Feroze Alam, 41, is in Phnom Penh to start a fashion design studio, making clothes, selling them and taking on interns. Originally from Madras, in south India, the designer can boast a long family relationship with the garment industry and the region: his grandfather was a diplomat based in Ho Chi Minh City who made frequent trips to Cambodia, and his family has had streets in the capital named after them.
Alam has worked all over the world: Dehli, New York and London’s prestigious Savile Row. Previously, he made regular trips to Cambodia to source material for international designers. He spoke to 7Days about more than two decades in the fashion world, from mingling with Indian celebrities to making blazers for Julia Roberts..
It seems your family has a long history in Indochina, and in the clothing business?
My great grandfather was a cloth merchant, hence the surname Javalikadai meaning ‘cloth selling’, and the initial ‘J’ in our names. In Southern India back in the day, in the 1870s I guess, they would always buy cloth from either France, Italy or China, and go door-to-door to sell fabric to the women of the house at all the big houses. My grandfather wanted to start a textile mill employing Cambodians as he was very much in love with Cambodia and his wife, my grandmother, who was from Phnom Penh. But he died before he could realize that dream.
When did you decide to become involved in fashion?
Actually, I started off doing architecture. An uncle of mine came to India from the US, he was looking at my sketches. He’s an architect. He said: ‘I like what you’re doing, but I see that you have this little flair going on, and I think you should look into fashion design.”
And then you worked in the studio of one of India’s most famous designers… ?
In India there’s a designer called Rohit Bal, and in the rankings he’s beyond [number] one, he’s just solid gold, and I got a chance to work for him in Delhi before getting my visa to go to the United States for school. I just called him up one day and his mum was on the line. It’s like going to see Armani – you know you have to make twenty appointments to see the guy, but the mother was like, ‘Go to the office, my son will definitely come meet you.’ He was very honest in his teaching. His studio was the only part of his place that was air-conditioned. The workshops were not, and Dehli’s really hot, and so I was always stuck in the studio because it was air-conditioned. He was like, ‘I don’t wanna see you there, I want you to be in the workshop, learning from those guys what they’re going, or going to the men’s [design] room.’ Of course, there were a lot of celebrities there just hanging about. I really enjoyed the energy.
What did you learn from your time working as an apprentice with Savile row tailors?
What was so nice is [their motto]: ‘if it’s not perfect, it will not leave the studio.’ The way they approach clothing is sacred, but you will never know, and they will never tell you, ‘Oh, by the way it took us four days just to fix that sleeve to make it look on you that way.’
What were some of your most exciting moments in the business?
I fitted Julia Roberts. That was such a big experience, how to work with a straight face! She was nice. She was very, very nice.
It was late at night and she had a jacket done. When you work with certain clients you have to fit them every six months, because sometimes they’re not always there. She’ll make a call and say, ‘Hey, I’m flying to France for this show, can you make me a jacket and deliver it to my hotel room in France?’ She’s not there so we have to make it as close as possible.It was a basic blazer, like a tuxedo-style, black with a little shine on the lapel.
How does it feel to be returning to Asia?
The timing is actually great because I have the experience, have the knowledge, the background, the backing, the support structure. I will also train local designers or students who want to be designers, because I understand from my conversations that it is very difficult to get into design schools here, it’s very expensive, like it’s only meant for rich kids.
How will you manage the politically sensitive nature of sourcing workers from factories in Cambodia?
I will work with factories, but with factories there’s a political scene with how they are set up. I can’t just go in there and get somebody and walk away – someone’s going to get angry at me.
So there’s a soft sell of how to take certain people and train them at the benefit of the factory owner. Technical design is a skill that a lot of Cambodians don’t know. Technical designers are designers who come next to a designer and they see that the fitting of the garment is correct and the design spec is correct by sizing. So when you go into a store and you see ‘small, medium, large’, you know the size meant for you. That will be part of my curriculum.