Since the quilt-focused social enterprise closed its last physical stores in Ho Chi Minh City , Ha-Nội, and Phnom Penh in June 2021 due to the pandemic, founding director Bernard Kervyn has spent time to consider less costly means to continue the mission of providing work to under-privileged women in the Mekong Delta. With no feasible tourism anywhere in sight, Bernard was promptly reminded of the earlier days in 2001 where Mekong Quilts was just a small quilting workshop in a residential alley of downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
“We remember working with friends to conduct private sales in their homes,” he explained.
The Internet was not commonplace back in the day. Much of commerce was simply through word of mouth.
Private sales that ushered friend of friends to discover Mekong Quilts
Carla Saratellis, an acclaimed fashion designer from France, started working with Bernard and the Mekong Quilts’ team to lay the foundations of a successful fashion brand through training, lasting designs and careful commercialisation.
Through her social circle in diplomacy, banking, gymnastics and even her bridge game club, Carla actively invited people to small private sales at her residence, where she volunteered to tell the story of how Mekong Quilts changed the lives of families in the poorest regions of Indochina.
“It’s impossible to remember!” she exclaimed, while attempting to recall the number of events that were conducted at her former home in Ho Chi Minh City.
With a penchant for meeting and becoming acquainted with new people, Carla focused on treating customers like family.
“We never force anyone to buy anything. Some people may not be ready and some arrive out of curiosity,” she said. That, to her, is enough to spread the message. As a fashion designer herself, she reckons that her tips for suitable colours and designs were often sufficient to convince visitors.
“The change [of the women’s livelihood] came very fast, very quick,” she noted. Within just two years, both Bernard and Carla witnessed how the nimble hands of Mekong Quilts’ craftswomen were transforming them into independent homemakers.
Going beyond Vietnam for Mekong Quilts
With such success in mind, Carla brought the private sales concept to both Shanghai and France after leaving Vietnam in 2005.
Private sales in other countries beyond Vietnam and Cambodia quickly became more common as friends and supporters of the social enterprise moved around geographically.
In Bangkok, an early customer of Mekong Quilts, Pascale, felt it was a shame that Mekong Quilts’ former physical store was closing in 2014. Upon realising the possibility of hosting a private sales event at her place, she jumped on the opportunity. But simply organising sales at her home quickly grew into something greater.
“We live in a gated community,” she explained rather explicitly. “Between 1st November to 20th December [every year], we would host Christmas markets at different places in our community,” Pascale added.
“Giving a gift to a friend, and someone who is poor [at the same time],” was her key to promoting the products as a gift that gives twice during Christmas.
From international schools to hotels, for the Redcross and local Women’s Club, to prestigious locations such as the world famous Siam Paragon and Central World shopping malls, she would ferry a selection of her favourite Mekong Quilts merchandise on her car and set up booths at each venue for pop-ups that lasted anywhere between one to three days. At the peak of her passion and effort to assist Mekong Quilts, it was three or four venues every week!
Surprisingly, it all began when she contacted the Vietnamese Embassy and was roped into events such as the Diplomatic Fair organised by Thailand’s Diplomatic’s Wives’ Club.
Selecting the best designs for a successful Mekong Quilts private sales
Since it’s not practical to display every single item from Mekong Quilts due to limited space in her car trunk, Pascale focused on her favourites and appropriate items… so long they fit on the table!
Beyond adorable christmas and baby quilts that’s perfect for the festivities as gifts for friends and family, the Sapa series made from original fabrics handsewn by ladies of the Hmong people of Northern Vietnam proved to be some of the most popular in Bangkok.
Back in Hanoi, Jehanne Roccas, who was once the resident Ambassador of Belgium, cocktails and food are always provided to make the event at her residence as comfortable as possible.
But more importantly, to make the event approachable to everyone in the family, she insists that Mekong Quilts innovative bamboo bicycles were always on display. A project that stretched almost a decade, these 100%-bamboo made bicycles boast stronger-than-steel tensile strength and two additional models that are battery-powered by the latest lithium cells.
“While mothers might be interested in bed and childrens’ quilts, men would always be interested in bicycles! The whole family could come.”
Help Mekong Quilts by starting your very own private sales event
Ultimately, Ms Roccas’ commitment to volunteering for the effort lies in her belief that Mekong Quilts may be one of the only social enterprises in the region that creates ‘boutique quality’ items which are both designed by professionals and fabricated through the hands of employed beneficiaries.
“I have visited so many projects and I’m always so surprised by the skills of the people,” she noted. Beyond providing quilting and handcraft work to lift women out of poverty, microcredit schemes by Mekong Quilts parent organisation Mekong Plus ensures that the changes are long lasting.
Ms Rocca, visiting Mekong Quilts’ projects in the Mekong Delta
“… and the children get to go to school. That’s the most important [thing] for me. Building a new life!”