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City clothing, jewellery designer favours ethnic minority fabrics

Update: March, 19/2015 - 09:59
Fab fabric: Cynthia Mann said these fabrics are of the highest quality and diversity, but the craft of making them is dying out as cheap Chinese goods flood the market.

by Le Huong

On one mid-summer day, the sun's strong, burning rays seem to have kept most people inside. Endless waves linger on a white, sandy beach in the central province of Binh Thuan.

Australian designer Cynthia Mann walks along the beach in her bare feet with a large, brimmed bamboo hat. The hot sun doesn't seem to bother her, as she has lost herself searching for treasures along the shore. From time to time she kneels down, picks something up and smiles to herself. She finds broken pieces of ceramics or glass, revealed by their twinkling as they reflect the sun's rays between waves.

Most would ignore the small objects. But for Mann, they're inspiration for new jewellery designs.

During a holiday on the beach, she might collect dozens of pieces. She reshapes them and frames them with silver, turning them into ornamental wares for her brand Future Traditions.

Mann has designed ornamental wares this way for more than a year. Her jewellery is purchased by expats, tourists and some Vietnamese.

"One can only imagine the stories behind each piece of ocean-polished ceramics and sea glass found washed up along the coast of Viet Nam – are they fragments from the cargo of one of the shipwrecks which date as far back as the 13th century, intended for trade in Europe?" She wrote on her website. "Or broken and discarded crockery from which the sailors ate?...We may never know, but in using what others would, and have, thrown away, these recycled pieces can reclaim their part in Viet Nam's seafaring history, this time as unique pieces of jewellery."

Mann said she knew she wanted to live in Viet Nam the very first time she stepped into a taxi on her first visit six years ago. Now, some of her favourite things about Viet Nam are its coffee and delicacies offered during the Tet holiday.

"It's hard to figure out which features of the country lured me," she said. "Its vibrancy, people and atmosphere. I sense that anything can happen here while Viet Nam is changing very fast. I feel a strong and fascinating culture identity here, though the country has blended Chinese, French and American influences, especially in tribal minority groups in mountain areas."

Working together: Cynthia Mann (left) poses for a photo with her friend (right) and two local women in Sa Pa. — Photos courtesy of Cynthia Mann

An average day for Mann includes shopping at big markets in the city like Hom and Dong Xuan, where she can buy materials for designing clothes and accessories. Her weekends are often spent in remote mountain communities in Ha Giang, Hoa Binh, Lao Cai and Lai Chau provinces.

Hand-woven designs

A love for fabrics hand-woven and hand-dyed by ethnic minorities is evident in Mann's designs. She said these fabrics had the highest quality and diversity. But the handicraft has been dying out as cheap Chinese goods flood the market. While lots of people work with ethnic minority textiles, there are few options for stable production of the handmade goods.

Mann has built relationships with locals, so she can order special textiles and use them in their designs. By blending traditional brocade with decorative patterns on small areas like hems, necks, buttons and borders decorations, she creates fashionable clothing at reasonable prices, while using special features of ethnic minority culture.

"I think her designs are special in the way she blends ethnic patterns," said Mai Thanh Nga, a fashion design student from Ha Noi Open University. "They bear both traditional and modern motifs, and I think they suit city life."

Mann said she designed items for all seasons and genders.

"I feel like I have a special connection to Viet Nam," she said, explaining why she has stayed in the country so long. "I don't know, Viet Nam may have put a spell on me." — VNS

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