|New designs: Aldegonde van Alsenoy encourages ethnic Co Tu women to be creative with their designs while blending with contemporary colours. — Photos baoquangnam.com.vn
by Thien Huong
The Co Tu ethnic group, living in a remote mountainous village in the central province of Quang Nam, are familiar with Belgian designer Aldegonde van Alsenoy, nicknamed Ava.
She joins in with their traditional dances, drinking and chatting like one who is part of the family despite the language barrier.
Some of the locals even consider her their "second mom" as she has not only taken an interest in their traditional weaving craft but has also helped promote it to the world market, thus improving their lives.
Ava first came to Dhroong Village in Ta Lu Commune, Dong Giang District, a few years ago when she was working for a project run by the International Labour Organisation. The special local tradition of weaving handicrafts attracted her attention.
Local girls start learning to weave at 7-8 years old. They create various items, including clothes, household items for family use and gifts to give one another in the village.
They don't use an ordinary loom. Instead, they use their own bodies and some small bamboos as a loom. They create amazing images of their surroundings in their artwork, using lots of colours and beads attached to the thread.
"They are extremely good weavers, so they don't need too many weaving techniques," Ava said while talking about her project to promote local weaving products. "They are open to new designs. They only don't know how to do business."
Since 2012, Ava has gathered some 20 local women to attend training sessions. She visits the village once every two weeks to guide them on forming an independent business group.
She has taught them what to do with their finished products, such as storing, packaging and making invoices for their orders.
The Co Tu Yaya Business Co-operative was set up for the group to supply fabric for Ava's design shop in the ancient town of Hoi An, located dozens of kilometres away.
"We had to get accustomed to numbers and calculations," Bling Treng, a local woman, said. "It was quite challenging at first. But soon, I found it was actually systematic and helpful."
Now, Bling and many women like her in the village can earn enough to cover their families' expenses and even put away small sums for savings. Each of them can earn up to VND 400,000-500,000 (US$18-22) per day from weaving.
Ava encourages the women to make their own designs, blended with contemporary colours.
"Just a few years ago, we weaved goods solely to meet our needs in the village," Alang Thi Hou, another local woman, said.
"Now, we are happy, as we can sell brocade work to many people, including foreigners. They like it a lot. We'll never stop our traditional weaving practices and will hand them down to our offspring."
|Artistry: Aldegonde van Alsenoy works on a design in Dhroong Village in Quang Nam Province.
Ava's art shop in Hoi An City has been in operation since 2010 and is inspired mainly by Co Tu fabrics.
"With nice fabric, you can do anything you want," she said, pointing to various outfits in her shop. "Loose, flowery, flared —fabrics make the designs."
A few months ago, Ava debuted her new brand Co'ture Collection, using Co Tu fabric, in her hometown of Antwerp, Belgium. She sold 80 per cent of the 120 items she introduced.
For the recent debut of her collection in Hoi An, Ava invited two weavers from the village to perform their traditional skills at her shop.
"It's a good way to introduce people from all over the world to this unique fabric and the process of making clothes," Xenia Joost from Estonia said. "I can see and learn a little more."
"It's great that local items can become a modern trend," Cyrille Stegmann from South Africa said.
Ava has lived in Hoi An since 2006 with her Italian husband, Lodovico Ruggru, who is responsible for advertising and marketing the Cu Lao Cham Diving Centre. Their two children were born here.
"I love the sea, the sky, the old city, the mountains in Hoi An," she said. "I don't consider myself an expat. I live here. I won't leave. This is my home."— VNS