One of Cambodia’s most recognisable fashion labels is to close – but not for long. The founder is overseeing the creation of a more mature replacement that will launch next week. Will Jackson reports.
Keok’Jay is one of the Cambodian fashion industry’s biggest success stories.
Over the past five years the business has grown from nothing into a profitable clothing manufacture, retail and export concern. It now has two retail outlets, employs 30 staff at two workshops and exports to a handful of wholesale customers in the US, Australia and Norway.
And all the while it has managed to maintain strong ethical principles.
All which is why it might seem strange that the label is shutting down for good on Sunday. The shops will close and the clothing lines will be discontinued.
In the wake of Keok’Jay’s demise will come Tonle: what the label’s founder, American Rachel Faller, says will be a new, more mature fashion label that continues the legacy of ethical and environmentally sustainable production.
Faller, also the founder of the Keok’Jay’s parent company Morale Fashion Group, said the move was necessary so that she could more effectively realise her goal of creating sustainable, ethical employment for marginalised Cambodians.
Her two shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will reopen on December 11 as Tonle outlets, renovated and redesigned with an entirely new range of clothes.
Amidst the colourful, comfortable-looking clothes at her Riverside shop, Faller says she believes that commercial operations with strong ethical underpinnings have great potential to improve the lot of poor Cambodians – more so those run by NGOs.
When she first arrived in Cambodia on a Fulbright scholarship to study fair-trade textile manufacturers, she found that while non-profit operations might do great things for the community, they lacked the capacity to scale upwards because “they were more focused on the social side than on profiting, which is what really leads to growth in the end”.
“Over the course of that year I really felt like being a business and making marketable products first and foremost, and then felt that supporting a social mission with sustainable business was the way to go forward,” she says.
Keok’Jay was popular for its comfortable, fresh designs, made almost entirely from recycled (about 70 per cent) or locally and sustainably sourced (about 25 per cent) materials.
Its employees are all paid well above industry minimums (at least $150 a month for a 48-hour week), work in safe, comfortable environments and are given plenty of training and advancement opportunities.
But the true success of Faller’s vision can be seen at her light, clean workshop in Phnom Penh near Oressey Market (the other factory
at Toul Sambo employs seven women evicted from Borei Keila).
In an office on the second floor, quality control worker Bo Ravy, 52, wears a smile as she talks about her job. She says the pay is good, the boss is kind and the employees have the opportunity to learn and improve their skills.
All she ever got to do at the factory where she worked before was fill out receipts in the accounts department.
“In the [other] factory we could only do one job . . .but here I get to learn a lot of different skills,” she says.
“Here I can do any of the jobs, from sewing to printing up to quality control.”
Unprompted she announces: “I love my boss.”
Faller says it is partly out of concern for the company’s workers such as Ravy that she is undertaking the rebranding.
The original marketing for Keok’Jay was as a business providing employment to HIV-positive women and while some of the women were comfortable with that, some now preferred not to have their condition highlighted while other new employees were not HIV-positive at all.
Faller says she took all references to HIV out of Keok’Jay’s marketing materials several years ago but the association remains. By rebranding the label she hopes to start afresh.
“I don’t really think it matters what these people’s backgrounds were before they started working with us,” Faller says.
“The point is that now they’re doing something more positive and improving their own lives and it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
“It’s not like we’re [just] helping them. It’s actually a mutual exchange. They do great work for us and we pay them fairly. We make nice products because they do a great job.
“I just want to leave that NGO mentality and be a business that’s just treating their employees fairly and does things in the right way.”
She says the workers would still be part of the label’s marketing, but more in the sense of creating a human connection between the customers and the people making the clothes.
“I think if people were more in touch with the fact that real people, who could be their sister, or mother or aunt, are actually making the things they buy [then] they would be a lot more conscious of what goes into their clothing,” she says.
Other organisations are also moving away from “pity charity” which has the potential to inflict further harm on vulnerable people.
Sebastien Marot, executive director at Friends International, said the main priority should be to protect “victims”.
“The difficulty is in finding a solid yet respectful way of presenting the situation and background problems that lead to the organisation’s work,” said Marot.
“It is easy to ‘use’ a real person’s experience as it is emotionally compelling for the public, the donors or the media. It is our collective responsibility to find another way to talk about the issues and our work beyond the simplistic use of the people we are working with and, in the process, risking to harm them further.”
Another reason for creating the new label, Faller says, was the end of a business partnership she had entered into in 2012.
“They’re running a small manufacturing workshop that also manufactures for external designers called Fairsew, so we were both at a point where we wanted to work on different projects and I just felt like it was a good time . . . to do that rebrand that I wanted to do.
“It was an amicable split. I think it’s just for the best for both of our businesses so we’re both happy with that.” When contacted, Fairsew co- owner Gabriel Helmy echoed that the split had been harmonious but declined to elaborate further.
Finally, Faller says the name Keok’Jay was difficult to remember and pronounce, which made marketing the label – particularly overseas – harder than it should be.
“I wanted to pick a name that still had the connection to Cambodia but at the same time was much more recognisable,” she says.
Tonle’s designs will retain Keok’Jay’s emphasis on versatility and comfort but be a little more “fashionable” targeting a slightly older demographic – 24- to 35-year-olds instead of 16- to 30-year-olds.
Her plan is to increase exports while building up production capacity in Cambodia by opening new workshops and partnering with organisations with their own facilities.
In five years she hopes to increase her workforce from 30 to several hundred.
“Ultimately to run a business that makes a decent profit in garment manufacturing [in Cambodia] I think you need to have that export component because there simply isn’t the market here yet,” she says.
“We get a lot of people coming in asking if they can get this [clothing] in their country. I think the label does have a lot of international resonance but we’ve just got to figure out how to tap into that.”
Back at the Phnom Penh factory sewer Srey Leak, 42, says she enjoys working for Faller – whatever the label. “I enjoy cutting and sewing. Everything is good,” she says. “But I want to see the business grow so that we can all get more money.”