Interview + Photography: Nguyen Le
Brian Vu is a self-taught artisan who designs, produces and sells garments alongside vintage acquired textiles through his recently opened retail and studio space in Toronto. Situated in the West end neighbourhood now known as the Junction, the curated space reflects his eclectic tastes in military surplus, Native American art and vintage African textiles.
A major element in Brian’s work is his use of natural indigo dye, which he applies in a unique and painstaking manner to reworked and modified military garments and other items that he designs and constructs in-house under the label- Latre.
I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Brian at his studio to discuss his love affair with Indigo and his thoughts on the resurgence of handmade product.
You aren’t formally trained in textile production or apparel design, how did this fascination with clothing begin for you?
I studied fine art at York University, but I learned pattern design and sewing on my own. I think I’ve always been drawn towards clothing and fashion, but it was the Military aesthetic that really got me hooked. My dad fought for the South Vietnamese army, so I grew up around that era of Military apparel. To this day I find Vietnam to be the most appealing era for Military uniforms: they’re comfortable, have a lot of functionality and the look is just timeless. This aesthetic is still a big part of what inspires my current designs.
Indigo is a predominate element in your work now, how does your process differ in comparison to more traditional methods?
Indigo dyeing is also something I taught myself. I did a lot of research on traditional methods and through a series of trial and error I devised a system or process that really worked for me. I spent a lot of time honing my method, and I think it really shows in the end product. First I measure out my ingredients based off the size and weight of the garment or textile I’m working with and let the dye cure. In more traditional Japanese methods, the foam or “flowering” that accumulates on the surface of the dye is skimmed and removed, but I like to keep it in there and just move it to the side as I submerge and hand massage the cloth until it’s nicely saturated. I then hand wring the cloth to remove as much of the excess dye as possible and let it hang for a period of time before I repeat the process until I achieve the desired tone of indigo.
What are the benefits of your way of dyeing?
I like a very dark tone of Indigo, almost a jet black colour to the eye and by leaving the flowering in the vat of dye, I think this helps to achieve that. The darker the Indigo on the finished product, more of a contrast is achieved when the garment starts to patina and I believe it tells a truer story about the wearer this way. For this new Kimono I’ve been developing, I hand massaged each of the panels separately; from the collar piping, seam taping and yarn accents and repeated that process maybe 8 or 9 times for each piece. People think that it’s unnecessary to do it this way, but I’m very particular and meticulous and It’s the only way that I’ve found that achieves the results I’m aiming for.
Is the use and preservation of Indigo more important to you now than your interest in Military aesthetics?
That’s a tough question.. I can’t say really. They are both very important to me, but I am really enjoying my exploration of Indigo and the whole hand dyeing process. As an artist I like to concentrate on one medium at a time, so my mind isn’t scattered, and Indigo is probably my medium of choice currently. It’s also the most taxing and is quite hard on my body, but the whole process really brings me joy. It’s always exciting to anticipate the outcome, since every product will differ from the next…you never know how it will turn out.
In a technology driven society where mass production is the norm, do you still feel handmade product has appeal?
I think people are becoming more educated as a result of technology, and all the information is out there if you want to look for it. There is something alluring about a product that is made by hand. It keeps it on a human level you know? When someone puts their passion and energy into creating something with authenticity, a person can pick it up and feel that. Of course these kinds of products will always be more expensive than their mass produced counterparts, but they’ll last longer, wear better and at the end of the day handmade works will always be more special.