Face to Face with Laura Fontán of Chula Fashion
by Susannah Grant
Today we talk to Laura Fontán, who together with her husband Diego Cortiza, founded an unusual slow fashion brand in Hanoi known as Chula and are revolutionising the textile industry worldwide with their visionary, responsible approach to global brand building.
How did Chula start?
Well, quite by chance. We arrived in Vietnam in 2004 and immediately fell in love with the people, the exotic food and the traditional culture. I loved having clothes made there and soon asked Diego to apply his artistic skills as a trained architect to designing outfits for me. People started to inquire about my clothes and comment “how chula (cool) and can I have one too…?” So before we knew it we were producing a small collection of clothes on a tiny scale and selling them in other outlets before opening our own workshop and flagship store in Hanoi. We now have branches in Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok and Pop ups round the world.
Is it true that 80% of your workforce have a disability?
Yes! Having found it difficult to find skilled seamstresses to make our clothes we were directed to a local charity-funded school that trained deaf people in three to five-year dressmaking courses. Ironically, disability is often partly compensated by significant talent in other non-related areas. In addition to being highly skilled, our workforce are extremely loyal, hardworking and as such they truly form the backbone of the Chula community and are very much part of our extended family. Our corporate language is sign language! Due to our own positive experience we also try to persuade other businesses to hire employees with some disability.
Are the Vietnamese at all similar in any way to Spaniards?
Very much so. Vietnamese society revolves around family, food and being out and about in the street – just like in Spain! They also place a huge value on education and are a very proud nation. As foreigners it’s important to come armed with a certain degree of respect, which you can earn little by little, a bit like in Northern Spain or else they won’t take any notice of you. Vietnam reminds me of the Spain of my childhood in Galicia.
You make clothes for men as well but how would you define the “Chula woman”?
A lot of our clothes are custom made which is why our customers are so diverse both in terms of body shape, colour and age. We’ve had customers ranging from grandmothers to teens! However, they are all women who value clothes with a heritage and story behind them. The typical Chula woman is more interested original clothes than the latest fashion trends. Chula is about handmade sustainable slow fashion than up to the minute designs you throw away after one season.
What´s the running theme in your Chula collections?
For Diego, clothes are like a blank canvas on which you project your own areas of interest such as culture, food and art. Chula clothes are literally wearable art. Our collections are inspired by Vietnamese heritage such as the 54 ethnic minorities in Northern Vietnam with their own prints and techniques.. We have about 40 collections ranging from animal prints to brightly coloured geometric patterns – above all they are fun and reflect the local culture whether that be through prints inspired by Hanoi railings, a pizza print dress we launched in Rome or a silk bull dress in Spain!
What is wearable happiness?
We inject colour and humour into our collections which lift the spirits both of the wearer and the admirer. Our clothes are a magnet for comment, they’re real conversation pieces whenever they’re seen and instantly recognisable no matter where you are.
You have Pop Ups all over the world, from Geneva to Jakarta, what´s next for Chula Fashion?
Our aim is to continue have different Chula shops all over the world and transform it into a global brand that emphasises our social commitment and values and pays homage to the rich cultural heritage of the host countries. See www.chulafashion.com/pages/events for details of a Pop Up near you.