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Travel Hacker and Ethical Fashionista: On the Road with Lauren K. Lancy

This is a travel hacking case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Not only is Lauren Lancy a travel hacker, using miles & points to see the world and return home to New York, but she’s also merged travel and fashion with her new project, The Kindcraft.

Introduce yourself!

I’m a fashion designer and trend forecaster from Brooklyn. At the end of 2012, I traded New York City’s concrete jungle for the jungles of Southeast Asia. Now, instead of designing for fast fashion brands, I advocate for slower, more thoughtful and ethical kinds of fashion.

My interest in handmade products, textiles, and ethnic arts took me to Luang Prabang, Laos where my husband and I lived for 2013. Our home is now in Chiang Mai, a creative city in the tropical mountains of Northern Thailand.

I travel regularly to meet artists for my latest project, The Kindcraft, which is a celebration of makers of traditional art and contemporary craft from around the globe.

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How does your work with The Kindcraft merge with traveling?

Since taking the leap to Asia in 2013, I’ve traveled all over the world. Thanks to some clever hacking and good planning, I’ve been able to visit over 15 countries throughout Asia, Oceania, and Europe to seek out artisans making beautiful handmade products.

“Slow Made” has really become a global movement and I have to travel in order to observe trends and see the connections between places and products. Most recently, I was in Tokushima, Japan to visit a small company called Buaisou who are indigo farmers and dyers working in a reclaimed barn in the Japanese countryside. Their indigo process is different than what I’ve seen in Thailand, and it’s also a different process to how they make indigo in India. It was cool to see their space and learn about their work!

What’s even more exciting than visiting Buaisou Japan is that I will also be traveling to visit Buaisou Brooklyn to see their new space in Bushwick very soon! I’m looking forward to document both of their workspaces which will give my readers the whole story about these makers from East to West.

I feel fortunate that I can travel between places to demonstrate these connections between traditional art forms and contemporary design.

Tell us more about your interest in thoughtful fashion.  

What we wear is not only a reflection of our individual style, but also a reflection of our values. If we shop thoughtfully and support ethical fashion and independent makers, our choices can influence broader cultural attitudes and positively influence our society.

I love hearing people ask questions like “How was this made?” and “Will this last a long time?” Considering the “how” and not just “how much” is a positive social change that begins with us as individuals in all areas of our life – from what we eat, to how we shop for products and clothes.

We have a growing opportunity to support independent makers and the continuation of heritage craft – like weaving –  which I hope will create a culture of thoughtful consumption.

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What inspired you to move away and change your career focus?

I’m always inspired by meeting people from different cultures and experiencing the beauty of their everyday lives – learning about what they eat, how they celebrate, to their dress, traditional arts, and contemporary craft. In short, I’m inspired by travel.

But one moment during my around-the-world honeymoon in 2010 stands out.

It was a very hot day in Hanoi, Vietnam and we were visiting The Hanoi Museum of Ethnology. Despite the stifling late afternoon heat in a museum, I was captivated. The heritage crafts there had stories woven into them. There was depth and richness in the handmade items I saw that afternoon that didn’t exist in my design work in New York.

I think about that moment in Hanoi and others from our honeymoon—like seeing a silver coin Akha headdress in Laos, and then kimonos in Japan—as the moments my career changed.

You mentioned you’re a travel hacker. What cards and rewards systems do you use?

I have both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink cards, which allow me to accumulate Ultimate Rewards points. I can then transfer these to a variety of airline and hotel partners. Accumulation is only part of the story, though: Understanding how to get great value out of point redemptions is critical.

One recent example: I used a 70,000 point Chase Ink sign-up bonus to book most of the four-month trip that I’m on now. I transferred those points to United Airlines for a round trip ticket between Chiang Mai, Thailand and the United States.

The rules for the award ticket allow both a long stopover and an open-jaw routing (where you arrive from one city and leave from another), so I’m taking full advantage of that. I scheduled a weeklong stopover in Japan to visit with friends and research indigo dying with traditional kimonos.

Another bit of travel hacking: I was also able to celebrate my 5th wedding anniversary in a suite at the Park Hyatt Tokyo by using a Hyatt upgrade. We continued on to the West Coast of the USA to visit my husband’s family, then purchased a cheap multi-stop ticket to visit my family in Ohio before landing in NYC, where I’ll be working for a few months. The routing lets me leave directly from New York to return to Thailand and, due to a scheduling change by the airline, I now even have an opportunity for a two-day stopover in Beijing on my return to Chiang Mai.

