From fabric to dye and sewer to wearer, the story behind fashion and eco label Metiseko is a tapestry of culture, beauty and heart

Do you know how the clothes you’re wearing right now were made? More specifically, do you know where the fabric your clothes are made of was produced? For the majority of us, clothing is often towards the bottom of the list when we think about making sustainable choices in our lives. Even if we do make a conscious decision to buy clothes produced in workshops with fair working conditions and wages, this is just one small section of the entire process that results in that piece of clothing in your wardrobe. Making a success of a 100 percent sustainable fashion brand is not easy. In the flagship store’s courtyard café nestled in the serene surroundings of water fountains, lush greenery and stunning clothes in the heart of Hoi An’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, Erwan Perzo, the founder of leading Vietnamese brand, Metiseko, explains his holistic approach to sustainable fashion.

Ms. Ha and Mr. Long – Mr. Trinh and Ms. Quynh

Founded in 2011 by French Viet Kieu Erwan Perzo and Parisienne Florence Mussou, Metiseko is a high-end Vietnamese fashion and homeware brand with a strong sustainable ethos, both socially and environmentally. So how did Metiseko start?

“I had the original idea to create a fair-trade label that focused on the touristic market but with very good design in terms of inspiration from Vietnam but also, importantly, with quality products done in an ethical way,” explains Erwan. With this in mind, while studying at a specialist business school creating projects for developing countries in his home country of France, Erwan directed all of his projects and internships towards the textile industry in developing countries. He spent the next few years working with underprivileged communities in Mongolia and Vietnam among other developing countries.

The final year of business school saw Erwan developing his professional business project after being inspired by his experience working with NGOs in Vietnam; this project would become the successful brand known today as Metiseko.

“I believe in English, the correct translation would be ‘syncretism’— the result of two cultures combined,” he says of the meaning behind the metissage (a French word that forms part of the brand’s name). “We wanted to take inspiration from Vietnam in our prints but reintegrate it into French textile and fashion design.” Metiseko works directly with French fashion designers such as Linda Mai Phung, a French Viet Kieu fashion designer based in Saigon, who also works in ethical fashion processes. “I noticed tourists who wanted to buy something Vietnamese in fashion would buy an ao dai but then would never wear it back in their home country,” Erwan explains, “we wanted to create a fashion brand that has a strong Vietnamese cultural inspiration but is wearable by everybody while being high quality and locally produced.”

Put simply, the textile design comes from Vietnam and the fashion design comes from France, creating a perfect union of two different, yet beautiful, cultures.

100 Percent

As Vietnam grows economically, there is an emerging environmental consciousness spreading throughout the country. However, even with this awareness, sustainability is not always a high priority when it comes to fashion in Vietnam. Drawing comparisons between organic food production and the fashion industry, Erwan explains the issue: “The fashion world has succeeded in making us believe that it is quite normal to have three-dollar t-shirts; the textile world is a very unknown world from manufacturing, dyeing, printing, weaving and even growing the raw fabric such as cotton.” He continues by highlighting the lengthy processes involved in the end result of a simple item of clothing. “There are so many steps; the human involvement and the whole supply chain is amazing. There is so much work behind a piece of fabric so in the end, having a three-dollar t-shirt just doesn’t make sense.”

For Metiseko, eco-friendly, socially responsible and sustainable practices are at the very heart of their brand. The raw organic cotton used for their clothing is supplied from India where it grows naturally; Metiseko makes sure to only work with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified suppliers in India. The other fabric used for Metiseko’s clothing is silk, which is produced, dyed and hand-screen printed locally in Bao Loc. The cotton is dyed and printed in Binh Duong Province using AZO-free dyes, which do not contain the common protein that is harmful to the skin. Keeping a close eye on these processes, Metiseko’s fabric never comes into contact with any other conventional fabrics.

Being a smaller enterprise, the supply chain was not easy to set up because Metiseko’s production numbers often don’t reach the minimum quantities required to be able to produce. However, this did not stop Erwan from striving to create a 100 percent sustainable brand. “There are many ways to be a sustainable fashion brand; we choose to work with certified producers because of our size it is too difficult to certify the whole supply chain by ourselves.” He continues to explain that they aim to be completely transparent with each step in the supply chain, “many brands which claim to be fair trade are only fair trade as the manufacturing stage; you don’t know where the fabric has come from, been dyed or weaved.”

Born in Hoi An

Besides intelligent sourcing of fabrics, using dyes without harmful proteins and ethical printers, Metiseko’s most notable part of the process is the manufacturing workshop in Hoi An. Hoi An is where Metiseko began; the flagship store sits in Hoi An’s Old Town as well as two other stores in the town and the final stage of the production process, manufacturing, has been done here since Metiseko was first founded in 2011.

But why Hoi An? “In Vietnam, I have never been in the shopping mood as there is nowhere to walk around and shop,” says Erwan, referring to
the busyness of Saigon and Hanoi. “When I came to Hoi An, I noticed everyone walks and its very peaceful. It is UNESCO-protected and one of those cities that is very careful about the environment. Its architecture also carries the ‘metis’ aspect, combining French colonial buildings with Vietnamese heritage.” Explaining how it all just clicked, “both with principles and values but also business opportunities, it just made sense. We are very proud to have been born in Hoi An.”

In order to operate a fair-trade manufacturing workshop, Metiseko puts a number of processes and benefits into action. Expanding on the production process, Erwan explains:

“We don’t do chain production where every sewer does only one part of the garment. All of our sewers create one garment from the beginning to the end. We optimize quality over time and our workers are fully trained on the conception of a garment from A to Z. One dress can take 15 hours to make.” Metiseko also provide health insurance, fair wages and a social union; at the end of every month, 2 percent of the total salary is paid by the company into a scheme which allows employees to decide how best to spend the money— this may be scholarships for employees’ children, financial support for special events, among others. “The workshop is clean, air-conditioned and well lit; the working hours are no more than 44 hours per week,” he adds. On top of this, Metiseko also provides language lessons in English, French, Korean or Chinese to all members of their team, from sales and accounting through to their workshop staff.

Each of Metiseko’s collections draws inspiration from an aspect of the Vietnamese culture, environment or traditions. The latest collection, CỘI- Origins, features four themes or prints— Red Tree Garden, Aquatic Garden, Tropical Garden, and Lush Garden—all inspired by Vietnamese flame tree, Vietnamese koi carp ponds, tropical fruits and the jungle atmosphere, respectively. “The main inspiration for CỘI Collection was going back to Metiseko’s roots. The photoshoot happened in Hoi An and represented a tropical Vietnamese summer where Metiseko was originally created,” explains Audrey Charles, Metiseko’s Artistic Director.

Having moved to Vietnam 10 years ago, Audrey began working with sustainable projects including Vietcraft, which represents the craftsmanship of the northern provinces in Vietnam. She was involved in creating Lifestyle Vietnam, the country’s first international home and trade fair in 2010, and began working with Metiseko almost three years ago. “Each collection varies in color ranges, themes and prints according to the subject and the inspiration behind it,” says Audrey. “One day you may be walking down the street or having a coffee and you see something and think ‘Ah!’ Then you go deep into the subject, read about it and talk to Vietnamese friends to learn more”.

Hoi An is a constant inspiration for both Erwan and Audrey. Now with six stores open, three in Hoi An and three in Saigon, and an online store that offers worldwide shipping, Metiseko has plans to hold off on opening another store and instead focus on new collections and revamping their online platforms. “Now is a consolidation time,” Perzo explains, before adding with a grin, “well, I say that every year and every year I open a new store so we shall see.”

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For shop locations, visit metiseko.com.

Images Provided by Metiseko