With its VIP cocktail receptions, public exhibitions and a masquerade ball on Halloween, Fashion Week has already attracted the interest of international press.
Strike a pose. Air out your ball gowns and tuxedos. Because next Thursday, media outlets including Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Harper’s and CNN will descend on Phnom Penh for the city’s inaugural Fashion Week, organised by the Cambodia Fashion Council and Star Events.
From October 27 to November 5, models from the local Sapors agency will showcase the work of 10 designers – some local, some with international pedigree – on runways at a variety of public and exclusive exhibits. And while fashionistas are admiring the clothing, an attending ASEAN delegation will be measuring the business opportunities available for manufacturing, and selling, high class clothes in the Kingdom.
“We’ve got some great designers,” said Teia Rogers, a producer at Star Events who is running the show. “The whole focus is on Cambodia, so all the designers are connected to here in some capacity.
We have international designers, for example Eric Raisina. He’s not Khmer, he’s from Madagascar, but he’s been living here for about 10 years, working here. He’s got two shops here and he’s definitely shown a commitment to growing Cambodia’s fashion industry. They manufacture their own silk, the whole nine yards.
“We have a designer coming from the US, Remy Hou, and he is Khmer American. This is his first return to Cambodia since he left, so we’re really excited. He’s got a pretty enormous celebrity client list, like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Kanye West. We’re excited to have a big international name coming.”
In addition to Raisina and Remy Hou, fashion week includes the work of Ambre, a clothing line founded by Romyda Keth; Keo K’Jay, a local NGO that trains HIV positive women in designing clothes; The Academy, a design collective of three Khmer siblings; Colorblind, by locally based French designer Jean-Benoit Lassen; Jasmine Boutique, a Phnom Penh company that creates clothes with hand-woven Cambodian silk; Don Protasio, a Filipino designer based in Cambodia; and Kiwi Khmer fashion groups Coco Wellington and Two Wonders.
The interest in participating in Cambodia’s first fashion week was so high that Star Events was forced to turn some designers away.
“We had a lot of international interest, but not everybody had a connection to Cambodia,” said Rogers. “We had some designers from Bangkok who were interested in coming, and we said ‘Do you manufacture here? Do you use Khmer people? Are you Khmer?’ Those were the standards we used in the selection process.”
The Cambodia Fashion Council is a non-profit organisation launched last year by Arnaud Darc, managing director of the Thalias restaurant group, and Sophy Sar of F Magazine, to support emerging fashion designers in the Kingdom and promote them internationally. One of the first items on their agenda was establishing an annual fashion week, which came to fruition when they enlisted Star Events to the cause.
“They started planning fashion week in January and tried to do it in July, but it is an enormous amount of work and they weren’t able to get it together,” said Rogers. “So they hired me and my team of people. Essentially what we did was work 24 hours a day on it. It’s been reframed a bit, it’s off the first concept, which was for three days, mostly student shows, and was more low key. Now it’s 10 days, with one designer per day, at different venues. We’ve tried to be a bit more creative given that it’s the first fashion week Cambodia will have. And once we started getting the information out, a lot of people became interested. People have this idea of Cambodia being one thing, but really there’s a whole other experience people can have. The Angelina Jolie and Louis Vuitton campaign didn’t hurt us either.”
Jolie became the face of Louis Vuitton earlier this year, after months of speculation on the fashion circuit. One of her debut images with the company showed her reclining majestically on a wooden boat in Cambodia, a country that she seems to have adopted as fervently as her children, following the production of Tomb Raider.
The clothes modeling and catwalkery is set to be quite an exclusive affair, with limited tickets available and some parties and shows being VIP invite-only. There’s also the alcohol-heavy receptions and after-parties for the city’s fashion elite.
But Rogers said the team has ensured that the un-couture’d masses will also have the opportunity to appreciate the spectacle.
The 10 day “week” kicks off on Thursday night, with a 6:00pm cocktail reception at the launch of the The Art of Fashion, an exhibition that will run for the duration of the event at Romeet Gallery. According to the schedule, the exhibition “seeks to explore conceptions of art and fashion and how they intersect and overlap. It will consider how fashion designers have been inspired by the world of art, and how fashion objects in turn have themselves come to be considered as pieces of art. The aim is to showcase as diverse a range of creative expressions as possible which explore these concepts, for example clothing, paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations and videos.”
And from 10am to 6pm on Saturday and 11am to 5pm on Sunday, there will be an open exhibition at the InterContinental, where people will have the opportunity to buy the designs and (more importantly) see them in action on catwalks. A ticket to the expo is $25 for two days or $15 for one day, including a swag bag and 10 per cent off items from participating retailers.
There are also fashion workshops and a masquerade ball on Halloween night.
But the international media attention will be on the fashion parades – one per day – that will showcase Phnom Penh vogue.
“I would say there’s quite a mixture and variety in what people are doing,” said Rogers. “I don’t think you could necessarily identify any one designer as doing something that’s very Khmer. They’re all influenced internationally. We have Sentosa Silk – some of that is more in tune with Khmer culture. She’s weaved Angkorean mythology into her designs. The Academy’s concept is looking at fashion had there not been a colonial presence, if there was not another influence and they just continued with the thread.
“Water Lily has a really intricate sort of battle armour. She’s got these interesting head pieces that wrap around your neck and go to the top of your head and they’re all buttoned up, and there’s a metallic vest made out of metal spools.
“Benoit has…I guess you’d call it colonial chic. It’s based on his impressions on being in Cambodia and seeing how men dress, and realising that there’s a way to be fashionable. All of his stuff takes into account the weather, the things that men in his target market living in Cambodia do. He takes the idea of a male expat living in Cambodia and redesigns fashion for them.”
Rogers said that the variety of designs was a sign that Cambodian fashion is just beginning to branch out into the international circuit.
“We got asked why we weren’t doing any designer competitions, and the reason is that all the designs are so different we wouldn’t be able to compare them in any capacity. We wanted to show a breadth of style within Cambodia. I’m not sure what people think is the fashion in Cambodia, I’m not sure I have the answer. It’s so broad, there’s a lot of different possibilities. You can go from Don Protasio, who’s using intricate nettings, to Eric Raisina, who’s doing a lot of textured clothes with silk, and then Sentosa Silk which also uses silk but in a completely different way.”
Rogers was encouraged to run fashion week after browsing through a magazine with a spread on Asian fashion. It ran through the fashion scene in Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, and Tokyo in detail. Cambodia didn’t make the list. The Kingdom may be renowned for its ability to manufacture clothes, but one of the goals of fashion week is to demonstrate that the emerging middle class also likes to wear them – to prove that there is a market for the sort of high-end collections that are already sold in Vietnam and Thailand.
“The goal of fashion week is to support Cambodia through fashion,” said Rogers. “We’ve got an incredibly large labour force, it’s fairly cheap, and the quality of what they produce is going up. We’ve got an understanding of what the fashion industry can do here, so the focus is on getting international attention on the fact that they can produce things here and sell things here as well.”