When you meet Danica Ratte, it is hard not to be inspired by her passion and genuine determination to make a difference in the world of fashion and to the lives of people who are involved in creating what we wear and use. Danica is the founder of the beautiful handbag label, Wild Tussah, who work with villages in Vietnam to create pieces of art that preserve traditional handicrafts and cultures.
Danica’s passion for ethical and sustainable fashion came after a journey through Vietnam, where she discovered weaving as an art form and saw that it could soon be lost due to modernisation and mass manufacturing. Devastated by this possibility, that got her thinking about what she could do to to preserve these precious traditions and weaving skills. And from there, Wild Tussah was born.
Why do you believe that it is especially vital to keep traditional skills and handicrafts alive?
I think it is because that’s the way they (the artisans) can support their family and it is also a huge part of their culture. Weave handicrafts are used as a form of communication; to show where they came from, what tribe they belong to, how old they are, what part of the generation they are from and what their position is in the community. I think it is just a beautiful way to experience culture as well- expressions through clothing.
When you go to villages in northern Vietnam you will discover that it is more preserved there than in other parts of the country. This area is more remote and the mountainous region acts as a barrier between these ancient cultures and modernisation.
Locals still wear traditional woven clothing, which are so unique and if that were to go, then that is like a form of language they are losing and without demand for the product, it is going to be lost.
They need to find ways to make money. They are still using hundred year-old looms and they still make their own clothing, so if they can find ways to make a living from it, then we’ll be able to preserve their culture and art forms.
Are the younger generation in Vietnam passionate about holding onto these cultures? Do they want to learn these handicrafts or are they more drawn to the westernised way of life?
From my experience, you get a bit of both. You’ll have people from poor ethnic minorities that are just trying to survive, so they are going to take any kind of work and maybe they don’t see how special it really is. Because they are just surrounded by it all the time, sometimes it does take an outsider to come in and say, ‘Hey these are beautiful things that you are creating’ for them to realise how special it really is.
But then there are other people, there are people like Jaka, a young Cham man in his early 30’s, who has decided to dedicate his life to teaching travellers about Cham culture and handicrafts and teaching the Cham language. He also preserves the local culture by living a traditional life in a mud house and wears traditional clothing every day. I met him through his mother, who owns a weave shop which I visit often for Wild Tussah.
Jaka understands that his culture could be soon be lost and what that means, so that has provided motivation for him to do anything he can to preserve it.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the fashion industry?
I believe the biggest challenge is finding ways to make the whole process sustainable. There are so many different elements that come into play between designing and testing the product, the actual production process, and then getting it into the hands of the end consumer. This includes all of the people involved, the materials used and how the environment is affected.
I think when you first start designing, it is very important to figure out what your values are and keep those in mind during the whole process.
When you are trying to sell the product, do you talk about the sustainability and culture aspect of it first or do people see the designs and want to buy the product, finding out the story later?
I think in the end, you do have to create something that people find beautiful and that the consumer can utilise. If they are not drawn to the way it looks, then they aren’t going to buy it and unfortunately that is the key to fashion.
Once they feel the material and they hear the story behind it, that’s when they become more attached to it and they want to learn more about it.
Nowadays, consumers expect more from their brands and understand that they can use their buying power to make a positive impact in the world.
On your website, it states that due to mass manufacturing, many people are leaving traditional weaving behind to get a new job. What sort of work would they turn to instead?
A lot of people are forced to move to the city to work in big sweatshops which create a lot of clothing that is shipped outside of Vietnam. There are a lot of people in that kind of clothing industry. A lot of people also start up restaurants or sell food or souvenirs on the streets. They just use any kind of trade or skill that they have as a form of employment.
Are the weaves designed? And are there also trends and cycles in regards to patterns and colours, just like with conventional fashion?
The textiles that I use are all based off traditional designs. The designs are things that the artisans see around them, so a lot of the patterns you will see represent trees, fruit and animal prints, so those types of designs don’t really change. They are the traditional designs that we use in for our handbags. I don’t control what colours they use either, so it depends on what thread they have available. You’ll see that when you look through what we sell on the website, that the bags all vary in colour.
There are other designers that go into the villages saying, ‘This is the colour I want, the pattern I want you to use.’ For us at Wild Tussah, it all about preserving their art work, so constantly looking for ways to use their work in a way that appeals to people outside of Vietnam.
I am not trying to go in there to change what they currently do. It is just up to the artisans what kind of pattern they want to make.
Over time, the patterns have slowly changed just because lots of artworks have been lost. There are different motives that if they aren’t taught to the younger generation, then it is hard for them to learn themselves. This is because the work is so intricate and there is also a lot involved with using the loom and moving the thread around to be able to create a pattern.
How does Wild Tussah minimise textile waste?
We specifically design handbags so that they fit the patterns of the textiles we work with. For instance, Lu artisans often make diamond shapes in their vintage skirts. We re-purpose these Lu skirts and use them in our Day to Night handbag design since the dimensions of this bag fits the textile patterns the best and enable us to make more handbags out of one skirt. Any excess pieces we have leftover are kept for use in future designs- either as the featured textile on the exterior of the bag or as lining in the interior.
Are there are lot of people from western countries in Vietnam trying to preserve these cultures and handicrafts, like what you are doing?
I think that they are trying to preserve different cultures. I know a brand that creates these wooden shoes, so it is the act of hand carving wood that they are preserving. There are people preserving ceramics and that whole process of creating ceramics. I don’t know of any other handbag designers that are working out of Vietnam using these textiles. I have heard of people working out of Thailand and maybe Cambodia, but not Vietnam.
What Danica is doing at Wild Tussah is truly unique. Without businesses such as Wild Tussah, there is really no hope for the survival of the ancient traditions and cultures, which would be a tragic loss for the whole of humanity. Danica estimates that readers of Cham, an ancient language of southeast Asia, are “becoming extinct and within a few decades, this script will no longer be readable.” Danica points out, “That means the loss of history, poems, details on traditional textiles and many other parts of their culture.”