Hannah Cowie’s made a big impact with small steps since she co-founded Tamay & Me, a sustainable brand that brings to the world handcrafts from the indigenous villages of Northern Vietnam. She met Tamay (now the co-founder) in 2009 on her travel in Vietnam and spent the year learning the local techniques of Mien embroidery and instantly felt a visceral connect. Since then there’s been no looking back! Today, even after more than a decade, Hannah and Tamay continue to contribute to positive and sustainable change through their brand.
In a brief interview with ENUFF Hannah shares her perspective on sustainability, design and the importance of supporting indigenous arts and cultures.
ENUFF: What’s your idea of sustainable design in today’s time?
HANNAH: Sustainability, beauty, affordability and working with what we have, have always been the top principles in our design process. These principles have always been the case for how the minority cultures of North Vietnam make clothing. It’s common sense really! If we stay away from these principles, we have to rethink the design. It’s been interesting to challenge western expectations of ‘fashion’. Namely, we make clothes that last; both the design and that they can be worn for years. Trends and new looks are not really our thing!
E: How has the meaning of the concept of sustainability evolved for you in the past decade?
H: Tamay’s and the Mien way of making clothes has always been resourceful, working with natural materials and using small scale technology that is off-grid. Where we’ve had to evolve is the human element of the process, the makers, and the sellers. The work needs to sustain the people as well as the planet; we can’t leave one element behind because we won’t be able to do this in the future. It’s an ongoing challenge but one that is at the heart of what we do.
E: Tell us about the Mien way of living and their ideologies of sustainable fashion.
H: The Mien people have always been almost entirely self-sufficient, building their own homes, growing their own food, making their own tools and clothing. It’s only in the last 15 years that they’ve started to engage in ‘easier’ ways of doing things. I can’t deny that the traditional way of life isn’t hard work and vulnerable. However, through working together as a community it’s possible and the resourcefulness is absolutely inspiring. In terms of clothing, and actually, everything they do, it’s about hard work and deep pride. Every Mien woman in Taphin (where Tamay lives), still makes their own set of intricately embroidered clothes each year. For the Lunar New Year in February, they have a big party, they put on their new clothes and set intentions for a healthy and prosperous new year.
E: What changed during the pandemic for you and the brand?
H: We had to drop back to just online sales. Luckily this was all set up and working well, but sales did drop without wholesale and events. Our production has continued on almost all our products because all the materials are locally sourced and our teams already work from home. It was the products that have zips or other materials that are sourced from further afield that got paused – cushions, bandanas and purses. We are super proud of how we could keep going despite the restrictions. It’s amazing what can be done through phone calls!
E: According to you, where do the Western civilizations go wrong when it comes to their fashion consumption?
H: Oh wow, it’s so complex! Overconsumption is the biggest issue, as well as an acceptance that it’s ok to have no idea who made our clothes. Convenience is delicious but the cost is huge, for everyone involved and the planet. Can I hint at the fact that we don’t value women as we should? I’m not sure we’ve ever really paid for textile products properly in Western Civilisation. Was it domestic, unpaid labour, which then became slave labour when this was a possibility? Today, most fashion labels use underpaid textile workers who are exposed to chemicals and have little or no workers rights. Not much progress there. I also think it goes full circle, that the undervaluing of women has lead to a need for “women’s value” to be found in fine clothes, the way that we portray ourselves to others to try to gain power and respect. I think mental health, well being, self-love and appreciation of our internal beauty have also got a big part to play. It does feel good to buy fast fashion to patch up all our problems but ultimately it doesn’t do anyone any good.
E: How can brands harness and support indigenous arts and culture?
H: Your questions are huge! I’m originally an anthropologist and would like to write a PhD on both this question and the one above! I think we have a lot to learn from traditional cultures. Smaller cultures (that still live with the land, i.e. many more of what they use comes from the place they live) have amazing ways of working sustainably and together as communities. I think we need to learn from the wisdom that still exists and celebrate it, it’s gold dust! Indigenous arts and culture are physical manifestations of this wisdom and we need to see these pieces as international treasures. We need to pay for these pieces properly and enable the makers to create pieces in their own way that suits them. Long term relations are the best and this happens when the artisans do what they do best, using the design and skills they know really well.
E: What key knowledge would you like to share with upcoming slow fashion brands?
H: Be patient, LISTEN, keep it simple, and keep it small. Work hard and don’t undercharge!
E: What are the future plans for Tamay & Me?
H: We really want to work with our cotton producers to pre-buy cotton before it’s grown, spun and woven. We want to create stability and security for the families who produce our cotton, so pre-buying and helping to absorb some of the farming risks and enable them to plan their workload around their other commitments. It’s a 3-year process from planting seeds to finished woven cloth; we want to see if we can make this work interesting to the younger generations before the skills are lost.