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Thao Vu & Kilomet 109: Designing eco-fashion in Hanoi

Founder of eco-fashion house Kilomet 109, Thao Vu is a pioneering designer who has helped transform Hanoi into a creative hub. Thao describes what it means to be an ‘eco-entrepreneur’ and how her collaborations with Nung An, Tai and Khmer communities inspire and fuel her “seed to fiber” collections.

NOTE: To get the full story, we encourage you to listen to the episode. The following episode notes serve as a guide, explaining what we cover in each section. Fast forward to hear more about specific topics and sections.

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Bridging urban and village craft


Finding ways to bridge old and new in Eco-fashion, city life and village life has shaped Thao’s worldview since she was a young child.

Silk weaving, natural dyeing, glass making continued to be made as they had for centuries.

Thao grew up in Dong Hung, a small town in Thai Binh province in NE Vietnam. To the east is the Gulf of Tonkin and the world beyond.

This region, like most coastal provinces in Vietnam, has been an important stop in maritime spice trade dating back centuries.

To the west is Hanoi, Vietnam’s cultural and political capital, a city surrounded by lakes. Beyond Hanoi, the landscape turns rugged and mountainous, and is home to numerous ethnic communities who live close to the land.

Thao’s hometown is not much different from small towns across Vietnam, a 2 km strip flanked by shop houses and general stores. On the outskirts, it gives way to rice paddies and corn fields and traditional communities and villages where silk weaving, natural dyeing, glass making continued to be made as they had for centuries.

The transition between these disparate landscapes, between land and water, town and village, is at once dramatic and seamless.

Neither heritage nor ecology were part of the curriculum.

Thao came of age just as post war Vietnam began opening its borders to trade and tourism. As the country marched towards progress, it was also shedding it’s past.

When Thao went to design school, she was curious about Vietnam’s rich textile traditions. And, she wanted to design from an ecological perspective – from seed to fabric. Neither heritage nor ecology were part of the curriculum.

So, Thao decided to teach herself. She started visiting Nung An and Hmong communities in northern Vietnam, Tai communities in the central highlands, and Khmer villages in the Mekong delta.

She developed connections that not only broadened her design canvas. Collaborating with these artisans, she has created collections that go from seed to fabric, from village to runway of Eco-fashion.

Today, her collaboration with the communities continues, and every two months, she makes the journey out of Hanoi to the countryside.

Eco-fashion and collaboration in Hanoi


One of the things we love about Thao is her collaborative spirit. Her work reflects creative life in Hanoi, in the countryside and the world .. it is truly cosmopolitan and rooted in a sense of place. Next you’ll hear Thao talking about why collaboration is important.

This dynamic approach is what drives her vision. Thao says that she’s not the first to find inspiration in heritage. What does set her apart from others is that she opens the channel both ways, thereby leading to real dialogue.

“Tradition itself contains the modern mentality,” she says. This insight is profound and is worth contemplating.

Vacation with an Artist & Thao


We began this episode with Thao describing the journey from Hanoi to Cao Bung. If you are like me, listening to Thao made me want to explore Hanoi’s old quarter, it’s French colonial architecture painted in rich shades of ochre and turmeric yellow.

And, of course, I dream of making a similar drive into the hills, watching the landscape evolve, leaving behind Hanoi’s busy streets and entering a countryside lush and vibrant with high mountains, indigo fields and rice paddies.

Fortunately for all of us who are eager to experience all this, Thao collaborates with an organisation called Vacation with An Artist, a creative travel company that links travellers with working artists. It’s a great way to experience culture and a craft tradition.

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