The term “sustainable fashion” has many meanings: It can refer to clothes and accessories made from organic, naturally-dyed fabrics; apparel made by workers who receive a living wage; or high-quality garments made to last for decades to come.
But for tote and handbag maker Wild Tussah, sustainability means more than providing a fair income for the artisans that make each bag by hand; it’s about preserving the long-standing but disappearing tradition of weaving in Vietnam.
Wild Tussah’s line of premium leather tote bags, priced at $160 each, feature colorful weaves made by the Cham people, one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities whose language is on the verge of extinction. The company has also just launched a line of black leather day-to-night handbags, which showcase a rare weave that the Lu ethnic community uses for traditional women’s skirts. These weaves can only be produced by highly skilled weavers and can take three to six months to create. True to its name, the $130 handbag can be used with its straps and worn over the shoulder during the day, and at night, the straps can be removed to create the perfect evening clutch.
Because the weaves on each bag are handcrafted, the company notes on its website that there will be some variance in textile designs and colors among bags. This means each bag is truly unique – and what’s more fashionable than owning a piece no one else has?
Danica Ratte, Wild Tussah’s founder and sustainable fashion designer, came up with the idea to incorporate ancient Vietnamese weaving techniques into handbags and totes while she was traveling through and eventually settling in Southeast Asia. She met weavers in the villages she visited and was troubled to hear that their venerable art was not being passed on to younger generations because it was no longer profitable.
“… I learned that fewer girls were being taught at an early age how to use a loom because of modernization and reduced demand for traditional weaves,” Ratte said in a statement. “Some of the women were forced to choose different occupations altogether, so that they could provide for their families, even though they really wanted to continue weaving instead.”
So, Ratte created Wild Tussah – “tussah” is a kind of silk produced from wild Asian silkworms – to provide jobs for local weavers, support the weavers’ families and help protect an ancient art form.
The company recognizes it is just a start to a complex problem. Approximately 49 percent of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live in poverty, according to a 2013 report from a Vietnamese research institute. And over 6 million people from Vietnam’s ethnic communities lack education and decent living conditions.
In addition to providing jobs and good working conditions to Vietnamese weavers, Wild Tussah’s collection of totes and handbags also boasts other sustainable features: The high-quality bags are designed to outlast disposable accessories from the fast fashion trend, and to reduce waste, artisans save leftover weave scraps to reuse in future designs.
As for its future plans, Wild Tussah hopes to source weaves from other parts of Southeast Asia and expand into South America, the company says on its website. The bag maker may also pursue Fair Trade certification for its products in the coming years; right now, it is devoting its money and resources to developing its collection and supporting its artisans, the company says, rather than paying for the third-party validation process that can be expensive for a small company.
By creating fetching handbags and totes that make a dying weaving tradition profitable, Wild Tussah has found another way to make the fashion industry sustainable.
“When you buy a bag from us, you are sustaining a culture from thousands of years ago and showing that you deserve more from your brands,” Ratte said.
Image credit: Wild Tussah
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru