Stepping into Alyssa Jeanne’s home and studio in District 2, Saigon, it’s difficult not to feel a pang of envy. A space that any creative person would dream of having as their own, this is the quintessential artist’s house.
With design and photography books spread throughout the living room, hand-painted ceramics and fabrics lurking in every nook and cranny and two cats who appear to spend their days either sleeping or being bullied by the biggest rabbit I have ever seen in my life, this is a space dedicated to creativity.
Moving to Saigon in September, 2014, Alyssa Jeanne of ‘The Old Is New Again,’ is a designer with a conscience. Practicing Chinese Brush painting and sourcing fabrics and traditionally made textiles from the H’Mong women of Northern Vietnam, her clothing line has a uniqueness and sensibility rarely seen these days.
Just how many designers offer hand painted clothing where each piece is genuinely as individual as the person wearing it. With ‘The Old Is New Again,’ no two pieces are ever the same.
Upstairs in her cosy studio, which includes her 1901 Singer sewing machine and overlooking a busy Saigon side street, Alyssa told me what it is that inspires not only her designs, but also her desire to give back to the minority communities with which she is building a potentially life-changing relationship.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am a Chinese brush painting, yellow Honda Cub riding textiles artist, who has Victorian tendencies. Originally from Vancouver, though I call Brighton in the UK home. Apart from that I am probably the luckiest living girl in Saigon, being able to do what I love; making and creating.
What was it that first attracted you to working with textiles?
Probably vintage dresses.
Handmade with such care and consideration and often one of a kind. I love to imagine who wore them before me, and to where. After that, it was my obsession with car-boot sales in England; finding embroidered table clothes with sewn-in signatures, French lace and buttons, hand-sewing machines, and bobbins of silk threads.
Do you have any formal training? Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?
Absolutely no formal training other than studying Chinese Brush Painting with a Master for a period of time.
In 2010 I opened the most amazing cake shop with a dear friend. It won awards. My passion was for coffee, and while it was amazing, it almost killed me. At the time I also had a ceramics studio where I would go to turn off, making porcelain tiles which absorbed the brush strokes like rice paper. I began to practice painting on silk and cotton, to see what happened. With a lot of practice, I made it work.
“If I don’t know how to do something, I teach myself”
When I first got to Saigon, like a lot of expats can understand, I went from hero to zero. No one knew me. No one knew what I had achieved. Those cake shop skills were not easily transferable to life in Saigon.
I decided I’d take the chance to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I got a space at Work Saigon and while everyone else was on their computers, I started brush-painting lengths of material.
It wasn’t until February 2015 that a shipment of our belongings arrived to our house, and my friend was here for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday. She oiled and fixed my hand-sewing machine, showed me how to do a French hem and a basic square top, and that was it, off I went. Trial and error, my best friend and my worse enemy.
Your label is named ‘The Old is New Again.’ Tell us a bit about where this name came from and how it represents what you do.
When I was born my grandfather wrote a poem about me, called ‘To Five Day Old Alyssa Jeanne, From Her Granddad, Whom She Has Never Seen.’ The last line of the poem is ‘perhaps she’s come to tell us, the old is new again, each birth enriching aged ol’ earth’
“When I first got to Saigon…I went from hero to zero”
So yah, it’s stuck with me, in everything I do. I appreciate the time it takes to make something by hand, and what it means to have that time. The longer I live in Saigon, the more I realise how fortunate I am to have the time to make and create. It’s a privilege.
I am acutely aware of mass production, which is being driven by people wanting something new. It’s not good for the environment, and is driven by greed. If things were made properly today, as they were back in the day, the landfills would be less full, and the rich wouldn’t be getting richer and the poor wouldn’t be getting poorer.
I am also a lover of folk songs, black and white photography, heavy metal objects, typewriters, and old motorbikes.
If you could go back to day one of starting this business, getting involved in textiles, and give advice to Alyssa back then, what would it be?
Don’t worry. You don’t have to like people. You don’t have to fit in. Being different is a positive. And you don’t have to go to networking evenings!
If you love something that you make, that is enough. You don’t have to sell yourself. Handmade & vintage? It doesn’t really work here. The connotation is one of being used, and that common people make things with their hands. There are some cultural differences.
What is it that sets you and your work apart from other designers/artists?
I am studying an Art degree (BA) in Textiles, so instead of just looking at design, I also take into consideration much more. The idea of having a piece of clothing which is one of a kind, handmade and hand-painted, using traditional brush techniques, is pretty unique. I have not only tailored my painting to suit my bohemian style, but I also seek out unique lace trims, vintage prints, heirloom quality embroidery and most recently, old ethnic textiles from Sapa, in the north of Vietnam.
As an art student, you start to use your emotions as a guide, and I’ve especially been looking at what makes me mad. The other day for example; I saw for sale a series of velvet pillows. Adorned with ethnic embroidered and batik panels, these were the same pillows I have on my shelf in my studio. They ranged in price from $145 to $355.
