able to educate visitors about the cultural and the artistic value of the textiles which in turn, increased the economic value of the work.
At Ock Pop Tok we believe that life is dynamic and evolving, so in order for businesses to survive and stay relevant it should also be dynamic and evolve over time. We follow this ideology both in our business model and our product designs.
What began as a small storefront in Luang Prabang, Ock Pop Tok has since evolved organically to include two shops in the historic district of Luang Prabang and the iconic Living Crafts Centre (LCC) situated along the banks of the beautiful Mekong River – come visit us and read about our story below.
Ock Pop Tok opened the first shop in October 2000 in the town centre selling unique designs based on traditional techniques and motifs to tourists. The shop was located on the main street in the town centre. The weavers worked from the shop and Jo lived upstairs. In the beginning Ock Pop Tok employed only five weavers. The fact that they worked together from the shop allowed tourists the opportunity to see the textiles being made and learn about the process. Education has always been central to the Ock Pop Tok mission. As sales increased we were able to gradually add more weavers to the production team and more designs to our product lines.
As the number of weavers on the team grew, we outgrew our first shop. The location was good for selling our products, because it was located right in town, so we searched for a place to create a workshop for the weavers. In 2005 we found a beautiful place for our new workshop about 2km outside of the town centre, right on the banks of the Mekong River and we moved our weaving workshop. While the products continued to sell, customers missed seeing the weavers and started requesting to meet the weavers and learn more about the process of producing the textiles. This led us to create a tour so that guests could visit the workshop to meet the weavers and to learn about how textiles are made from the silkworm to the finished products.
We would take tourists out to the workshop a couple of times a day so that they could do the tour and meet the weavers. Visitors were always impressed with the workshop space and tour and we started receiving requests for hands-on classes so that people could learn the craft. In 2006 we answered this call with a 1 day natural dyes and weaving course to be held at our weaving workshop, which was quickly becoming more of a centre than a workshop and soon evolved into the Living Crafts Centre.
The classes that we offered were full day classes, so we had to offer lunch for the students. In those days the weavers always pooled their money and cooked lunch together at the workshop. When we had students doing the classes, the weavers just made extra food and everyone ate together The students loved the food and the setting and several people recommended that we open a restaurant. Mrs. Keo, who has a background in nursing and nutrition naturally took charge of the group meals. And when we decided to open a restaurant, she announced that she had always wanted to be a chef. So Mrs. Keo transitioned from weaver to chef and became Chef Keo. In 2006 we officially opened the Silk Road Cafe at our workshop on the banks of the Mekong River. And thus the Living Crafts Centre was born.
Over time the Living Crafts Centre evolved to include educational tours, hands-on classes, a chance to meet the weavers in their workshop, home of the Silk Road Cafe and shop for Ock Pop Tok products. As it expanded it also started to receive more visitors. People loved the tranquil atmosphere of the lush gardens on the edge of the Mekong River and started dreaming of being able to wake up to that view. This dream became a reality in 2010 when we opened the Mekong Villa, with 4 unique rooms each themed with the textile traditions of a different ethinc group from Laos.
In 2001 Jo and Veo made their first trip to Houaphan province to explore the artisan industry in a rural village. The trip was sparked by a desire to find the maker of an exquisite textile that a trader brought to Luang Prabang to sell. In the end this trip marked the first of many journeys to rural Laos to work with a variety of ethinic groups and their unique textiles traditions in what is now known as the Village Weaver Projects. This program provides design, and marketing assistance in over thirteen provinces in Lao. Through the Village Weavers Project, OPT is able to create a product line representative of Laos’ diverse ethnic groups and generate sustainable income for rural communities.
In conjunction with the Village Weaver Projects Jo and Veo made it a part of their mission to collect unique pieces whenever they had the chance. They noticed that traders purchased these pieces from villagers, who needed money in exchange for their unique antique textiles. The traders were then selling these pieces onto travelers and Jo and Veo feared that all of the great pieces were leaving country along with their history. They had been collecting from the beginning but made it official In 2006, Ock Pop Tok created Fibre2Fabric, a registered charity whose mission is to collect, preserve and document heritage textiles in Laos.
All Ock Pop Tok team members are cultural ambassadors of Laos. We foster cultural pride through various activities here in Laos and abroad. We encourage the team to celebrate the diversity of Lao culture and ethnic groups and share these experiences and traditions with visitors. This is a part of our vision that one can Discover Laos through Textiles.
We purchase passports for all of the weavers on our team and support opportunities to travel around the region and the world to represent Laos at trade shows, conferences, exhibitions, and more. Our first major international trip was to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe New Mexico USA in 2007. Jo and Veo return almost every year bringing different members of the team with them. For the weavers, it is often the first time they have ever left South East Asia. In Santa Fe, the Lao artisans are able to interact with fellow-artisans and buyers from around the world. This opportunity for cultural and artistic collaboration is invaluable for their personal and professional experience.
Traveling as a cultural ambassador for Laos with Ock Pop Tok benefits the individual and the company. The team members realise that they are a part of a larger community of artisans worldwide and that people are interested in learning about Lao culture. This builds confidence and cultural pride. On these trips, the team members also teach people about Laos and Ock Pop Tok promoting the company and the country.
To date members of our team have travelled to Japan, Taiwan, USA, Peru, Australia, Myanmar, China, Malaysia, Korea, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, England, Thailand, and France to represent Lao culture.
In addition to curating an inspiring selection of hand loomed textiles from over fifteen ethnic groups in Laos, Ock Pop Tok also offers visitors hands on workshops in silk and cotton weaving, dyeing, Hmong batik, and bamboo weaving.
Whether you have 30 minutes, 36 hours, want to try a class or simply have lunch at the Silk Road Café, we have something unique for you to experience while in Luang Prabang! Take our free guided tour, stroll through our gardens (where you’ll find the natural materials for our dyes) or come to the Living Crafts Centre to watch more than 20 master weavers on their looms.