XQ Hand Embroidery has played an important part in changing the perception towards Vietnamese traditional hand embroidery art, by turning embroidery artworks into gifts of gratitude for the Vietnamese and souvenirs for visitors from all over the world. The Columnist talked to Mr. Vo Van Quan, Founder and CEO of XQ Hand Embroidery, on how XQ has been promoting the Vietnamese culture through developing the brand XQ Hand Embroidery and presenting Vietnam to the world.
Could you share with readers of The Columnist about what has inspired you to establish XQ Hand Embroidery?
The name XQ was derived from the initials of my and my wife’s names. However, now the name XQ does not merely mean our names put together but also shows that XQ serves as a representative of traditional hand embroidery of women in general and Vietnamese women in particular as all Vietnamese women sew clothes for their children. Each stitch is a pious wish for peace for every one of us. So is traditional hand embroidery considered a cultural heritage? Personally I believe it is.
Until now, there are many Vietnamese women doing embroidery to make a living for their families. This is their first role.The second role of women is in educating their children. There is a Vietnamese saying, “children behave badly because of their mothers”. The reason for this is that a child’s view of the outside world, is largely influenced by their mothers, which in turn builds up their ability to cope with challenges and difficulties when they grow up.
Their third role that we also need to mention is to ensure social cohesion. If a family only has men, it could never be a cozy family. It is mothers and sisters who bring all family members together. They play the same role for bonding at a societal level, from which proverbs and folk stories, etc. were created.
The fourth one is to be supportive at the backend during wartime.
And last but not least is the reproductive role of women.
Could these five roles of women be applied globally? We can see that in the developed countries, the role of women has become more and more important. Since their role is so important, they are always respected and honored. However, in Vietnam, the role of women has not been properly appreciated. For example, during the era of feudalism, embroidery was perceived mainly to serve the kings. When you look back in history, only the costumes for kings were mentioned, but none were talking about the women behind those designs.
Therefore, the purpose of XQ Hand Embroidery is to regain and honour the role of women and also encourage people to respect women more, hoping that the next and future generations of our country will grow up and become the men who know how to appreciate women.
What makes you decide to pursue traditional hand embroidery art?
I grew up with traditional hand embroidery art because my mother raised me with the money she earned from doing embroidery. During my childhood, I watched my mother embroidering and sewing. And as a sensitive soul, I was able to feel how women reconcile with life through each stitch, each artwork is a brainchild of theirs, representing their dreams and aspirations.
What has XQ Hand Embroidery done to contribute to the conservation and preservation of Vietnamese traditional hand embroidery art?
My motto is very simple, honoring embroidery craftswomen is one of the ways to conserve and preserve this art form. Only when a poet is confident in his poetic ability could he write beautiful poems. Therefore, we need to give back the confidence to women, especially embroidery craftswomen. In order to do so, I never call them embroidery workers. Instead, I call them artisans. If we position them as embroidery workers, they will feel inferior to other professions. In Vietnamese society, embroidery is not a well-respected profession, it is often considered as an extra job, so no one dares to say he/she is an embroidery artisan. I am proud that craftswomen at XQ can proudly say they are embroidery artisans.
In addition, we do not call the dormitory of the artisans as the worker dormitory but “Ngọc Khuê Đường” (meaning “Ngoc Khue House”) which is a term used to call a place for princesses. That name is much more elegant, which in turn makes them feel a need of preserving the cleanliness and orderliness of their place. It also helps them to regain the pride of women who had been deprived for so long. We could no longer use terms coined during the era of feudalism to impose on them.
How was the creative space for the artisans of XQ Hand Embroidery designed?
XQ paid close attention to the creative space for the artisans. There are plenty of different themed designs, such as the theme of “Insect Fair”, where each artisan will play the role of an insect species and tell the story life of its life through every single stitch. The space was designed to nurture inspiration and romance for the artisans.
