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Wanderlust designer goes home


Elizabeth Kiester returns to the Big Apple, trunk in hand, to show the fiscally challenged fashion world that smart taste and exotic style need not come with a designer price tag.

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Wander Woman, Elizabeth Kiester in Siem Reap.

HAVING been dubbed "Wander Woman"  in mid-March by the authoritative American fashion bible Women's Wear Daily, Siem Reap's funky couture designer and retailer, the multi-tattooed Elizabeth Kiester, returned triumphant to home-city New York during the Khmer New Year break to hold her unique version of a Trunk Show.

Kiester wooed the Big Apple's influential fashionistas with her boppy range of Wanderlust-label street apparel that she designed and manufactured in Siem Reap.

She also introduced a range of locally crafted Nikaya jewellery, the handicrafts arm of the Journeys Within NGO.

Having lugged a large trunk of clothes and jewellery to New York, she returned to Siem Reap on Thursday with a bagful of orders.

"We called the show Wanderlust Comes to New York, but the technical fashion term for such an event is trunk show, whereby I simply took and showed a trunkful of my designs.

"A trunk show is traditionally a meet-and-greet with the designer. A customer likes to put a face to a name and get that personal attention from a designer.

"There was a big demand from people in New York to see my designs because I worked in New York all my career, am well-known in fashion circles, and I've been getting a lot of American press about what I'm doing here in Cambodia.

"People were saying they'd like to come to Cambodia one day, but in the meantime can Cambodia come to New York?"

Kiester's brief return to New York was a widely heralded homecoming because over the last two decades, she became part of the city's fashion world.

For 10 years Kiester was a fashion editor for  a range of cutting-edge glossy magazines including Mademoiselle, Marie Claire and Jane.

With the demise of Jane, Kiester moved to the 72-year-old American teen girls' magazine YM,  and then in 2004 she went corporate, first as the global concept director at Abercrombie & Fitch Co, and then global creative director at LeSportsac, where she introduced the ongoing Artist-in-Residence line and the successful Stella McCartney for LeSportsac collection.

But last year after a brief visit to Siem Reap as a volunteer, the 43-year-old embarked on a dramatic midlife relocation, pulling up stakes and moving to Siem Reap. She opened her Wanderlust retail outlet last October.

Kiester's show in New York piqued interest because of the novelty of her change of life and her unique twist on the trunk show concept.

"My story was interesting to New Yorkers because there are not a lot of editor/designer types like myself leaving and moving to a developing country.

"Plus, I have a design sensibility without the designer price tag."

New York trunk shows normally feature expensive items such as US$1,000 jackets. But Kiester reversed the trend, with her highest priced item coming in at $70.

Her timing was also on the button because a new austerity is sweeping the US, with trend-setting media columnists eschewing excessive expenditure such as lavish spa treatments or $2,000-plus Hermes beach bags.

"I think that social change was also part of the reason for the success of my show, absolutely. It's about getting back to what's really important and spending money more wisely.

"I can now provide fashion sensibility for a lot less outlay, unique fashion and couture at Gap store prices. There's nothing wrong with fast fashion brands like Gap or H&M or other big chains, but a lot of people in the fashion world don't shop at those stores because they see those clothes on everybody."

Kiester's clothes are designed and manufactured by local seamstresses in Siem Reap, but are universal in concept and embody no Cambodian souvenir touches.

"The whole point of Wanderlust is that I wanted clothing that could transit, that could be worn here, there or anywhere," Kiester said. "But the clothes aren't a souvenir. They don't say ‘No Money, No Honey'. There's no krama.

"But everything about my clothes is Cambodia. They are made in Cambodia by Cambodians, but the designs have value beyond Cambodia."

Kiester was accompanied in New York by Pierre Mainguy, executive director of Siem Reap's Coalition for Financial Independence, an NGO that works with communities to build sustainable, internationally relevant businesses.

Mainguy told Women's Wear Daily, "Elizabeth can bring tremendous value and help different communities better communicate their products to Westerners."



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