Q&A | Walk Sew Good travelled 3500km in search of positive fashion stories

For the last year, Australians Megan O’Malley and Gab Murphy – who together run the Walk Sew Good project – have been slowly walking across Southeast Asia telling “good” stories about ethical fashion. For someone who claims to be inspired by their trip, starting to follow their social media this week, as Hannah did, is almost too late. Instagram is where they’ve been sharing daily updates of life on the road. That means those Insta stories, which stay online for just 24 hours, are long gone. Oops, missed that, says Hannah:

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In a world of social media and globalisation, slow travel and slow journalism exist in multiple realities. On one hand, audiences can follow trips as they happen, allowing the experience of discovering a new place, culture, practice to unfold online as they do on the ground. But the intrigue of following a slowburning story this way is in the daily anticipation of living vicariously with the travellers and discovering their ‘what’s next?’ And if, like me, you came to the party a little late, the immediacy of social media is somewhat redundant. Fortunately, the other hand is just as fascinating and relevant. The access that everyday people have to recording stories on smartphones and sharing those stories via websites, blogs and social media, means there are multiple ways to document travel, and multiple audiences to connect with at multiple points along the journey.

As well as updating on social media, Megan and Gab have spent the past year creating series’ of short videos to document the people and projects they discovered during their trip. Together, these stories and blogs form an accessible, ongoing project that will continue to have relevance beyond the bounds of their daily updates. This also means that I’ve been far too antisocial lately, spending time on YouTube going through their video archives. I recommend you do this too.

Fascinated with their mission and buoyed by their enthusiasm, I Skyped Megan and Gab after they arrived back in Melbourne in late-September. I wanted to know more about why they decided Walk Sew Good was the best way to tell those good fashion stories. And, of course, I was curious about how the walking went. Here, they share insights from their year on the road in Southeast Asia.

Why do this?
Megan: When we originally thought about this trip, we wanted to go to China, India and Bangladesh. But walking through those countries, especially Bangladesh…people thought we were silly white girls anyway. We didn’t want to increase our chances of them thinking we were stupid white girls. In the end, we decided to got to Southeast Asia because so many of our clothes are produced in Cambodia and Vietnam – not so much Thailand and Laos – but there are all these horrible, terrible things happening over there in the fashion industry.

With all the negative stuff, people often switch off these days. They feel disempowered; they’re disconnected from that story. They don’t know who made their clothes or where they’re coming from. There’s so much blurriness around it. So we wanted to provide the good stories and get people talking and show them how they could interact with fashion in really positive ways.


 
Neither of you have a background in media. How did you get on with the production and technology side of things for the videos during the trip?
Megan: We did a short course with digital storytellers before we left – but we’re not trained in media at all. I don’t think it matters these days. We do not make perfect videos. We had disasters happen all along the way. Like the last interview, there was a lot of noise coming from the temple next door. It literally started when we got there. And we just had to do what we had to do. Nobody has commented on the audio of any of our videos, nobody has gone ‘aw the audio is a bit hairy…I couldn’t understand the story’. But video is such a tool that people can use to tell stories and get that message out there and it doesn’t have to be perfect and be this highly produced, beautiful thing.

We’ve done a lot of YouTube tutorials, especially when we were in the middle of nowhere and the sound wasn’t syncing or the frame wasn’t working. A lot of it was just troubleshooting for ourselves. We just filmed on smartphones and had road mics and then the grilly grip, and then in post production Adobe Premiere Pro. We tried to keep the videos under two minutes but up to three. We try and always include subtitles because a lot of people don’t listen with sound, also for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

As for technology, the charging situation in most places was completely fine. We had a spare battery pack thingy each to charge phones if we didn’t have access to enough power points, or if we were camping in the middle of nowhere. We never ran out of power on our phones for very long, if at all. It was the same with wifi and data. Asia has better internet than Australia. We’ve come back and can’t quite believe how crap the internet in Australia is. And wifi is nearly everywhere. Once we were at a fruit shack on the side of the road in South Vietnam and we bought an apple for breakfast. We sat down to eat it and the lady asked us if we wanted the wifi password. And it was really good internet.

Google Maps got us most of the way. We also used another app, MAPS.ME quite a lot in Laos because Google Maps seems to not have mapped out too many of the roads there.


 
How do you think your position both as ‘amateurs’ to storytelling and as non-journalists impacted on your approach to storytelling?
Megan: I think going in as amateur storytellers definitely had its pros and cons. I think it’s possible that if we had been professionals, some of the bigger – and some smaller – companies that we contacted would have been more likely to let us visit their facilities. But then I think we also came off as less intimidating and were able to put people at ease because we were amateurs. We didn’t use high tech equipment and I think that made people relax a little. We are also only accountable to ourselves. We don’t have anyone overseeing our work and telling us to do it differently. I think that freedom allowed us to experiment and see what was possible.

Can you share a little bit about the first person whose story you connected with?
Megan: The first video we did together was when we hit Ho Chi Minh. We were wearing cargo pants and looking super-unstylish. And then we meet Linda and she just looked like the epitome of style, she looked stunning. She was the first interview we did, and had this really cool space that she shared with a ceramics artist. It was super-cool. And we just did not look super-cool, at all.

