Rising designers look to revive Cambodian fashion's golden age

Phnom Penh Designers Week offers a showcase for emerging fashion talent in a country that is known more for its garment factories than cutting-edge style

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 5:17pm

Studios, apartments and boutique back rooms across the Cambodian capital are a hive of activity as last-minute stitching and adjustments are made ahead of the seventh Phnom Penh Designers Week.

Launched in July 2013, the event has been driving Cambodia’s fledgling fashion industry by providing a platform – and motivation – for both established and emerging labels wanting to put their stamp on the scene.

“We want to encourage designers to create new collections, come up with shows and keep the industry moving forward,” says Don Protasio, a Filipino designer and co-organiser of the event, which takes place this week. “There is starting to be an awareness about fashion in Cambodia, but we’re not at that high level of consciousness yet.”

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During Cambodia’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s – now considered the golden age – the country was a fashion lover’s paradise. Youngsters strutted the streets adorned in the latest trends; women expressed their individuality through style in the capital’s nightspots, where well preened men pulled moves on the dance floors.

That era came to an abrupt end when civil war broke out in 1967, which led to the Khmer Rouge’s brutal four-year reign and a decade of conflict that tore the country apart. For the majority of Cambodians, survival became the sole priority, and fashion went out of fashion.

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Although the garment industry has played a key role in keeping Cambodia’s economy afloat over the past two decades – contributing 16 per cent to its GDP and employing about 700,000 people in more than 700 garment and shoe factories across the country – the home-grown industry has been almost non-existent.

However, peace and rapid economic development have opened the door to progress. A middle class has started to emerge – a more affluent generation of educated Cambodians with access to the internet and interest in the outside world. These young people harbour a thirst to carve out their own look and once again plant Cambodia on the region’s style map. This has led to the emergence of a bubbling fashion scene.

“The younger generation is definitely taking more interest in style,” says Ryan Drewe Taylor, who will be making his debut with business partner Brandon Lee and their Lee & Taylor collection. “Brands, pop culture and music are all having an influence, so you can see a difference. You just need to look at how university students are dressing compared to the older generation; there are definitely fewer people going out in their pyjamas.”

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Since making its debut, the twice-yearly event has become a firm fixture on the fashion calendar. It offers designers the chance to show their newest looks and culminates in a pop-up event where buyers can snap up a new wardrobe.

“Some of those designers from the first event are still showing with us,” says Protasio, who moved to Cambodia in 2006 to start his fashion line. “But the biggest difference we’ve seen is with Khmer designers. At first there weren’t many, but now we have many more, which is great to see. For many, this is their first runway show, so it’s a fantastic experience.”

Cambodian designer Kosal Ou, who goes by the name of James, launched his clothes on the Phnom Penh catwalk in 2015. He is now putting the finishing touches to his latest collection, La Toile, which will make its first outing during the menswear evening on November 4.

Nine years spent working in garment factories, helping to create clothes for international brands such as Gap, Mulberry, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, fuelled the 35-year-old’s passion for fashion and equipped him with knowledge of standards, design and how to sew good-quality clothing. He quit his job in 2008 to start his own tailoring business.

Taking private classes in his spare time, while trawling the internet for tips on techniques, Kosal Ou went on to launch his own menswear line, Kool As U, in 2012. He opened his own boutique and this year branched out into womenswear, selling locally as well as abroad.

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“I’ve loved fashion since I was young, but here the majority of brands are imported. I want to showcase good-quality, Cambodian-made clothing to the world,” Ou says. “In Cambodia, we have a young, modern population, and I aim to reflect this in my designs.”

With La Toile – denim in French – Kosal Ou has created a versatile collection of denim-focused, ready-to-wear outfits that draw on urban style. “I wanted something that can be worn at work, at parties and at the weekend,” he says. “My design is for someone who is looking for something unique and comfortable to wear every day.”

Kosal Ou will show his new creations alongside Protasio, who will present his collection, Method of Disruption. Phnom Penh Designers Week stalwarts Waterlily and A.N.D. will show their latest work, alongside Devinalex – all home-grown brands.

In a first, the event, which will see the capital’s Audi showroom transformed into a catwalk spectacular, will open on November 3 with a solo show from Two Wonders. Their women’s collection, Traveller, incorporates bold silhouettes contrasting against soft textures and layers. Jumpsuits, off-the-shoulder tops and power suits also feature heavily.

The menswear event the next evening will be followed by the ladies’ looks. Collections will include The Huntsman by Kims, The Last Blossom by Established, Koi by Soknan and Alazhi by Lee & Taylor.

South African Lee and Malaysian Taylor will be making their Phnom Penh debut with their Indian-inspired ready-to-wear collection. “We’re playing with the style of colonial India,” says Lee, who moved to Cambodia six years ago. “It’s influenced more by what the servants were wearing, and has a military edge inspired by Gurkha uniforms.”

Think loose jumpsuits, free-flowing dresses, military-style fitted jackets, and light fabrics that mix hard and soft. “We want the collection to be sellable so we’ve taken into account the climate here when choosing fabrics,” says Lee, who owns The Dollhouse salon and boutique store Paperdolls in Phnom Penh. “That’s very important; they need to be loose and breathable.”

The growth of Designers Week – it received 15 entries in its first year, with twice as many applying for this year’s outing – highlights the rising demand in Cambodia for fashionable clothes, which is predicted to increase. The introduction of professional fashion schools and courses, such as Limkokwing University and Raffles International College’s courses in fashion and retail design, are also helping produce a new wave of talented designers.

Having made her Phnom Penh catwalk debut last year, Hong Kong-born Natacha Van has been creating a splash on the kingdom’s fashion scene, going on to be a judge in the first season of Cambodia’s Next Top Model. She has high hopes for the future of Cambodia’s style industry.

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“The fashion industry is developing really fast here. More and more people are getting more knowledge and ideas about how this industry runs,” says Van, who studied at London College of Fashion before moving to her father’s homeland, Cambodia, two years ago to launch her line. “People are becoming more open to different things, and events like Phnom Penh Designers Week give us a platform to present and showcase who we are as a brand, which is fantastic.”

Phnom Penh Designers Week takes place between November 3 and 6. For more information, visit Phnom Penh Designers Week on Facebook.