Meet Samantha Vo, the Upcycle Designer Who Fuses Mexican Visual Culture With Environmental Awareness

Samantha Vo BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Samantha Vo.

The world is two seconds away from entering an irreversible climate crisis. Experts have announced that climate change has caused “irreversible damage” to nature, while the United Nations has sounded the alarm of catastrophic consequences for all species, including humans.

This is why raising awareness about recycling and changing habits is more important than ever.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the world’s largest used clothing desert, a sort of clothing dump in the Atacama Desert in Chile, and wondered what we could do to improve the situation.

Well, designer, recycler, and community leader Samantha Vo seems to have a good idea of where to start.

Drawing inspiration from her Mexican heritage, her line of military surplus handbags sells out in a matter of minutes. She uses her keen sense of innovation to repurpose and personalize fashion and turn it into wearable art.

Samantha’s work has caught the attention of thousands of people. She will be featured on Facebook’s “On The Map” travel series, hosted by Speedy Morman, highlighting the work of community builders.

The first episode of “On the Map” focuses on Phoenix, exploring its burgeoning sustainable fashion movement through two upcyclers, including Samantha Vo.

BELatina had the opportunity to speak with Samantha Vo about her work, and here’s what she had to say:

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I’m a first-generation Mexican-Vietnamese, multidisciplinary artist and designer from Phoenix, Arizona. I like to work with textiles and typography and emphasize using found objects or thrifted materials like vintage fabrics and military surplus.

When did you realize that the right move was to become an upcycle designer?

I have always collected vintage and interesting objects, so I already had a surplus of materials. I realized that sewing didn’t have to be as formal as I thought it was when I began using clothes I didn’t wear anymore. Being self-taught, I would deconstruct my retired clothes to understand seams. I quickly felt that there wasn’t a need to buy new fabrics for the designs I wanted to make, and using vintage materials made them feel more unique to me.

Is there anyone in particular who inspired you in this journey?

Yes definitely! I have so many friends whose style I really appreciate and inspire me. Right before the pandemic, my friend and I would have sewing nights, and she really pushed me to begin thinking about the kind of designs we could make.

My mom is also a big source of inspiration, especially on the upcycling side. Thrifting is a family affair, and she taught me that things don’t have to be new and expensive for them to be special. 

What have been some challenges you’ve faced, and how have you overcome them?

I think a big challenge living in Phoenix can be the lack of resources we have when it comes to designing or fashion. With that, I have become more thrifty and make more process-based pieces that rely on an upcycled item I may find or a particular pattern.

What would you tell anyone trying to break away from fast fashion and get into upcycled clothing?

Focus less on what the item may already be and more on the type of fabric or pattern. There are so many great secondhand pieces that still have more years of life to them, and the possibilities are really endless with how you can upcycle clothing.

Do you believe your roots influenced your path as a designer?

Yes, I think coming from a family of immigrants helped shape the way I make pieces. I like to think about functionality when designing, and that is very much an ode to watching my nana always wear an apron with plenty of pockets and ties on the side. Those small details can be seen in my work. 

Can you go into the process of how you create your bags and where you source your materials?

I make my bags out of military surplus and thrift materials. I source materials everywhere from thrift stores, garage sales, and Facebook Marketplace. I especially love sourcing when traveling, and Facebook Marketplace is such a great resource for that!