Ho Tran Da Thao is a fan of her own collections. She wears her own models at international exhibitions she is invited to, to her fashion shows or simply for a night out with friends.
Thao is now used to being stopped on the streets by fashion lovers, especially foreign ones who would ask her many prying questions about her clothes.
She would return a smile, a proud one, pointing at the distinctive image printed on her clothes and starts her mini presentation to the curious stranger.
“You know, this is an image of traditional Vietnamese folk woodcut painting called Dong Ho..,”
Born in 1979, Da Thao did not start off as a fashion designer. An English graduate from Ho Chi Minh Social Studies and Humanities University, she was then later trained as a designer at Australian TAFE Institution and went through several foreign- sponsored fashion design competitions in Vietnam to build up experience.
At the 2008 International Young Fashion Entrepreneur conference organized by the British Council, she was crowned winner in Vietnam, an event which won her a chance to identify the path she would later follow with much enthusiasm.
Representing the country in the final round of the competition held in the United Kingdom, Thao seized the opportunity to visit all European fashion capitals in a three month backpacker trip afterwards. She lost at the competition, but went home with a new found inspiration.
“Ethnic fashion is on the rise at fashion capitals like Paris or Madrid. Stores presenting Indian or Nepalese tradition inspired clothes to flourish there,” Thao said.
“They can do that, why can’t I with our rich cultural heritage? I then decided it was time to go back, and do something about this”.
And the Northern Vietnam’s folk art painting, Dong Ho was what she chose to start with.
In the past, Dong Ho painting was an essential element of the Tết holiday in Vietnam; this tradition has gradually declined under the influence of modern types of painting and fake Dong Ho products.
Thao went to Dong Ho village in the northern province of Bac Ninh, where paintings have been manually produced for hundreds of years and studied the folk art with an old master.
With hundreds of old paintings and a profound knowledge of the age-old art accompanying her on her way back, Thao knew then she had just begun a difficult journey.
To recreate Dong Ho paintings on clothes, Thao worked up combining all crafting techniques to preserve the paintings’ original spirit in modern fabrics.
Not all paintings’ details can be used, some paintings can only be kept with a few sketches and strokes. Their colors originate from nature such as leaves or trees, which reflect different lights and shades on different fabrics and materials, posing another challenge to the designer.
For months, digital painting, embroidery, beading, hand drawing or a combination of all had been tried by Thao to best transfer the paintings onto her designed clothes.
Only 20 out of hundreds of Dong Ho paintings were used to make her collections.
In 2009, Thao with her collection were invited to Bangkok to join the Asian Creative Industry’s Conference and Exhibition organized by British Council and won considerable notice and praises.
Thanks to Thao, a near lost cultural tradition is given life in another form which can touch a wider audience. It is not just another fashion story.