A Khmer purveyor of high couture hopes to assist the local fashion scene by importing foreign teaching talent to guide the new generation of designers
Afew years after Mak-norith Oum returned to his native Cambodia from France, in 1996, his friends often asked him when he would open a fashion boutique in Phnom Penh.
They had every reason to do so. At one point, the autodidact haute couture designer had no fewer than 50 points of sale in France and 17 more abroad, from Berlin to Tokyo.
A series of French press clippings from the 1980s and '90s put him on par with the likes of Daniel Hechter and Guy Laroche.
Calling him "Mister No Button", they rave about his buttonless and zipless avant-garde designs that elegantly drape around the body.
But back in Cambodia, Maknorith Oum didn't feel the time was right. "I wasn't ready morally, and the country wasn't ready either, because my clothes are a little unconventional," he says of the late '90s.
Fashionably late, Maknorith Oum will finally launch his first collection in Cambodia next month.
To that purpose, he recently opened Pavot - naming it after the French word for poppy.
Despite bearing the words "Tapas Lounge" on its sign, this elegant establishment is not pigeonholed so easily.
My aim is to get professionals from europe to come here and teach fashion.
It is neither a bar nor a lounge, nor a boutique. The villa itself, with its sober geometrical shapes and lines, is a great example of perfectly preserved 1960s Khmer architecture.
But when you enter Pavot, you might be excused for thinking you have mistakenly wandered into someone's private home.
Maknorith Oum's family pictures adorn the walls, and Clementine, one of the house's dogs, begs for attention.
The ground floor features a cosy garden and a stylish indoor salon with pastel-coloured rattan sofas of
Maknorith Oum's own design.
Everything screams '60s Cambodian decoration. At the elegant bar you can sip your coffee or savour a glass of white, while browsing the Khmer tapas on the menu.
The choice of food is limited, but the taste is refined and delicate.
The space upstairs currently exhibits paintings of Khmer artist Sovann Tan and will later house Maknorith Oum's limited edition of men's and women's clothing.
The designer explains how he likes to work with organic, natural materials but must rely on foreign supply as there isn't enough production locally.
"The materials I use - linen, cotton, wool - come from abroad.
"The collections I create here are based on the four seasons because I want to participate in the Paris fashion shows and show them to the buyer's office."
It's been 10 years since Maknorith Oum left the European fashion scene, and during that period he's been designing silk-based decorative items in Cambodia.
"It's still the same material - threads - only, I wasn't making clothes," he laughs.
The first-floor space will also offer young Cambodian designers the opportunity to exhibit their wares, be it jewellery or shoes; anything that complements Maknorith Oum's clothing range.
However, his ultimate dream is to open a fashion school in Cambodia and transfer what he learnt in Europe to the new generation of local designers.
"There's a lot of training which still needs to be done, especially in the area of making patterns.
"My aim is to get retired professionals from Europe to come here and teach fashion, art design and so on," he says.
According to Maknorith Oum, local fashion designers need to open up and be "educated" if they want to stand a chance of exporting their creations and competing with Europeans and Japanese designers.
"We have the Internet now, which is a great way to discover what's happening in the world in terms of fashion - entire collections are available online.
"But many just look in Thai magazines or copy creations from successful local shops like Ambre," he laments.
Maknorith Oum hopes to use the school to discover and nurture new Cambodian talent and encourage them not to be afraid of taking risks by being original.
Oasis of elegance
"They should learn about the history of fashion, too. Only then can they create something of their own, by blending Western and Khmer foundations to arrive at something that is only theirs," he explains.
To help finance his project, he said he hopes to receive aid funding. But Maknorith Oum admits he lacks the know-how to put together a professional project development plan and is looking for help with this.
Meanwhile, Pavot remains an oasis of elegance for people to enjoy, which Maknorith Oum hopes will attract "anyone who appreciates beauty, whether they are families or youngsters, who have an enquiring mind and are respectful".
Pavot: #57 St 57
Open daily: Noon - 11pm