As spending on fashion grows in step with Cambodia’s middle class, few training options mean aspirants need to fashion their own career trajectories
Photo by: ELEANOR AINGE ROY
Noh Sar, Franco Dionco, Sophy Ke andSophea Ke are hoping to build careers on the back of Cambodia’s burgeoning fashion industry by launching the country’s first bilingual fashion magazine.
Sophy Ke, Sophea Ke, Noh Sar and Franco Dionco are young, fashionable and ambitious. In August they will launch Cambodia's first bilingual fashion magazine, with the intention of educating Cambodians about fashion and finally ridding the Kingdom of their pet hate - pyjamas in the daytime.
The four young people know they have an uphill battle ahead of them, but Noh Sar, 22, who studied business and marketing at a fashion school in Singapore, said they have backup plans if F Magazine failed. "The magazine is just the first step in our dreams," he said.
"We are always talking about different projects - such as starting our own labels - but the magazine is the core, and the other things will follow and come around it."
Those backup plans included working in the fashion industry itself by designing, producing and selling clothes.
Franco Dionco, 26, a Filipino with an advertising degree, said the publishing group had already taken the first steps towards their own design dreams, regularly having drawings made up by local tailors.
"There are a lot of good tailors in Phnom Penh, and we buy the fabric, show them our drawings and instruct them about what we want,"he said.
"They can do modern designs and it's very cheap. I suppose this is the beginning of designing, realising your own work," he said.
New career opportunities
Whether the magazine makes it or not, the publishing venture speaks volumes for the changing face of the Cambodian economy and the type of careers available. A young demographic and a rapidly growing middle class are creating demand for consumer goods and jobs in the fashion sector.
An internship or apprenticeship can also be the best way to learn.
But Romyda Keth, an internationally recognised Cambodian designer who grew up between France, Czechoslovakia and Cambodia, said that aspiring Cambodian fashion designers were on the back foot as there were no fashion training institutions here.
While she studied fashion design in Paris, the closest options were expensive schools in Singapore or Bangkok. However, if young designers were talented and hardworking. the emerging fashion market in Cambodia made it a viable career option, she said.
"Even though it is small industry here, there are positive signs, such as all the shops on Street 240,"she said, referring to a street in Phnom Penh developing a reputation as home to some of Cambodia's finest boutiques.
"It is a small city but that makes it easy to grow as a designer. I am lucky because I have people from all over the world coming to my shop, and in the last two years more and more affluent Cambodians are showing interest."
She said a fine arts degree was a good stepping stone for a career in fashion, as was learning the technical side of the trade in local tailoring shops. "An internship or apprenticeship can also be the best way to learn," she said.
It was not just young Cambodian designers who had a lot to learn said Sophea Ke, one of the group behind F Magazine.
Because young Cambodians were very aware of fashion but had not had much guidance, he was confident there would be an interested market for the magazine.
"You see a lot of strange-looking combinations on the street taken straight from Korean, Japanese or Chinese movies; very exaggerated with many clashing colours,"he said.
"Cambodians are trying to express their own identity but they are not educated in fashion, and this is one of the main objectives of the magazine."
All of the group have travelled outside of Cambodia, but Sophea was adamant that this wasn't necessary to develop skills in the fashion industry.
He said he had learned most of what he knew about fashion by making friends with expats in Phnom Penh and discussing the basics of good style - such as the allure of simplicity and well-fitted clothes.
Franco Dionco and Noh Sar named Frenchman Thomas Jaffre, the menswear and accessories designer at Ambre, as an important influence for his "classic" design style.
Nor Sar said that when he bought shirts from Ambre, it often became a collaborative process between him and Jaffre, and also a lesson of sorts.
"When I see a shirt I like but I don't like parts of it, we will talk about how to change it, and he will explain the reasons why he designed it like he did, what intentions he had," he said.
Romyda Keth said there were many copycat idesigners working in Cambodia, but the tell tale mark of an excellent designer was originality. "A talented designer has his or her own style,"she said.
The designer should also only try to create fashion they would be willing to wear themselves, she added.
"Unless you try the clothes yourself you cannot know if something works, how it hangs and whether or not it will be comfortable to wear all day," she said. "And that is something young designers must keep in mind. Even if it looks good on the catwalk, if it isn't comfortable then it doesn't work."
Sophea Ke said he wanted to see more young Cambodian designers making clothes to develop an immediately identifiable national style.
"I want to see young Cambodians beginning to express their identity through their clothes," he said. "When you walk out of the house, it is who you are and what you have chosen to wear is what you want people to see of you."