Fashion designers in Cambodia are tapping into the kingdom’s stunning fabrics, affordable workmanship and tropical inspiration, making for a vibrant although still-tiny industry.
While the impoverished country is better known for its garment exports fuelled by more than 200 mass-producing factories, a handful of designers are focusing on the domestic market of moneyed Khmers, expatriates and tourists.
Romyda Keth, a Cambodian-born designer who left her homeland in 1973, two years before the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime swept to power and devastated the country, blazed a path for her cohorts with her return here a decade ago.
Already an established name in Paris where she studied design, she first set up a workshop and exported her work back there but a few years later opened her own boutique in a colonial-era house to cater to rising local demand.
"It would have been difficult to make the new start in any country, but in 1994 here, there were coup d’etats every six months — it was quite fragile," she says of the war-torn kingdom which established peace just six years ago.
Now she says she would not dream of relocating back to Paris, although she travels back four times a year to showcase her vibrantly-coloured, feminine collections, which sell there for up to three times their local price.
"It’s much easier here. In Paris, everything is difficult. You run everywhere, you spend half of your day in the car because of the traffic, it’s very frustrating — and of course, it’s very expensive," she says.
Sylvain Lim, a Cambodian who also studied fashion in Paris in the 1970s, returned home in 2000 after three decades abroad as a successful designer to contribute to his country’s gradual rebuilding.
With his son, he opened a showroom in February, and his androgynous and sophisticated pieces are being snapped up by a clientele of young high-society Cambodians and expatriates.
"I had everything in France — success, wealth. So I thought I would go back home, keep my profession and try to do something in a new way, get inspiration from Cambodian traditions," he says.
Lim enjoys working with Cambodian silk but finds the variable quality of the fabric he obtains from manufacturers one of his toughest challenges, a common refrain among the designers.
But he revels in the exquisite handiwork he can now include in his designs.
"Look at this, it’s handmade," he exclaims, pointing to detailed stitching on a dress made of Italian wool. "In France, you could not do this."
A combination of passion for Cambodia and its affordable labour led Frenchwoman Nathalie Parize, a former office worker, to move here last year and open a casual clothing boutique with her business partner last month.
Parize has no design background and says she would not have attempted such a bold undertaking in Paris.
"This is something I wanted to do but with no previous experience, I would not have dared to invest. There it’s so complicated, here it’s very easy," she says, adding that in particular contract work is simpler to commission here.
Cambodia offers great opportunities for expatriate designers willing to commit a substantial period of time here, argues Australian Cassie McMillan, a resident for nine years who designs clothes and homewares for her own boutique.
"I do recommend it, because I think it’s possible to set up a business without having to stake your whole life savings or making yourself bankrupt for the next 20 years," she says, noting that a sample costing around 15 dollars here could cost up to 200 dollars in Australia.
Significant challenges have to be tackled, however, such as a war-time legacy of a largly unskilled pool of workers, meaning entrepreneurs need to be prepared to invest in training employees themselves, she says.
McMillan, who had her own lingerie and sleepwear label in Australia, is creatively inspired by her travels in Asia but in particular by Cambodia.
"The majority of everything I do has a Cambodian element in it. Even if it’s a jewellery roll, there’ll be a little bit of Cambodian silk in there," she says, adding that she’s also a fan of Cambodian organza, which has become widely available in recent years.
As for Cambodia’s notoriously difficult political climate — the country is without a government more than nine months after elections — McMillan, who once shut up shop for months during a period of unrest, is sanguine.
"Everyone is just over it. They just want to get on with it and eventually hope that the government will sort itself out."