Hue woman turns wild grass into high-end fashion
Co bang (Lepironia), a kind of sedge, is no longer just a wild grass but is being turned into artistic items of beauty through the ingenious hands of local artisans and a passionate businesswoman.
The grass, which is widely grown in Pho Trach Village in the central province of Thua Thien Hue's Phong Dien District, is now the foundation for a series of beautiful traditional handicraft products such as wallets, bags, hats and backpacks, which bring a stable income for many villagers.
The products made from this simultaneously fragile but vigorous grass in Pho Trach are impressive, but so is the story of Ho Suong Lan, a local businesswoman who initiated the project.
With a deep passion for the preservation of weaving and making handicrafts in the village, Lan has spent more than one year studying and searching for markets for the artisanal products.
The recent spread of the coronavirus and decline in global tourism meant Lan had to change her business as director of a tourism service company and try something new.
During a trip to Pho Trach last year, she had a chance to watch artisans weaving and making items from co bang, and she became enthralled by their rustic and delicate products.
“I was happy and touched by the people's feelings about their job, about the desire to save and preserve cultural products," said Lan of her first days learning about the local handicraft.
But Lan found out the weavers were experiencing difficulties selling their products.
"The potential had not been fully exploited, the market was still limited, and the production scale had a lot of limitations,” said Lan.
Then an idea to help came to her. She decided to make their products more popular, both locally and internationally.
With her talent for business, Lan knew she could change things for the better, but had to spend time studying the market and product if she really wanted to see things soar. She needed to find a new direction.
The more she learned, the more she became infatuated with the elegant, delicate grass.
In low-lying fields, where rice is hard to grow and finds it difficult to survive, the grass thrives, she said. Unlike the Lepironia in the Mekong Delta, this grass in Pho Trach is small and soft but supple.
"That is a very special feature for making handicraft items in Pho Trach, the grass is more durable and adapts well to other processes of production," said Lan.
Lan travelled back and forth between the city of Hue and the village to learn as much as she could. She met more local artisans who were to become her partners, and she exchanged ideas, meticulously selecting materials, and discussing sample designs with them.
Lan looked at dozens of samples of linen, brocade and several other materials, so she could find a way to mix and match different styles for the products as well as find ways to manually dye the grass in different colors.
Once it is dyed the grass takes on a new vibrancy. Lan used many familiar and special colors including cobalt blue, orange and purple. The first new products began to take shape.
“We made bags and hats before, but now we make them more beautiful and with more attractive designs,” said Nguyen Thi Lien, a Pho Trach villager, who is now Lan's main worker and partner.
“Due to an increasing number of customers, we now have a pretty good income. And orders are continuously being placed.”
Lien revealed that the wild grass is no longer a simple rustic product, but a unique and fashionable handmade item.
When Lan posted the first images of two bags made from the grass online, she received glowing comments, and many of her friends expressed interest, even asking how to buy them.
The idea of connecting, commercializing and turning raw product into high-end fashion increasingly seemed like an option.
"It turned out that handicrafts are very popular with consumers. It's just that we haven't reached its potential yet. Its undervalued pricing does not reflect its true worth,” Lan told a local newspaper.
“So, we have to find a way to stimulate customers so we can maintain the development of this product line.”
Lan started researching the market from June 2020 while selling products online before officially established a company in May 2021 with the brand name Marie's.
After one year, Lan has supplied over 6,000 products to the market, mostly in the South. Marie's brand has won the favor of customers across the country and abroad due to its large variety of eco-friendly handmade products with good designs.
Lan told Viet Nam News that despite the company facing increasing obstacles due to the pandemic, with orders gradually reducing compared to previously, the company is still able to provide a stable income for its workers and focus on marketing as well as promoting the brand.
In the short term, she would like to open more shops in five large cities in the country in 2022: HCMC, Hanoi, Vung Tau, Hai Phong, and Ha Long. Then she would like to franchise the company to others. She is also considering boosting export with a bigger volume in 2023.
As it is a start-up company, the products are mostly being supplied to local markets around the country for now.
"But we have got really good orders from many online customers and online wholesalers who want to introduce the products to sell to Australia, Canada, France, and the US,” Lan said. “Many of them have offered future business contracts for when time becomes more convenient."
Praising the subtle beauty of each product, Nguyen Kieu Linh, a customer from Hanoi said: "The elite appears in every detail of Marie's product. Each item made from the grass is a valuable and artistic work. Thank you."
The gilding traditional craft village has resorted to innovation to make the traditional trade thrive.