All told, I’m flying CNX>TYO>PHX>CVG>NYC>PEK>CNX for about $350.

While in Thailand, I take advantage of Starwood’s ability to transfer to Japan Airlines in a unique way: JAL recently partnered with local airline Bangkok Airways and, to promote it, has been running a discount on mileage redemptions (about 1/3 the normal amount of points).  

I took advantage of a discount to buy a bunch of SPG points last year and now, whenever I need to hop over to a nearby Asian destination, I redeem these points at a fraction of the cost that a cash ticket would be.

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Tell us about an encounter fresh in your mind.

The first time that I met Famjoy Sealee was in 2012. Famjoy is a skilled embroiderer and she’d traveled a great distance from her small village in Northern Laos to attend the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. She was there to demonstrate the weaving of the Yao Mien ethnic group of Northern Laos, and I was there to support the art and ethnology group that had brought Famjoy to the States.

It was Famjoy’s first time outside of her village and, even though we didn’t share a language, we bonded as we worked together for a few days. I was happy to represent Famjoy at the market and do small things like help her find food that she could eat (plain rice from Whole Foods) during her stay in the States. I was incredibly impressed by her mastery of weaving and watching her demonstrate techniques which few people in the West have ever seen up close.

After moving to Laos in 2013, I finally made the bus journey to her remote village to meet her in 2014 where Famjoy shared her craft and a delicious staple meal of fresh ethnic food of local vegetables, rice, and river fish.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Window!

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What has surprised when on the road?

I’ve learned how to be patient, how to slow down and live a more “Bor Bpen Nyang” lifestyle. After moving to Laos, the first thing I learned how to say after “Hello” and “Thank You” was “Bor Bpen Nyang” which means “No Worries” – it’s a phrase locals say a lot.

There is a joke that the “P.D.R.” in “Lao P.D.R.” (People’s Democratic Republic) actually means “Please Don’t Rush.”  Of course that’s not true, but it’s a pretty fair exemplification of the slow pace of life and the gentleness you see in everyday interactions there. No one seems to be in a hurry in Laos and Northern Thailand – and that’s a beautiful thing coming from bustling city life of Manhattan.

My life in New York embodied the pace of the city: Up early. On the subway and pushing through crowds of people to get to my cubicle in Midtown. Work late. Take the subway back to Brooklyn to have a quick dinner. While I still love the energy of city life, I didn’t like that hurried-yet-empty feeling at work and living for short weekends.

I finally got to exhale and warm up in the sunshine of Southeast Asia where the lifestyle is generally more relaxed. Moving from New York City to Laos was a big leap, though, and it took time to adjust. I was still the same ambitious New Yorker that I was when I left, so the slower-paced lifestyle that I admire can also be a source of frustration.

I try to practice patience if my projects don’t move at the pace and quality that I would like for them to. Overall, I feel fortunate to have be able to blend the things I admire of both cultures – the kindness and patience of Southeast Asia, with the drive of work-focused New York – into a new balance.

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Can you describe the gentleness you see in Laos?

Of course there is a wide range personality types anywhere you go in the world, but I think it’s fair to say that there is a tenderness between people here.

People don’t seem to talk over one another the way they do back in the States, and there seems to be concern to avoid anyone “losing face” or being unnecessarily embarrassed. I see this tenderness in shy smiles and the gentle teasing between friends and family.

Look around a small town in Laos and you’ll see a peaceful environment of palm trees and temples, rickety bicycles, the sounds of monks’  drums, and the smell of sticky rice in the air. The gradual sunset over a river and the mountains at the end of a hot day is such a joy.

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Best travel tips…go!

A trip begins with an idea, then comes research into places to go and people to see.

My husband generally handles booking with miles while I look into what’s happening – local fairs and markets, art, restaurants, and hotels.

Pack deliberately.

I lay everything out and edit over hours or days. I always carry the same bag (The Aeronaut by Tom Bihn) and I don’t take a lot with me, so I choose carefully creating a collection of clothes that I’ll be happy to wash and wear again and again on the road.

Four items for the plane:

Warm socks, extra water, saline spray, and healthy food.

Where are you headed next?

We’re spending three months in New York. I’m looking forward reconnecting with friends and colleges before returning to Chiang Mai in August. This will be our first attempt at splitting time between Asia and America.

Stay up to date with Lauren at  The Kindcraft or via Instagram @thekindcraft.

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