The sun sets over the Mekong River, casting a dazzling orange glow over the luxurious Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel in Vientiane. Guests and models begin to arrive, dressed in extravagant ensembles, posing for photos on the red carpet. A steady thumping of bass-heavy dance music pulsing from the speakers as the attendants eagerly wait for the show to begin.
It’s the sixth annual Lao Fashion Week, a prestigious event to which designers from all around Southeast Asia come to showcase their collections. The first edition of Lao Fashion Week, in 2013, marked the birth of a modern Lao fashion industry. It blew open the doors, creating a platform for so many hopeful designers to share their work. Much of the buzz surrounding Lao Fashion Week revolves around the young Lao designers who have the opportunity to show the potential of the country’s blossoming fashion industry.
Many of the designers found their way in through the resources that the Lao Young Designers Project provides and others found their way in through career changes and an intense passion.
Phonepaseuth Khounphouvong, nicknamed Tam, who is 32, was runner-up for the first Lao Young Designers Project in 2015. Tam has been passionate about fashion since he was young. His mother sold clothes from their house in Pakse and he became fascinated with how people dressed. He let his inspiration run freely as he drew designs on paper and when he was in high school, he designed clothes for his friends. “I designed the cheerleader uniform for my school,” Tam explains. Following his 2015 move to Vientiane and his remarkable achievement in the Lao Young Designers Project, Tam had the platform and experience he needed to launch his own brand, the eponymous Tam, in 2018.
Similarly, Meimei Livanna broke into the industry through the Lao Young Designers Project. She was 14 years old when she started designing, and ended up joining the project only three years later. Meimei loved fashion from a young age. “I went to Singapore for a summer and then I watched a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” she says. She won the 2017 Lao Young Designers Project and received a scholarship to study for six months at École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode (ESMOD) in Paris. Just recently, at the age of 21, Meimei started her brand, FEMEI.
Dalayphone Satasithsena, nicknamed Kabie, took a different path. Kabie, who is 28, had initially worked in social development. She explains that she was intrigued by fashion her whole life, but had no idea what to make or how to start. While she was studying at City University of London she fell in love with Muji, a household goods brand from Japan, which had used Lao cotton in some of their products. Kabie was motivated to make her own line of minimalist home decor inspired by the different kinds of cotton used in various Lao provinces. “I wanted to make some Lao products by using every cotton across Laos.” Back in Vientiane, Kabie started her Saya brand in November 2018.
Phonepaseuth, nicknamed JJ, is another designer who found his own way to break into the industry. JJ is 28 and like Tam, is from Pakse. He developed a love for fashion at the age of 14, as he enjoyed people watching and studying the different clothes and styles people wore. JJ explains that when he finished high school and entered the workforce, he didn’t have the chance to pursue a career in fashion. His parents wanted him to work in a more stable field. When he was 24, he got a banking job, but after deciding he wanted to work at something he loved, he quit. In 2018, he applied for the Lao Young Designers Project but wasn’t selected (there can be up to 100 applications for five to eight spots). Not discouraged, he joined another competition called Fair Fashion, a Lao program partnered with Fashion Revolution from the UK and funded by the American Embassy. He got into the top 10, and spent an intensive week gaining invaluable experience sewing his own clothes and working with Lao fabrics. JJ gained some notoriety and traction through Fair Fashion and finally started his own brand SA NÉ in 2019.
These young, eager and passionate designers are only a handful of the growing group that is propelling the development of the Lao fashion industry. This is not only exciting for them, but also important for the country. Lao designers, with their distinct styles, are all working to modernise Lao fashion while continuing to use Lao materials. Lao cotton is a popular choice and ubiquitous in modern Lao fashion. “We have quite unique cotton,” Kabie says. Lao cotton fabric is high quality, naturally dyed and environmentally sustainable as it is all hand made by weaving communities across the country, which the designers are committed to supporting. Kabie works with local communities in five provinces to support the production of cotton and invest in the communities themselves. Tam employs disabled female weavers from small communities. Lao designers’ reliance on handmade, sustainable Lao cotton rather than mass-produced, imported fabrics speaks to the progressive nature of modern Lao fashion.
A common challenge Lao designers face is encouraging Lao people to buy their products. “Most Lao people visit other countries for shopping and buy brand-name stuff,” Meimei admits. “It’s a very challenging thing for the Lao fashion industry to promote Lao brands, and what can we do to make Lao people use Lao products?” This is especially hard to do since the price of Lao cotton is high, so fashion designs are often too expensive for the average Lao person to afford. Konevixay Souvatdy, or Vee, who was the first runner up at the 2019 Lao Young Designers Project, explains that the price of Lao cotton had discouraged him from using it in his first collections, although he plans to use it in the future. “For me it is quite expensive and we have limited amounts…but I’m going to use it because I want to use something sustainable and help the sustainability in Laos.” With fewer people working in the cotton fields and fewer weavers, some parts of Laos have stopped growing cotton altogether, which raises the price of Lao cotton. “If we can have more markets that support Lao fabrics, I believe that the costs will be cheaper.” Kabie says.
The Lao fashion industry might be new, but it is filled with passionate, young and progressive designers with clear goals and visions for the future of the country. “Back then, Lao products were, only used for traditional events,” Vee explains. “Lao designers are making it so you can wear it every day.” These designers have learned how to reinvigorate the usage of Lao products for the modern era, and they are showing the country how.