For a pillow.
Made from something someone else made.
“I hope this project will also lead to more awareness of the many social issues that threaten the H’Mong women”
For this reason, amongst others, I have decided I have no right to profit off of ethnic materials. Instead I am starting a design initiative in Sapa. empowering ethnic women so one day, they will be the profiteers.
I hope to teach them how to turn their craft into design, to be sold on-line to an international audience. All the profits from anything I sell using their textiles, will go towards this project.
Can you tell us a bit about your process? How is one of your garments produced, from A to Z?
I work on a totally material led process, especially with the ethnic materials which were, often times, previously a skirt.
Once I remove all the parts I don’t like, I am left with raw hemp and embroidery. Tops are my favourite thing to make; versatile in size, I can also get really creative with colour/fabric combinations. And if I don’t know how to do something, I teach myself.
The internet is a gold mine of ‘how-to’s.
With the Chinese brush painted fabrics, sometimes I will paint simple patterns. Other times I will make a plain top and paint the neckline with Freda Khalo-style flowers.
However I am rubbish with marketing and promotions (my biggest downfall,) so I haven’t been making much at the moment. Not until I clear my existing stock.
It’s ok though as it gives me time to focus on my degree, and time to figure out how to help ethnic women become more successful designers with their amazing traditional skills.
You mentioned that you studied Chinese brush painting with a master. Can you tell us a little more about this? What sets it apart from other painting techniques and what did your training entail?
I started studying with Mr. Tan after I went back to Vancouver (where I am originally form) and ended up staying longer than expected, due to some sad, unforeseen circumstances . I had started to paint years before, taking classes in Brighton, but I knew of a master who lived in Vancouver’s china-town.
Showing up at his gallery, he told me of when he lived in London, and sold his painting at Harrods. Mr. Tan loved the fact I lived in England, and so wanted to reminisce. He invited me to join his classes whenever I could, although he only taught in Mandarin.
I would sit quietly in the corner, enjoying him telling stories of his British experiences; and in the middle of his teaching the others, I think I was a welcome distraction for him. Eventually he brought me to buy proper brushes, which I still cherish, eleven years on.
Chinese Brush painting is a technique full of tricks and sneaky uses of shade, to create depth and light. I didn’t need to listen to Mr. Tan, only watch. My favourite was the brush divided in two, in order to paint the exact even lines of a branch.
I am drawn to the quality of the hand-made brushes, the versatility of the ink and colours and the natural paper and silk. However, above all else, I am drawn to the practice itself.
As in many Asian martial arts, you use life force, or Ch’i. You calm your mind and paint with the same breath as nature grows. You become obsessed with botanical details, the beauty of asymmetry, and the calmness of balance. There is also the lesson of acceptance, as each brush stroke cannot be fixed or erased. The paper would dissolve.
But for me it’s the simplicity of the details. I do not think when I paint, nor do I copy an image. I love creating my own flowers, and wondering, what with the millions of varieties in this world, there must be one like it. Somewhere.
Over the years my painting has become more stylised, like Art Deco tiles, but continues to evolve, especially with the hand-painting of fabrics.
You want to help H’Mong women in Sapa design and sell their own pieces online. How are you doing this and how far along are you on this project? How do you envision the next one to three years of this project?
Currently I am in the very first stages of the project. We have 6 women involved so far, of varying ages, all from the H’Mong tribe. And all very skilled.
I am working with an existing community center called Ethos, and have a workshop studio space in Sapa. I’ve actually just returned from my second trip there, which was amazing.
“Each brush stroke cannot be fixed or erased. The paper would dissolve”
Our steps and goals are becoming clearer; to build an ethnic fashion label, selling online, where the women receive all the credit, instead of others profiting off of them.
It’s a way of empowering the women through design, by using their heirloom quality textiles to make modern and fashionable garments, accessories and jewellry, with the help of existing international and established makers.
Many H’Mong women have never had a chance to be this creative, and next year I’m hoping to have volunteer placements each month; people who will work one on one to inspire and teach these wonderful women new skills.
Within a year we hope to have enough products to open an online shop, potentially sell in Saigon and, maybe, even internationally.
I hope this project will also lead to more awareness of the many social issues that threaten the H’Mong women, primarily human-trafficking to China, as Sapa is so close to the border. They are sold as wives or worse.
We are starting this initiative with sustainability in mind. Foremost though we want to keep traditional textiles alive, in the hope that the younger generations will continue to create and be creative.
Where do you see ‘The Old is New Again,’ and yourself in the next five years?
I don’t see myself as being successful, in monetary terms. I don’t want to sell myself. I’m just not made that way. I want these women to be successful.
As far as where I will be in 5 years time? Probably still in Vietnam!
I love living here. The chaos, the people, the food!
But who knows where life will take me next?