Designers Eric Raisina and Don Protasio are spearheading a small but vital local fashion industry and making ripples in Bangkok, Paris and New York
Eric Raisina fits model Srey Pove with a design for a show in the Bahamas.
A fledgling fashion-design industry is emerging in Siem Reap and, while catering mainly to tourists, it is beginning to include local designers producing clothing for an increasing number of fashion-conscious Khmer.
Siem Reap designer Don Protasio, a Filipino expat, said, "The designers here each have a different fashion sensibility, based on their background and what they think is fashion."
His own line is a mix of the darker, more urban clothes he designed while living in the Philippines and brighter, more patterned garments inspired by Siem Reap.
He is preparing to show his garments at the Philippines Fashion Week and said, "I get a lot of orders coming from abroad. Tourists come here, look at my clothing, and think that they can get it elsewhere, but then go home and realise that it's unique. I have people ordering from Malaysia and Bangkok, and business has been steady.
"The thing about Siem Reap is that you have to create your own events, your own space, your own buzz. But because this is a small town, a lot of people appreciate what you do."
Protasio came to Siem Reap to work as curator of the gallery at the Hotel de la Paix, and he displays his own line in a unnamed studio near Pub Street, which he shares with another Filipino expat, Loven Ramos, a graphic artist and photographer who designs accessories for Protasio. Ramos said that the scene in Siem Reap is still "raw and new" with tourists as the main customers.
"They are only here for a short time, but they venture out and explore things."
The leading fashion identity in Siem Reap is Eric Raisina. Originally from Madagascar, he studied textiles at the prestigious Duperre School in Paris. He taught himself fashion design before opening a studio in Paris, where his clothing, textiles and samples were sold to Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Christian Dior.
We need the establishment of a real fashion design school ... to get Cambodians to design for Cambodians.
Raisina first visited Cambodia 12 years ago, and over the course of several trips to provinces and silk farms, he fell in love with the Cambodian silk-weaving techniques in the villages.
"I saw how complicated, refined, and beautiful the patterns were that appeared from the looms. And I realised that this country might have something very strong. This country had knowledge."
Raisina moved to Siem Reap in 2000 to consult for Artisans d'Angkor, a company that trains young Cambodians, and he set up his own workshop. "This is my baby, my office, my workshop," he said.
He has received the most international recognition among the designers in Siem Reap. He sells his garments at Amansara boutique and at the Carnets d'Asie gallery, and features his clothing at Fashion Week in Bangkok, Johannesburg and Latvia, and at private shows in Paris, New York and the Bahamas.
Raisina employs 24 Khmer workers to perform sewing, weaving and manipulating fabrics. Inspired by traditional Khmer dress, he has created a new fabric called silk fur, which is silk woven with a special thread to give the material a heavier feel.
He uses simple weaving machines and "explores together" with his staff new patterns and techniques to design men's and women's clothing.
Raisina's work is greatly influenced by Siem Reap's temple and pagoda carvings, and the scenes of daily life. "Personally, this city has something that no other city has in terms of energy."
His model and muse is a stunning Khmer woman from Siem Reap, Srey Pove, who stands at an extraordinary 176cm and travels with him to his fashion shows around the world. "For me, she represents the real Cambodian face, with strong features like those I imagine on the 1930s singers and musicians at the Royal Palace in Angkor," Raisina said.
A quick look around his workshop confirms why he is one of the most famous designers in Cambodia. His designs are remarkably beautiful, his materials original, and his execution intricate and masterful.
Raisina believes that within ten years a true fashion industry can emerge in Siem Reap with locals wearing Khmer-designed fashion.
"It's difficult to talk about a fashion industry in Siem Reap because the tourists wear items designed here and then go home," he said, "but what we have done in the last 10 years is amazing. Young people are beginning to design bags and scarves. We need another ten years, and the establishment of a real fashion design school in Cambodia, to get Cambodians to design for Cambodians. Then we can have a true fashion identity."
To help achieve that identity, Raisina oversaw a one-week workshop in April 2008 in conjunction with the French Cultural Centre. Nine Khmer seamstresses designed clothes and accessories from natural local materials. He trained the women to work with textiles, and they modelled their own work.
"From basic natural materials, like rotten bags and hammocks, we got masterpieces," Raisina said.
Raisina is also moulding the talent of Siem Reap's future fashionistas.
One of his most promising proteges is former employee Tann Sokha, whose finely tailored men's shirts are purchased by both Khmers and tourists at the Central Market.