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New spin on an old tradition

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Artisan Meas Than sews purses for Artisan Designers at the Whatthan workshop in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Rosa Ellen/Phnom Penh Post

Putting a new spin on a traditional art form isn’t a simple thing to achieve, but for niche fashion enterprise Artisan Designers (AND) an ambitious new branding campaign is seeing Cambodian handicrafts pushed in a new direction.

Opening eight months ago on the tourist-friendly street 240, AND is the newest arm of Whatthan Artisans Cambodia, a fair-trade handicraft manufacturer and store based at the Wat Than pagoda in Phnom Penh.

The enterprise, which does not list itself as an NGO, employs approximately 40 workers in its on-site workshop, most of whom have a disability, as well as contracting traditional ikat weavers in Takeo province.

Whatthan is something of a survivor. Once known as the Wat Than Skills Training Center for Landmine and Polio Disabled, a project run by the Maryknoll charity with the Ministry of Social Affairs, the enterprise faced closure when funding ended in 2004.

Now it is under the leadership of former employee Try Suphearac, whose designs of purses, bags and ornaments fill the enterprises’ four shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

“Because I myself lost my left leg – I was a trainee at the NGO, so after my training I worked in the handicraft sector,” he said.

For the AND brand, Suphearac enlisted British design and marketing adviser Alan Flux, who favours recycled materials like rice bags, cigarette lighters and Anchor bottle tops – bought by the kilo from local rubbish collectors – to create bags, purses and jewellery that would appeal to overseas visitors.

“We decided to create the brand AND to use the high skills that people have here but to enlarge the market. We use the traditions of handweaving and carving and sewing, but we inject them with a little more fashion and colour prediction,” Flux said.

Because it is labour-intensive, ikat weaving is the most costly element of production, but AND are more concerned with maintaining supply and keeping the tradition alive than the risk of insufficient demand. The AND shop is smaller than its other outlets, Flux says, but the label is also exporting.

“The business side is that we guarantee a secure livelihood to our weavers,” Flux said. “Our jewellery and our bags are mostly made by disabled workers. We put them under contract so that we guarantee to take everything they do. We don’t just buy things when it’s low season – we guarantee them an income throughout the year.”

With stiff competition from other tourist-oriented boutique stores in the street, the label is trying to keep its prices down and is not expecting immediate success in its first season.

“To me it makes good business sense to keep prices at a level that we need to, but not to add on a profit margin that is just plucked from the air,” Flux said.

For Suphearac, that the brand is up and running with clear social benefits, is in itself a measure of success.

“The business keeps going even with the economic problems. Even though we’re in the handicraft sector we keep growing every year,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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