The British Council in collaboration with Kilomet 109 present PHIÊU, a multi-media exhibition exploring the relationship between traditional crafts and contemporary design.
Knowing history makes for a stronger present. Innovation that takes into consideration traditional techniques tends to make for sophisticated solutions - in this way New can aid Old and Old can make New so much better.
As is the case with Hanoi-based fashion brand Kilomet 109 and their new collection presented at PHIÊU, which loosely translates to Unburdened Journey. The exhibition is organised as part of the British Council’s New for Old initiative – a research residency that took place across Southeast Asia in December 2016, bringing together academics, artisans, and contemporary creative practitioners to find ways of looking backwards while moving forwards.
The idea behind the PHIÊU collection is to extract the essence of tried and tested knowledge and update it to fit contemporary design aesthetics and production. For Kilomet 109 and its founder and principal designer Thao Vu this has resulted in clothes that have woven into their fabric a continuation of traditional dyeing, weaving, and calendering techniques from four ethnic minority groups in North Vietnam who Thao has been working with for the last year.
Thao works closely with the artisans to both learn from and teach them in return, so positive improvements will be maintained even if she moves on in her creative process: “I don’t know how long I will work with the artisans and I need to make sure that it is sustainable, that they value their own culture, and that they feel confident in making new designs if one day I leave.”
Along with British Council researchers, Thao sat down with local artisans to learn about their everyday practice, how the craft-making activities shape their lives, families, and the communities around them, and what they are hoping to gain from spending hours every day crafting the fabrics. Lo Thi Di, a Thai weaver is aware that patience and continuous support are required: “I really hope I can learn more about product and business. I want to create jobs for the people here by employing them. To do so I need to sell products well, I need to have more customers, and import-export partners to sell domestically first. Maybe in a few years' time my products will find their way to the export market.”
The New for Old research team documented the work of eight artisans and the various aspects of fabric production. Questions around passing on indigenous know-how, embracing cultural identity, and keeping traditional craftsmanship alive were raised, and the results comprise PHIÊU. In an effort to do justice to the whole production process that leads up to the finished garments, and to highlight a variety of possible approaches to working with and being inspired by traditional craft, the exhibition includes Kilomet 109’s newest collection and installation pieces that showcase the dyeing, batik, and weaving techniques. The exhibition is complemented with work from other creative disciplines: black and white photography by Nic Shonfeld, who shot informal portraits of the artisans to showcase the people behind the work; illustrations and prints of the natural materials and tools used in the process by Claire Driscoll; a short documentary film made from field footage put together by Pham Mai Phuong; and a commissioned piece of music composed by Nguyen Xuan Son.
In this way the exhibition highlights New for Old’s understanding that the promotion of craftsmanship, community, and commerce cannot be managed by just one person. Rather, the programme brings together contemporary designers, artisans, researchers, entrepreneurs, and consumers in an effort to revitalise traditional crafts and support local craft-makers, as to share an understanding that New and Old are mutually beneficial.
New for Old is a programme by the British Council aiming at providing new opportunities for female artisans and makers in the craft sector within Southeast Asia. In 2016, New for Old was implemented in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam, bringing together researchers from the Royal College of Art London and local researchers and practitioners in two-week residencies in all three countries.
The exhibition and research residencies form part of the British Council’s work in Culture and Development, exploring creative responses to development challenges worldwide. Our work in East Asia focuses on supporting female artisans and promoting traditional crafts and heritage for social inclusion and economic development in the region.