Making silk lingerie in Stephanie Lesage's workshop.
Silk weaving, a skill that disappeared under the Khmer Rouge, has experienced a rebirth
in many Cambodian villages. Silk's vibrant, shimmering hues can be seen in markets
the country over in cushion covers and scarves, tablecloths and bedspreads. But in
Siem Reap, a Frenchwoman is knitting an all-new niche with this old Cambodian tradition.
Above the town's strip of watering holes on Bar Street, Stephanie Lesage, 26, has
set up shop creating Cambodia's first range of fair-trade silk-underwear lingerie.
A graduate in textile engineering, she moved to Cambodia two years ago, and, confronted
by widespread unemployment, decided to strike out on her own.
"It seemed a pity not to work with people who really needed the work,"
she said. "So I came up with the idea of silk underwear because it was quite
challenging and nothing had ever been done like that here."
Lesage, a Frenchwoman who was born in Bordeaux, detected a niche market for practical,
attractive lingerie for the more curvaceous figures of her fellow expatriates.
"My friends were always complaining about not finding pretty bras or panties
that were their size, because Cambodian styles can be very hard," she said.
"When I thought about silk, I thought about underwear. What could be more fitting
and more feminine?"
Dipping into the small pool of garment workers available outside Phnom Penh, she
employed four seamstresses from poor families, mainly through word of mouth. Lesage
made house calls to neighboring villages on her moto, and found two working on the
footpath outside her front door. "They were making food on the street and it
happened that one of them was a seamstress before and the other could cut,"
But Lesage was plagued by technical problems during her first nine months in business.
As a small company with limited access to overseas markets, locating clasps, underwires
and eyehooks proved a challenge. "I'm so small I cannot order by cargo [from
China]; I'm so small they do not care about me," she said.
Each worker had to be retrained in the delicate sewing methods and precise pattern
cutting associated with lingerie.
"In the beginning, my employees had no idea of quality," she said. "They
would sew black thread on white fabric - they didn't care, they didn't think about
"A lot of times I wanted to stop everything because [my husband] Loic and I
invested a lot of money we didn't really have," she said. "I thought 'What
if I never sell anything, what if things don't go well, what if all my seamstresses
stop work and go somewhere else?'" If she had been alone, she would not have
lasted, she said.
With lingerie sets priced from $40, and based on European sizing, Lesage has clearly
targeted the expatriate community and tourists.
In a country where it is not uncommon for garment industry employees to work gruelling
12-hour days for less than $50 a month, she demands quality merchandise in exchange
for quality training and fair working conditions.
"But my workshop is more like a home than a factory," she says. "It
is very small. I try to give them the best conditions possible."
A full-time employee works seven-and-a-half hours, five-and-a-half days a week, and
earns $100 a month plus three percent of benefits. But as the business expands, she
hopes this will improve. "They're doing work that's really good. If it's worth
it, I would really like to have them earn $150 to $200."
She expects the same principles from the NGOs she works with.
"I would like to work only with NGOs because this ensures that the people, the
producers, are being well paid, and that's important to me," she said.
Lesage sources silk from Les Soiries du Mekong in Banteay Chmar and La Passerelle
in Takeo, both of which offer local villagers decent wages to learn the art of silk
weaving. Silk wrapping is supplied by Hagar Design, which produces bags to support
Initial profits will be spent replacing the workshop's "very basic" sewing
machines, and hiring more staff. The survival of the business may depend on entering
overseas markets "because during the low [tourist] season, it will be difficult
to sell enough products not to lose some money", she said.
But Lesage says she has no interest in becoming a major contender in Cambodia's vulnerable
garment industry, which has unexpectedly flourished in its first year without the
protection of the global quota system.
"I will not become a big garment factory - producing, producing," she said.
"I want to expand, and give more people the opportunity to work, but stay like