New generation of ecommerce startups are helping Vietnamese artisans

Vietnamese Graphic

Image: GKTA Group Ltd.

techninasia – In 2009, two years after Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), Fashion4Freedom (F4F) was founded by Vietnamese-American LanVy Nguyen to create a socially responsible supply chain for fashion products while at the same time preserving local craft traditions in Vietnam.

Less than six years later, the enterprise has fully established an ethical and scalable model for producing hand-crafted luxury goods—the first in Vietnam. Today, its has full production services, an artisan line, and a market incubator all of which, according to the F4F website, impact “100 villages, co-ops, and workshops.”

F4F was a pioneer for creating a positive impact in the local Vietnamese crafts industry, but now a new wave of Vietnam-based startups is providing on-demand clothing and fashion accessories that fit the unique styles, latest trends, and body forms of customers around the world.

The foreign founders of these startups have chosen to innovate in Vietnam, they are focused on gaining traction, and they have the leather, fashion, and jewelry industries in their sights, eager to disrupt them. And more importantly, they have prioritized creating an ethical and fair business model for their local artisanal partners while considering environmental impacts.

It’s a whole new world for ecommerce in Vietnam.

By Own

By-Own Founder, Jessica Hilston

Founder of By Own, Jessica Hilston. Photo: Huynh Quang Man

First up is By Own, which sells custom handmade leather goods online. According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2013 there was approximately US$7.8 billion worth of gross output for the manufacture of leather and related products. Founder Jessica Hilston, a Vietnamese-Australian who grew up in Perth, Western Australia and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, first came up with the concept for By Own last summer.

According to Jessica, “I’ve dreamed of starting my own business for a long time, but the fear of failing has kept me from taking that giant leap from an employee to entrepreneur.” Ultimately, her time spent in Berlin’s startup scene during last winter inspired her to follow her passion all the way back to Vietnam.

Earlier this year, Hilston traveled throughout Vietnam to meet with craftsmen in order to find the right local artisans to fulfill future orders. She plans to deliver all finished products to customers within 21 days with free shipping worldwide via a three-step ordering process on the By Own website.

“There is a tangible energy throughout the startup scene in Saigon, and there’s a real sense that things are just about to take off,” says Jessica.

By Own officially began accepting pre-orders in September; already, the startup has received orders from Australia with plans to fulfill them later this month. For now, Hilston is working on releasing the remainder of her first collection and then will focus on launching Leather by Own for Men this Christmas.


Efaisto founders

Co-founders of Efaisto, Bernard Seys (L) and Lou-Adrien Fabre (R) at Work Saigon. Photo: Efaisto

Another Ho Chi Minh City-based startup is Efaisto (the name relates to Hephaestus, the mythological Greek god of craftsmen) which is aiming to create a global maker’s network—starting with Vietnam. Co-founded by a Belgo-French duo, Bernard Seys and Lou-Adrien Fabre, Efaisto is an e-commerce marketplace for anyone to order made-on-demand, personalized clothing, accessories, and eventually furniture from artisans around the world.

To the team, the mass production methods for garments in the 20th century shunned individuality and pushed workers to focus on efficiency and scale, while this century is about personal expression.

According to Bernard, “On one hand, Efaisto empowers users as each purchase is tailored to their own specific needs. On the other, we also empower makers by valuing their specific styles, and by giving them access to markets that were previously out of reach.”

Having both lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a few years, they teamed up earlier this year after working in financial risk management and software development, respectively. Now, they are focused on bootstrapping Efaisto.

The company launched a beta version this week with real makers and transactions as it begins to increase the number of products on the platform.

According to the European Commission (EC), there were more than EUR5 billion (US$5.6 billion) in imports from Vietnam into the European Union in 2014 (comprising of footwear, hats, other headgear, textiles and textile articles), but for now the Efaisto team aims to have the first products made by its artisans under Belgian and French Christmas trees later this year.

According to Fabre:

Our job is to bridge the gap between users and makers, and to establish bespoke as the new standard for physical goods.

As for what’s next, the ambitious pair plans to raise a seed round of funding in the near future in order to support the next phase of Efaisto’s development.


Jewelise Founder

Founder of Jewelise, Song JayPhil. Photo: Andrew Rowan

In 2013, Korean Song JayPhil, whose family has been in the jewelry business for almost 30 years, decided to embark on a social mission to help master craftsmen by combining technology and crowdsourcing.

His startup, Jewelise, holds sponsored design competitions where the winners are showcased and their products are brought to market on a platform linking designers, customers, and craftsmen.

Jewelise first took shape in Born2Global, a program sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, which helps Korean startups scale out of the country. The result is that Jewelise has already received seed funding as a top 10 participant (out of 300 startups) in Silicon Valley’s Fashion Tech Accelerator, and US$75,000 from the Korea Institute of Startup and Entrepreneurship Development.

In August, JayPhil came to Hanoi and adapted his startup’s business model to the Vietnamese market. “We pivoted from our original business model [of matching Korean shop owners with brands] and are now developing a new website with a focus on the US market,” says JayPhil. As CEO, he is currently developing the Jewelise crowdsourcing platform in English, tapping into the local developer talent pool in Hanoi.

Eventually, Song hopes to export Vietnamese-origin handcrafted jewelry products directly to the US as early as December, and capture a portion of the annual $68 billion jewelry market there.

## Preserving the past

This convergence of technology, innovation, and tradition is one hope for keeping the crafts industry alive and well in Vietnam by efficiently and ethically connecting more local artisans to international markets.

It looks promising: consumers outside of Vietnam have shown that they are willing to spend upwards of US$1,000 for F4F’s hand-carved dragon wedge shoes but they will surely have high expectations for other products at similar price points.

A major challenge for these new startups will be consistently delivering quality products to customers — but as Fashion4Freedom, Wild Tussah, Mekong+, and others before have proven, it’s not impossible to do so.

Today, there are approximately 1,500 handicraft villages in Vietnam, specializing in products such as pottery, silk, and lacquerware. And Vietnam is a popular destination for tourists to buy inexpensive and tailored clothes while traveling in places such as Hoi An, a central coastal town (recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO).

Perhaps we will witness the emergence and clustering of more startups like By Own, Efaisto, and Jewelise in Vietnam: imagine experiencing a slice of preserved ancient Vietnamese culture without ever having set foot in the country — this is the future that these startups are working towards.


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