A love of fabrics and a lack of decent clothes for her young son was what first inspired Rebecca McQueen to start making kids clothes last year while living in Phnom Penh. Now based in Siem Reap, McQueen is selling her colourful Africa-inspired handmade linen and cotton clothing through her small business, Kanga Creative.
McQueen actually set up the company while still living in her native Australia, but was selling toys rather than clothes. Having spent a year working in Tanzania, she fell in love with the vibrant local fabrics and brought home a selection.
Carrying her newly-born son around in a ‘kanga’ – a traditional fabric used, among other things, for carrying an infant strapped to the body – she found she attracted the interest of other mothers.
“Because I was carrying Isaac the African way with a sling, I found a lot of other people in Australia who were interested,” she says, “so I brought back a big pile of kangas and sold them. I started a business in Australia making toys and kid-related things.”
When wanderlust struck again, McQueen moved to Cambodia with her son. But once in Phnom Penh she discovered a distinct lack of suitable clothing for three-year-old Isaac.
“I’d made a couple of pairs of pants for Isaac out of African fabric in Australia and we’ve done a lot of travelling. Everywhere we went people would say, ‘I love his pants, where did you get those?’
“In Phnom Penh there were a lot of girls’ clothes that were locally made, but the only boys clothes I could find were imported Angry Birds-printed synthetic things. I thought where was I going to find cool boys stuff he will want to wear that’s different to anywhere else, that’s also not made in factories – that was a big thing for me too.”
McQueen started making simple clothes from cotton sarongs and patterned fabrics sourced in local markets. It was all very small-scale , but she began selling to a few friends and acquaintances.
She moved to Siem Reap in July and brought out the range in September, which now includes loose trousers, tunic shirts, sun-hats and for the girls, peasant tops, skirts and sarong dresses.
“Basically the clothes are made for play; they’re a bit roomy, they’re loose, comfortable, with elastic waistbands that can stretch when they’re moving around - that’s important, they have to be comfortable for playing in because that’s what kids do,” she says. “Light fabrics that are suited to this climate, all 100 per cent cotton and linen, which I think is more popular with the tourists taking them home to colder climates. They’re very bright and colourful.”
Kanga clothes are available at Peace Café, Tangram Garden and at the twice-monthly Shinta Mani Made in Cambodia market, where customers have been snapping up the diminutive garments.
“It’s mainly tourists buying them,” says McQueen. “And some expats love the clothes. It’s surprising too – the first week I put them in Tangram Garden, some European visitors from Hong Kong placed quite a large order, asking me to deliver the next day to their hotel. “
An accountant by trade, McQueen doesn’t have a background in textiles or design, but says she has always loved sewing and being creative.
“It’s just something I’ve always been really interested in,” she says. “I’ve loved sewing for a very long time and making toys, purses and bags. I like designing the clothes and choosing the fabrics. The lady in charge of the sewing used to work for Binky Higgins as their sewing supervisor, so her quality’s very, very good.”
McQueen is exploring the possibility of bringing out an adult collection, and is also thinking about introducing a range of toys for the travelling child, plus cushions and bed covers.