In June, Phnom Penh Designers Week saw haute couture fashion mix with small ethical-trade labels – sitting comfortably beside one another in their own spheres.
Few of the high-end group could have the sartorial schooling of fair-trade designer Alan Flux. His career has taken him from the raucous film sets of Monty Python to Barbra Streisand’s headwear outfitter, to business with nomadic felt-makers in Mongolia. And finally, to becoming co-creator (with Try Suphearac) of Phnom Penh’s A.N.D. label.
When the 64-year-old designer made his end-of-show entrance on the A.N.D catwalk, he wore rubber sandals made from recycled tires, indigo shorts, a bright red cap and a mismatched pastel blue vest, made from traditional Cambodian cotton ikat.
Flux, who can be spotted on his bicycle around BKK1 collecting recycled cement bags, can talk about fine silk and the embroidery details of new season Prada with the same authority as he does rice bags and buffalo horn.
On the day I visit the A.N.D shop on the fashionable expat strip of Street 240, he is wearing tortoiseshell glasses, a Hawaiian shirt he made from vintage fabric and strings of wooden pendants. Sipping green tea from behind the counter, Flux reels off the stories behind the swathes of brightly hued cotton and silk kramas that fill the store. The jewelry collection, which features cigarette lighters, discarded playing cards, horn, ring-pulls and plastic bags, are true treasures of fashion ingenuity and have their own story: they’re bought by the kilo from collectors.
“Fair trade customers want a story for every product,” he explains.
Flux started A.N.D three years ago as an offshoot of the disabled artisans’ collective Whattan Artisans, advising on products that use the remarkable ikat and silk dying skills of Takeo’s artisan weavers, and marketed to a younger, arty (predominantly Western) consumer.
After two years, the clothing line - along with Whattan - is seeing a surge in demand and Alan is eager for skilled sewers to produce A.N.D’s minimalist ikat clothing line and one-off range of colourful print skirts and dresses, made from factory overruns.
“Top designers and others use (Cambodian) factories,” he says, holding up a vibrant mod-style skirt made from a cast off. “The fabric will be good quality and there might be 10 metres more than they need – we can buy that half a metre or 20 metres.
“With the ikat, we design the fabric from the start…we know what designs [the weavers] will do or we employ them to do their own. We want them to be as creative as possible - we want the weavers to have creative input.”
Now the shop is spilling into a separate store next door, where it will sell its retro-inspired clothing line, much of which is made from fabric Flux has been hoarding since the 1970s. In Cambodia, the period is synonymous with the Golden Era of music and film – for Flux it was punk, millinery and Monty Python.
The designer has a strict haute-couture background, studying at London College of Art under the formidable fashion professor Daphne Brooker, whose obituary in The Times described her as a ‘one woman dynasty’. “She didn’t really teach…but she’d give us terrible crits, it was quite frightening. Even when I was [years later] sitting in a field in Bangladesh trying to make a jute placemate, I was like, ‘It has to be the best it can be.’
“I did a lot of hats which no one was really doing at that time. That’s what took me into film costume and I started working on the Monty Python films. [Life of Brian] was like masses of turbans and headpieces - that was me. We did things for all the male players wearing wigs, anything that was a raggy turban, we did Jewish prostitutes… It was good fun.”
The following two decades were good ones for the headdress, as well as the birth of music videos and styling. Flux was enlisted by British New Wave band The Jam and then Iron Maiden, before working on the set of James Bond flick Never Say Never Again. He worked with British showbusiness stalwart Cilla Black and the actress Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers’ Sybil). In the 1980s the milliner went to India on a fair-trade assignment and was taken with the ethical business concept and the specialised sewing and craft skills he found.
“During my younger years, I was interested in travel but not in other people’s cultures so much. And nothing was homemade…As young design students we were looking forward,” he says. That quickly changed and Flux’s fashion appetite expanded.After a consultancy stint in Manila, where clothes were made in huge garment factories, Flux decided he wanted to return to the fair-trade model he had witnessed in India, where workers weren’t forced to abandon traditional skills for the pull of industrialisation and guaranteed wages. He took a position with the British volunteers organisation VSO and moved to Bangladesh, helping local artisans with product design, aimed at Westerners. The job then took him to the freezing and fascinating textile trade of Mongolia for two and a half years, before arriving at the comparatively ‘cushy’ location of Cambodia.
“By that time I was into other cultures and ethnic artisan work. It was a completely new chapter and really a very fulfilling chapter that’s still continuing. Part of it is providing people with a more secure income - that goes with the jobs. Some of the people you work with are very, very poor but very skilled.
“Right now most of the weavers could be early middle-aged. The big garment factories are hoovering up hundreds of young workers. I don’t blame anyone for not learning to do ikat – it’s very time consuming. But we would pay twice as much as most garment factories.”
In the shop, he pulls out a bolt of indigo fabric ikat-dyed in a zebra pattern. He is delighted with the design, which he says the producers themselves came up with.
“The artisan sector is wondering what will happen in the next five to 10 years...I can see [this] is an attractive option…to the extent they have secure employment. A lot of weavers didn’t have that security. Our weavers are under contract to us so that is guaranteed security.”