Hill-tribe style with urban panache

Chic ceremonial textiles for the London-to-Laos crowd

Anyone who has ever scooped up fantastically woven and intricately embroidered textiles on trips to far-flung destinations may be familiar with that ever-so-slightly heartbreaking reality of returning home to realise that the find that looked so chic when spotted in the Andes or Himalayas now appears rather too hippyish.

Heather and Joanna Smith, British sisters living in Laos, sew up that gap with Passa Paa, their website selling an urban-minded new collection of accessories and homewares. The name means “language of cloth” in Laotian, and their aim is to translate vibrant traditional designs of the indigenous communities into wearable and thoughtfully muted pieces, beginning with the inaugural Hmong collection.

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The website offers armchair travellers plenty of addictive glimpses of the hill tribe festivals and ceremonial textiles that inspired Heather Smith, who trained at Chelsea College of Art & Design before joining her sister in the sleepy town of Luang Prabang.

Before shopping, it’s worth clicking on the “About the Hmong Collection” link. The Hmong are nomads who came down from the Tibetan plateau, southwards into China’s Yunnan Province, Vietnam and Thailand. By the late 19th century they had settled in many parts of Laos and now comprise 11 per cent of the population.

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Passa Paa’s collection extrapolates the bold geometric patterns of their traditional batiks and embroidery, using fabrics sourced from villages surrounding Luang Prabang. The Smiths then hires local artisans to transpose the modern renditions onto items such as the 52cm x 108cm indigo print scarf ($92), which transitions seamlessly between Laos and London.

Equally eye-catching (without looking gap-year revival) is the organic hemp and leather Maika tote bag (first picture, $140), with its hand-printed tribal motifs. Other notable items thus far include leather-bound notebooks (second picture, from $25), cushions (Mie Xiong, third picture, $85) and throws ($62) made of hemp hand woven by the Hmong living high up in the Laotian mountains.

Passa Paa, along with a third partner, weaver Veomanee Douangdala, is run as a design collective and grew from the 12-year-old Luang Prabang-based Ock Pop Tok, a weaving institution, café and intimate inn along the Mekong River. This nascent endeavour will seek in future seasons to deconstruct the uniquely patterned textiles of other remote communities, including the Akha and Lanten, for those of us who might otherwise be led astray by our bohemian dreams.

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