Gab: It was one of those really trendy narrow houses in Vietnam with flowers growing on the outside, her studio was on the second floor up this narrow staircase and as soon as we pulled the cameras out – which were just our smartphones – the construction started next door. Straight away. It was a sign of things to come.

So how did you go about finding people to talk to?
Megan: The wonderful powers of Google and the internet. I’d worked in the ethical fashion space before so I was reaching out to everybody beforehand and asking if they knew of anybody, and that’s just really how we found them. A lot of times the websites weren’t wonderful or there was no website so we had to be connected through emails and that kinda stuff, so it was tricky.

I think one of the things we could have missed though, due to the language barrier, is more stories from locals that don’t speak English or who didn’t have a huge internet presence. I kind of had this idea before we left that we’d get there, and meet all these people along the way and they would tell us about their aunt who does this in the village and the like. But then for the first three weeks of the trip, nobody spoke English at all and we didn’t speak Vietnamese and sometimes we couldn’t even use Google Translate to communicate. So yeah, it didn’t quite work like we had planned.


 
How did your trip change after you realised that your approach to finding stories as you walked was not going to be as serendipitous as you had hoped?
Gab: The walking was a way for us to slow down. It was also bit of a hook in itself. People don’t really have that much interest in ethical fashion, so walking is part of our story and part of what gets people interested in the first place. Just walking from place to place we realised how much work and effort goes into creating things and how slow processes are. You start seeing where things come from in the countryside; how things grow or we’d see people fixing things all the time. It really made us appreciate and connect with the world around us.

I think it’s so easy when you’re driving in a car or taking a plane or a train to switch off. You’re just travelling and getting to the next destination and keeping on going with your everyday life. It really forced us to be connected with everything. With the storytelling, we kind of wanted to take people on that journey with us.

But you did have the odd moment of spontaneity, right?
Gab: When we were in northern Thailand we actually ended up walking past this weaving collective. As we came into the town there was this sign that said ‘weaving village’ and it had OTOP written below. OTOP is ‘one town, one product’. It’s an initiative in Thailand where they’ve encouraged small rural towns to produce one thing all in that one village. Some towns do whiskey, some do organic rice, but this town we walked past was just growing its own cotton, weaving its own cotton and the women were educating each other on weaving methods.

We were like, ‘oh let’s just walk past, go down to the village, and we’ll have our morning tea break here’. We went down to the village and not a word of the same language could be spoken between any of us. Our Thai was limited to about three words, so for the next hour-and-a-half we proceeded to have a dress-up montage. This old woman hustled us upstairs and she dressed us in all of her clothes that she had there – skirts, tops; she kept taking photos of us and we were doing a fashion show in their showroom. We had such an amazing time, she gave us t-shirts to take away with us – these beautiful organic tops. We actually didn’t end up filming it. Now I really regret not filming it but we took lots of photos and we are still able to add stories to the project like that.


 
Did you find that because you were in the moment, recording that event might have taken away from the authenticity of the experience?
Gab: Yeah, it would have been super-weird and inappropriate. They were of a slightly older generation, and even though they were taking photos of us, it would have been very weird if we had’ve started filming them or plugged them into microphones at that point.

Reflecting on the trip and the experiences you’ve had, what were some of the biggest learnings ?
Megan: I don’t think we realised how much traditional skills are a part of cultures in Southeast Asia. That was really cool. I thought I was connected to the story of my clothes and really conscious about fashion. But then when I went over there I saw the production processes and really connected with them and learnt about them and heard about these wonderful skills that people had. They knew so much and their knowledge was so deep and wonderful and had been passed on through the families. Understanding these processes is a great way to connect with fashion. I wish we could have brought everyone along with us but I guess we’re doing our best to tell those stories.

Gab: Some of that stuff, it’s hard enough to try and tell people about how things are made, let alone how much detail goes into making them and how complex making stuff from scratch is. And if you try and write it down, you can’t really describe the process. If you try and show it in photography you can’t actually see what’s happening because there are threads going up and down and there’s spinning happening and it’s all going on really quickly.

We love looking at slow-mo videos because you can see things happening in slow-motion and it’s incredible how much work is going into these amazing pieces of clothing. Video is really the only format where you can actually see this and pass it on. That’s the closest thing you can get without actually being there. The amount of times I had conversations with my family or my boyfriend and I’m like ‘this is insane’, and they’re just like…‘oh cool’. And then I show my boyfriend the video on slow-motion and he’s just like ‘what is going on here, this is insane!’

Megan: It’s just providing a way for people to engage more positively with fashion. And making it easier for them; to make them think, really. That is the whole point of it.

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Megan O’Malley and Gab Murphy are based in Victoria, Australia. Although they’re back from Southeast Asia, the trip lives on. They’ve got more videos left to edit than they’ve produced so far, so keep an eye on their website and social media for updates. Megan is now planning on writing a book about the experience, and Gab is working on a show for next year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival, to bring awareness about ethical fashion to a new audience – Aussie blokes.

Hannah Spyksma is a freelance researcher and journalist from Northland, New Zealand. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.