British Council

Vu Thao is a designer, founder and owner of the all-natural fashion brand Kilomet109. She won the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur in Design/ Fashion Award in 2014. And ever since, Kilomet 109 has grown more successful and the bond between her and the British Council has also flourished.

The British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur (YCE) in Design/ Fashion Award was unveiled just in time as “Vietnam needs designers who are also skilled business people”, rather than just showmanship. For this reason Vu Thao entered the competition with Kilomet109, a high-end, modern and delicate fashion product line made from woven and died organic materials. 

The British Council 2014 Award brought Thao to the UK to attend global design classes and workshops in London, and learned a lot from experts on not just designing but also business, brand building, design technology, trending and creative design thinking. “That was a very professional and practical move by the British Council,” said Thao, it was exactly what she needed.

The YCE Award supported Thao in many ways, and had more implications than she ever imagined: “When such an organisation as the British Council – an intellectual community – steps in to help you, you must be very lucky. Vietnamese fashion is often stereotyped as more look than substance, and when it is recognised by the intellectual world, its value will grow exponentially. My definition of the occupation has also been more serious. Through the British Council, I got to know the research community, doing research for materials, design, sociology, economics and so on, and my brand shapes itself over time into a model for people not just from the same community to ‘look closely into’. That gives Kilomet 109 greater depth and I myself also feel more confident.” 

Two years later, Kilomet109 widened partnerships with a group of artisans, quadrupled its operation and simultaneously finished the PHIEU (psychedelia) Collection. Thao was invited by the British Council to work with the New for Old project to promote the designer’s bond with the local artisan community, with activities consisting of the launch of the PHIEU Collection through a multimedia exhibition (fashion, photography and illustration) financed by the British Council. The exhibition left a significant mark, as it introduced an in-depth and more multifaceted perspective on artisanship and modern designing, where artisan materials are no longer considered artistic products. For Thao, this was a major and meaningful project. 

The British Council kept its relationship with Thao very much alive through the Crafting Future project and the Craft and Design Challenge 2017 competition, where she was invited to attend as a competitor counselor to teach manual working procedures to local artisans. Up to that point, Thao realised her partnership with the British Council had become more of a ‘spider web’ over time.

Thao valued the depth and long-term goals of these British Council design and artisanship projects. Other projects Thao knew did not have sustainable implications after phase-out, where artisans did not have ownership and instead, just worked as cogs in a machine and would not know what to do next after the projects ended. On the other hand, the British Council acts as an incubator as it concentrates on training and skilling in multiple steps and uses designers to establish a link with artisans to achieve a better vision, while providing the ability to self-question, self-support, proactively search for markets and learn know more about designing. “Their views of their occupation will then be much different, as they are more decisive, better value their handicraft profession, and respect their cultural positions more,” Thao observed. With training, project participants can earn better income, rather than a fixed amount from the project. Creation of ownership for artisans was the best value the British Council had to offer, said Thao. 

When this story was taking shape, Thao was in the UK attending the influential design event London Design Biennale with fellow artists to unveil modern multimedia fashion-art from Vietnam to the international public. It was not a direct partnership with the British Council, but came from an event that she jointly engaged in with the British Council, which again reflects the ‘spider web’ nature of the relationship.

Back in Vietnam, Thao will launch the next Kilomet109 collection. After every collection, the artisan team she is working with will grow in size and geographic catchment, while Kilomet 109’s clientele and distribution system also widens over time, in Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States.

“The British Council’s influence and reach are more deep-seated and wide-ranging than I first imagined.”