Rachael Carson, the co-founder of Fashion4Freedom, a social enterprise that helps Vietnamese artisan villages protect their heritage, discusses how her role in the project was born from a university fellowship, why charity isn’t sustainable and how she hopes fashion and design can preserve tradition. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

You first came to Vietnam as part of a university fellowship. What was its goal?
Originally the program I went to in Hue was a capital investment project, giving machinery to small businesses that would then repay the loans to the community. It was supposed to just be a pilot project, but after my first year we funded seven businesses. Then the grant was doubled and we funded 14 businesses. Now after four years there are 50 that we’ve funded. That’s how our NGO arm, Design Capital Asia, got started. Fashion4Freedom supports the supply chain in product development, marketing and connecting rural entrepreneurs to international markets.

Why focus on Hue?
We wanted to rebuild the region as the hub for ethical manufacturing. In Hue there are numerous artisan villages, and a lot of these villages used to manufacture and produce products for the Imperial family. But that market no longer exists and these really old villages can’t keep up with the changing markets and demands. We want to invest in these villages and help preserve these traditional arts.

How can you do this with fashion?
In Vietnam in general, the amount of artisan villages is decreasing. If you see some of these villages, they are lost in time. You have to really redesign a product for the market to revitalise these dying arts. The village that makes our shoes, for example, has been making wood art for pagodas and imperial palaces for 700 years. So we looked at how we can use their skill sets, use their heritage craft and recreate a product for a different marketplace. That way we can create a way for the art to walk around the world.

How does Fashion4Freedom help?
Our model is to first invest machinery and not actual money. So with the woodcraft village, they received $3,000 worth of new equipment which helps increase consistency in their product and increase efficiency in their workshops. This in turn helps them get larger contracts and equipment so they can produce on a larger scale. By investing in them they not only produce for us, but we’re able to open markets for far more customers for them.

When we invest in the businesses, they don’t repay us, they repay the community. So with the wood carpenter, he repaid by training more people in the craft and also donating wooden doors and windows to people in the community who didn’t have them, which is very useful in the wet season.

You say some of your business models were influenced by how China gives foreign aid to Africa.
For my senior thesis I compared how China deals with foreign aid compared to the west. What China does in Africa is look at these countries as business partners, and says, “OK, you have resources we want so we’re going to build up your infrastructure to get them.” The west is much more charity based. That’s why I don’t believe in charity in a lot of cases. Charity makes people dependent; it’s not like an equal business partnership; it’s not mutually beneficial for both parties. That’s what influenced my thinking a lot in using a business-minded approach instead of charity. I felt this approach was much more sustainable.

Does it cost manufacturers more money to follow your more ethical model?
No. We’re trying to prove that you can actually produce luxury products, like our shoes, which are made by really rural producers, and you can also have a type of manufacturing where you can find a happy medium between the price of excellence and the price that it costs to produce.

Can Fashion4Freedom’s model be done on a large scale?
Yes. We have really niche products like small embroidery workshops, bamboo paper, lacquer ware, but we also have small factories that can produce 5,000 or 10,000 pieces of garments per month and we’re developing that more now. We’re seeing a lot of western retailers that need an ethical, transparent source for manufacturing. And we can guarantee that we can manage design and production while being up to ethical standards. There are a lot of people who want to use our supply chain because of that.

One of the goals of Fashion4Freedom is to redefine luxury. What does that mean?
That means looking at the producer and the consumer of luxury. The producer supports small villages that are so isolated from the world in many ways and are very much stuck in time and have no idea about the luxury market. But the villages also have these heritage skills. I think that’s more what luxury is. It’s not just things made in a factory with no history, but made by people who have perfected their heritage art for generations. Consumers actually want products that have that story, that history.

For more information, visit Fashion4freedom.com. Shoes created by these artisan villages can be bought at the House of Saigon, 16-18-20 Thu Khoa Huan, D1.