An intriguing new addition to Siem Reap’s chic fashion retail scene has emerged in the guise of the curiously named Binky Higgins store at FCC Angkor. But the new outlet is in fact a renamed revamp of the successful boutique clothing store, Wanderlust, and the revamp comes courtesy of owner, Andrew Lerman.
Wanderlust was founded by New York fashion editor and creative director Elizabeth Kiester, but Lerman has actually quietly been at the helm since 2010, having initially been hired by Kiester as a consultant in 2009.
Coincidentally, Kiester had previously worked for Lerman in the fashion industry.
“She contacted me and said could you consult for me,” says Lerman. “There were some investors in the UK who wanted to get involved and wanted someone who had a little more experience – I had a lot of experience with start-ups.
Lerman originally came for a month, but ended up staying.
After a year of running Wanderlust, Kiester, for reasons of her own, returned to New York and around the same time the investors also moved on. Kiester is now vice-president of design at Li & Fung US, the world’s largest supplier of toys and clothing.
But Lerman was not ready to leave Siem Reap.
“I like it here. We’ve built a good, good team of people and I really feel good about what we’re doing. I’m going to stay. That was three years ago and so I’m doing it on my own. It’s kind of been under the radar ever since.”
Lerman took over the two Siem Reap stores – one at FCC Angkor Boutique Hotel and one on Alley West, now closed – and the Phnom Penh branch.
The name change from Wanderlust to Binky Higgins has only now come about, Lerman says, “for both practical and capricious reasons.”
“Practically, we needed new signage,” he says. “We were out of labels, business cards and hand tags so instead of re-ordering I decided to go with a new name. There are a lot of companies called Wanderlust and so from an intellectual property standpoint it wasn’t good. I don’t think you should have a company that shares its name with ten other companies.”
Lerman, who has spent a lot of time working in the UK, seized on the name Binky Higgins, following in the vein of “name” labels such as Paul Smith.
“It’s a funny name,” he says. "It’s a fictitious name but it was based on an amalgam of certain people I met early on in the fashion business. It’s just an idea of a fun approach to fashion. It does sound English but I also wanted it to be more American, so it’s a little more ‘American prepster’, old world.
“Because the company has changed in the sense that the merchandise mix has changed somewhat, I realised that the stuff that I design is – I don’t want to say American necessarily – but it’s cleaner, maybe a little more masculine in its orientation.”
Lerman initially started using an assistant designer but her ideas weren’t selling, so called on his own fashion nous to design the clothing line.
The range now is more structured than it was before. Initially, Lerman says, it was all muu-muus and floaty, beach-style wear.
“I thought that had run its course as a fashion concept. The customer base also changed. We get a lot more Asian customers now and the upscale Asian customers don’t want big, baggy clothes. I really wanted to make it more responsive to a lot more people.”
Lerman says the idea has always been the kind of shop you could find ‘back home, and adds that many visitors liken the store to what they can find back home in the UK or the US.
As for the Cambodia element, he says, “I really want the Cambodia bit to be with a small ‘c’. I really want the fashion to speak for itself, and by the way yes we’re in Cambodia, we train women, we’ve really empowered them, helped them with getting a focus and a career, but that’s not the thing. We’re not a NGO. What I want to do is have a real fashion company, but have it in this kind of infrastructure.”
He added that people ask him why he doesn’t produce in Thailand or use a factory in Phnom Penh that’s cheaper.
“But that’s not what I want to do,” he emphasises, “That’s not the point.”
Instead, Binky Higgins is run from a small compound in an attractive garden off High School Road with a staff of ten women producing designs, and Lerman has made his management team equity-holders in the company.
“I really want my Cambodian management to assume more responsibility,” he says. “I’ve given my key people equity in the company, for them to feel they were part of that group. I’m trying to get them to feel they’re going to see the result of their work. My hope is to be able to have them take on more and more day to day, and for me to get more involved with growing the company.”