featured by Faces Behind ASEAN SMEs
When you think about how to describe your own country, you would often think of the most popular culture. Did you ever think of the ethnic minorities to describe the identity of your country? Often times, people and cultures from ethnic minorities are overlooked and underappreciated because it’s not highlighted enough for people to know about it. Vu Thi Thanh Van, the founder of theMay Brand, believes that you can find so much beauty from the ethnic minorities. She traveled from one minority to another and was mesmerized by the handmade textiles that each ethnic group offers. She elevated these traditional textiles and made it into accessories that people can use in modern times.
Faces of ASEAN SMEs Team (F) was able to see the beauty of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups through Van’s story. Let’s see what she shared with us.
F: Why did you start your business?
V: I lived in Japan for 3 years and during my stay there, I noticed that there are many businesses from other parts of Asia that showcased their traditional products in Japan. There are beautiful products from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, among many others. But unfortunately, I can hardly find one from Vietnam. That made me wonder why Vietnam, with all its beautiful cultures, did not have a strong representation. That thought was the first drive for me to start theMay Brand. I want to show the beauty of Vietnamese cultural diversity, manifested in various traditional materials. Moreover, I want to try something challenging and I think this is the perfect time for me to explore new things.
F: Why do you focus on supporting ethnic minorities?
V: When people think about Vietnam most of them would think of the images of Ao Dai (traditional dress) or non la (cone hat), which are actually the cultural symbols of Kinh people – Vietnam’s majority ethnic group that takes up about 86% of the population. But there are actually 54 recognized ethnic groups all living in this country, each with distinctive culture, traditions, and materials. However, being so small in population, sometimes they are not adequately represented or recognized as part of the Vietnamese identity. I was born and raised in Gia Lai Province, where there are a lot of different ethnicities living together. I grew up and went to school with friends from different ethnic backgrounds, and just like in Japan, they sometimes find it difficult to see a proper and adequate representation of themselves in the overall cultural discourse about Vietnam. Therefore, by supporting their traditional materials, theMay brand hopes to become a connector between them and a broader audience of customers, both Vietnamese and foreigners, who care about cultural diversity in Vietnam. That is why we focus on highlighting the distinctiveness of each culture and artisan we work with instead of lumping them all together.
F: What got you interested in accessories?
V: In my opinion, hand-making textiles is a very important part of the traditional cultures of many ethnic groups, not just in Vietnam but all around the world. I want to transform these textiles into something special that can appeal to customers in this modern age. Accessories are just the start. I’m constantly trying to expand the range of my products. I started with accessories because it is easier to manage in terms of logistics and the market is good domestically. Also, the challenging nature of making accessories with textiles makes us stand out more in the market.
F: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
V: I want to change the common view among customers that the traditional materials of ethnic minorities are simply travel souvenirs or memento of the past. The beauty of these textiles is still very much relevant today, and it can be elevated even more when incorporated into modern designs that people can use in modern times. I also hope that our products would encourage customers, to learn and appreciate the cultures of different ethnic groups, as ethnic minorities in Vietnam today are still associated with many negative stereotypes. In this age of multiculturalism, theMay brand is trying to bring a new, more open-minded image of “Made in Vietnam” products to both Vietnamese and foreign markets. I want to introduce Vietnam’s cultures in an interesting way, with functional, modern, and well-designed products.
F: What is the greatest learning that you gained from theMay Brand?
V: Anything is possible if you are willing to try. When we think about traditions, we think of something that we don’t change. But culture is a dynamic thing: it constantly changes and evolves. We cannot change the past but we can evolve it, just like how theMay is trying to bring a more modern look to the long-standing traditions of handmade textiles of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. You don’t need to be too strict when innovating, but make sure to always be respectful towards the originators and bearers of the cultures you’re working with.
F: What is your advice to those who also want to start their own business?
V: Do a lot of research on all the possibilities that you can do. You can go slowly, but it’s important to always keep going. Once you decide to start, put 150% of your time and effort into your project. Don’t rush, because everything happens when it’s supposed to happen.. Have determination and always believe in yourself. Keep an open mind, but don’t be too stressed out about what other people say. If you believe it is the right thing, you will eventually find a way to make it right