The sign was not up and most of the new furniture had yet to arrive, but Rina Roat had already made her new venue – an elongated, breezy, gardened area leading to a spacious Khmer-style house – feel like home.
“It’s like I’m at the beach because of the breeze,” she says from one of the cushioned chairs that had been transported from her old venue on Street 178, where she had transformed the bottom floor of a shop house into a cozy boutique and restaurant.
During its five years of operation she drew a steady flow of customers with a simple and inexpensive menu, along with an array of dresses, jewelry and casual wear for men.
Last year she also caught the eye of the British documentary crew that filmed Cambodia’s first Fashion Week, even though she did not participate in the event.
Charlet Duboc, the presenter of the documentary and the woman who came up with the idea for Vice Media’s Fashion Week International series, said: “Rina’s story evoked the strongest emotional response out of any person from the series.”
“Her back story, her incredible will and disarmingly sweet nature all came across in the film,” Duboc explained. “With the right support Rina’s ideas could develop in any direction … At the moment she is pure potential, who knows what she is capable of,” she added.
Rina’s new venue is an expansive space in on Street 29, a few minutes walk from Sihanouk Boulevard.
It opens today.
She is both “excited” and “stressed”.
The rent is higher and sales will need to double to cover her expenses.
She only has two-and-a half months to start turning a profit, she says.
“A business should have at least six months start-up capital,” she adds nervously.
But the nervousness is not new, and her latest move is far from the first gamble she has taken in Phnom Penh, since arriving here at the age of 17 with 2,500 riel.
Then, she had just graduated high school in Sihanoukville, where she had supported herself since she was 14 as a cleaner and cook at a restaurant with bungalows, picking up English and French phrases from the guests.
She began working in a factory producing Levi’s jeans, and also started making clothing to sell to her co-workers: hats, scarves and blouses.
All were stitched by hand, or crocheted in the room she rented for US$5 a month.
“It was only the size of a toilet, but it was private and quiet enough that I could meditate,” she says.
As she became more familiar with Phnom Penh she began to notice “that people who spoke English had better jobs and more confidence”, so she enrolled in lunchtime English classes for US$7 a month.
A year later she was hired by the international NGO Plan to encourage children in villages in Kampong Cham province to remain in school, teaching them and their families the importance of planning for the future.
At the same time, she began to learn how to plan for herself.
“I opened my first bank account and learned how to save money,” she recalls.
After one year she had saved $380 from her $80 a month job.
She returned to Phnom Penh and opened her first business, delivering health tonics by bicycle to customers around the Russian Market on weekday evenings, while working at a dental clinic during the day.
She continued saving and then opened Ebony Apsara with the help of two expat friends who bought two years of food in advance, for $2,000 each.
Rina made her first dress when she was 12 years old. At that time she was an orphan in her village, taking care of a family’s children and cleaning their house in exchange for food and a place to sleep.
She picked up a second-hand curtain from a market for 500 riel (about 12 US cents) and made a dress for a school party because she could not afford to buy one.
“It was a very light blue, almost silver blue,” she recalls. “I just closed my eyes and I saw a design. It took me four days to make it. I sewed it by hand.”
After the party other girls in the village asked their parents to buy them a dress like hers, she says.
“But they couldn’t because it was mine. It was original,” she continues with a smile.
She had gone from being the girl in the village who had nothing to being one who had something no one else could even buy.
Duboc said that what struck her about Rina was not so much her designs, but that she had produced them with no formal training, with cheap material and little exposure to fashion trends.
“When we met her she had never heard of Chanel or Vogue,” Duboc said.
“It was refreshing to see that she didn’t have much of a business agenda, she wasn’t compromising her style of doing things in order to try to please buyers or journalists.
Despite her strength she possessed a naivety that is so lacking in the world of fashion school creatives. ”
Duboc was also intrigued by her femininity. “
She has a very clear strong feminine identity, which is not typical of Khmer culture. For whatever reason, she seems to process the world around her in a different way.”
“I get my designs from dreams,” Rina says.
"I just close my eyes and they appear.”