With more than 3000 artisans across different branches of XQ, we have developed our training program for our artisans. In addition to training courses on embroidery techniques, we also focus on creating a space where the artisans are encouraged to be sensitive and romantic, a space which we call the “naive space”, so that they can be at their creative best instead of just getting the job done. We believe that they can only do the best job when they truly love embroidery.
What have the artisans of XQ Hand Embroidery done to preserve the tradition and at the same time creating products to meet the tastes and needs of customers nowadays?
At XQ, our artisans mix traditional with modern embroidery techniques to create artworks with global values. Some examples are the art of portrait embroidery, double-sided embroidery, and thread sculpture, etc. Through their skillful hands, the artisans reproduce traditional symbols and by doing so, they contribute to the preservation of traditional culture of our nation.
Hand embroidery techniques in fact do not have much room for innovation, but the modern touch here is renewing the value of embroidery artworks. In daily life, people often run after the new, but new ones of today will become outdated tomorrow. Therefore, the purpose of the artisans is to renew the old values.
What is the modern touch of the XQ Hand Embroidery products (in terms of themes, materials, colors, embroidery methods, display methods, etc.)?
The theme of XQ Hand Embroidery products is very broad, covering topics on the relationship between people and tradition, the relationship between humans (e.g. portraits) and the relationship between humans and natural habitat (e.g. artworks on flowers, etc.) These are the three major themes that we pursue. In terms of materials, we use various types of threads and fabric.
XQ Hand Embroidery is famous for a unique ritual named “Rước sợi chỉ”(meaning Thread Procession). Could you share with us about this special ritual?
This ritual takes place every Saturday afternoon, with the participation of all craftsmen in Da Lat. During this ritual, they carry the thread towards the Gate of the Sun, sending together their joys and sorrows and pray for their wishes to come true. This ritual helps them expressing their inner thoughts, their concerns so that they can relax and be creative.
What has XQ Hand Embroidery done to target customers from overseas who are unfamiliar with this type of traditional art?
Foreign visitors always change their perception of Vietnamese women after visiting XQ galleries. Many of them actually bought our artworks and learnt hand embroidery at XQ. By doing so, they agreed to take this big responsibility, which is to honor Vietnamese women in particular and international women in general.
We found a group named Tri ky huu (‘Tri kỷ hữu’, meaning Friendship) with the participation of many presidents of other countries in the world and foreigners who love Vietnamese traditional hand embroidery. All of them agreed and commited to the mission of honoring women. We have an annual event when all members gather on 13 December.
Not only do we consume Western products but we also adopt cultural values imported from the West. I always ask myself when could Vietnam export its unique values overseas? The establishment of the group Tri ky huu is one step forward to achieve the goal of exporting and promoting Vietnamese cultural values to other countries.
What are some of the special features of the gallery space at different branches of XQ Hand Embroidery in different cities throughout the country including Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Nha Trang, Da Lat and HCMC?
The gallery space at each branch has its unique features, which reflect the culture and stories of the local women. For example, at XQ Co do (‘XQ Cổ độ’) in Hue, we tell stories of the Perfume River (‘Sông Hương’). at XQ Historical Village (‘XQ Sử quán’), we show images of hills and mountains. Our strategy is localisation. Thus, our artisans have to be the locals.
What is your advice for traditional handicraft local villages and companies to inherit and develop the traditions?
I always believe that people should think of their countries in their daily work no matter what position or career they have. Some people run businesses for the profits and for their own benefits but do not care about the problems which others and even their country at large are facing. Soon or later, those people will fail at what they do. Especially for those who are in the business of Vietnamese traditional handicraft, if they do not have a passion with national traditions but only focusing on developing business strategies, find ways to increase market share, they will have to be dependent of the market cycle; when it is up, they will thrive, when it is down, they will go down as well. Therefore, a company should create its own way, instead of depending on that cycle. This is the difference between traders and businessmen. Businessmen are those who create certain values to the society as a whole while traders are those who do only for their own sakes. Only companies who are really passionate about traditional values and have a desire to contribute to the society and their country could achieve sustainable development.
Thank you very much for joining us.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.