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Young woman sets up accessory brand, combines traditional, contemporary culture

Many young Vietnamese abroad have decided to leave developed countries and their high-salaried jobs to return to Vietnam to start their career. 

Vu Thi Thanh Van, with her desire to preserve traditional values, returned to develop theMay brand. Van talks about her dreams and her company. 

Vu Thi Thanh Van, founder of theMay.

Would you please tell us about yourself?

My name is Vu Thi Thanh Van, and I am the founder of theMay, a handmade accessory brand that combines contemporary designs and ethnic Vietnamese materials. After spending my time meeting one ethnic minority and another, I was mesmerised by the handmade textiles that each group offers. With the belief in the values hidden in the beauty of the products that embody special ethnic traits, along with my passion in accessories, theMay has been elevating these handmade textiles and turning them into accessories that fit the modern and contemporary lifestyle. theMay is built with a clear vision and mission of becoming a connector between the traditional ethnic values and people who have an interest in cultural diversity in Vietnam. All of this is a means of protecting and preserving these traditions in the age of globalisation as well as building appreciation for ethnic cultures in Vietnam.

You worked in Japan. Why did you decide to return to Vietnam and choose traditional materials to develop your career?

It all started when I was a sales and marketing specialist for SEA at Asahi Kasei. During my time in Japan, it bothered me that Vietnam contains 54 nationalities but only the products of the Kinh majority people such as áo dài (traditional long dress) or nón lá (conical hat) were widely recognised, while the rest barely stood a chance of being seen as part of the Vietnamese identity. With the understanding that ethnic minorities have their own distinctive cultures and traditions, along with my belief in the importance of their handmade cloth, not just in Vietnam but around the world, I wanted to turn these materials into something special that can appeal to customers in this modern age. As a result, in 2019, I came back to Vietnam and established theMay.

What are your memories about the time when you started your new career? What have been the biggest difficulties facing you?

When my brand was taking the first few baby steps, besides the hardships, there were multiple unforgettable memories. And the one that I cherish the most was to be able to meet and connect with young people who share the same passion and interests in traditional Vietnamese textiles so that we can build a team. On the other hand, there were inevitable obstacles, not only in the pre-establishment phase, but also after theMay took off. The biggest difficulty since the beginning has been to find a well-suited village of collective artisans who are skilful and creative enough to meet theMay’s aesthetic requirements while possessing particular taste in fashion and knowing how to combine it with traditional traits.

You once said that you want to advertise Vietnamese culture through your products. How have you done that, and how successful have you been?

Two years ago, while preparing to establish the company, I noticed that the domestic fashion market could be considered a "blue ocean”, especially in the accessory segment since it was still young and there were not many prominent competitors. Therefore, it was not too challenging to capture and understand customer tastes or competitors' behaviour. theMay might not be the only brand that applies ethnic materials to specific product types, yet we are proud to be recognised as a pioneer in using handmade cloth and other traditional materials in accessories, with high applicability. This has created theMay signature which helps us stand out in the market. 

To self-evaluate theMay success is subjective and the standard for estimation is ambiguous. But, we still take pride in particular accomplishments, and to us, the love and support from customers is the biggest reward we can have. Despite the limitations of our earlier products in terms of colour and design, the customers have kept their trust in the brand’s vision. It can be said that our high-quality products and worthwhile mission are the purpose-driven factors for the steady support from customers. When compared to other accessory retail brands, our products clearly have a much higher price. However, customers understand that with every product comes not only distinguished craftsmanship but also support and respect for traditional Vietnamese values, which is worth the price.

How do you balance business profits and efforts to develop traditional culture?

The need to balance business profits and efforts to preserve and promote traditional culture has always been a persistent concern to theMay. Being a start-up business as well as a social entrepreneur, the need to make a profit is undeniable, but it has never been theMay’s prior principle. In fact, it is the ability to stand firm in the original mission, and to preserve and promote ethnic cultures in Vietnam along the way. Though there are plenty of cooperation offers, all of them are always taken into critical consideration as we prefer to take the longer path instead of shortcuts, which might affect theMay’s unique characteristics. Overall, we try our best to minimise costs and maximize the benefits.

How can young people be inspired, and what should young Vietnamese do to protect the features of traditional culture?

The younger Vietnamese generation is not one that diminishes traditional values on their way to integrate with the world. In fact, young people in their 20s make up a considerable part of our target customers. They are very open and always available to learn, and theMay is here to accompany them with a unique approach to ethnic cultures. Therefore, supporting local brands that stand up for cultures is the single easiest thing we all can do to protect and promote traditional cultural values. 

What are your plans to help young people understand more about the characteristics of traditional Vietnamese culture?

It is indeed a painstaking task. To theMay, instead of flooding people with textbook information, we focus on creating each product to its best in order to deliver the cultural stories concisely. This way, customers will gradually grow into the products and have the motivation to absorb the message and the culture itself. Once they have interest, they themselves will understand and be eager to learn more about traditional Vietnamese culture. VNS

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