Ethical Khmer crafty company Artisans Angkor has been steadily going from strength to strength since its conception in 1998. But now a trendy new Parisian concept store, Babel, is to stock its merchandise including a specially designed clothing ‘capsule collection’ by French-Vietnamese designer Magali An Berthon. This marks the first time the Artisans Angkor brand has been sold outside of Cambodia.
Since May 16, Babel, the French canal-side boutique emporium has been hosting a pop-up store which will stay open for three months selling Berthon’s clothing line, ‘In the Mood for Boheme’.
The collection features silk and organza clothes inspired by spring shapes and colours “for the travelling boho chic family”. There are floral tunics, silk twill tote bags and printed scarves boasting bright splashes of colour such as cerise and blue. French-based graphic and textile designer Berthon, who has worked for Kenzo and Marie Claire magazine, collaborated with Artisans Angkor on the collection for nearly a year at the company’s Siem Reap workshops.
“Babel is a typical concept store where they select their products from all around the world, either because they are very creative and/or very ethical,” says Artisans Angkor chief executive officer Alain Brun.
“They were interested in our products and last Thursday they made a selection from our silk collection. We were very proud to be selected, very happy. It is for us of course a nice recognition of what we are doing, but it’s also a good test to see how people welcome products in a different environment.”
Babel will also stock Artisans Angkor’s 2012-2013 collection of lacquered plates depicting the demon from Hindu mythology, Rea Hu. In juxtaposition with the traditional design, the plates have a somewhat contemporary look, coming in the less typical colours of aubergine and canary yellow, as well as black.
Brun says the company is working on a new kind of product. While the souvenir-style items that Artisans Angkor is famous for, such as Angkor Wat-inspired stone carvings, are beautifully crafted and do very well, the company would also like to produce a less “patrimonial” collection that will resonate with an international market.
“We want to do a second collection matching the first one, but focusing more on decoration,” he says. “Something you could have everywhere in the world. But still being faithful to our craft and the quality we want to have.”
A visit to Artisan Angkor’s workshops and showroom off Sivutha Boulevard reveals a stylish collection of contemporary home-ware such as the Royal White Elephant silk cushion cover featuring a black and white, retro-style etching of elephants. This wouldn’t look out of place in a lifestyle shop in London or New York, and recently won a UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in South and Southeast Asia.
Artisans Angkor was founded in 1998 with the aim of reviving traditional Khmer arts and crafts, while providing employment to Cambodian rural youth. The company trains young people in age-old skills such as silk-weaving, stone and wood carving, lacquering, painting and silver plating. Trainees receive a fair wage, healthcare and access to social facilities such as subsidised canteens and childcare. The company employs 1300 people including 900 artisans and 25 designers.
“We are reviving Khmer arts and craft but with a high expectation in terms of quality,” Brun says. “So everything we do is based on the traditional process, everything is made by hand. Lacquer products are made in a very traditional way. Everything is hand-painted. Same for carvings. We try to take only the best stone and so on.
“We really want to give priority to the quality and we have been able to do that, thanks obviously to local know-how, but also with the help of consultants from all over the world.”
Artisans Angkor has 48 workshops in 14 different locations, including the flagship craft workshops and store off Sivutha, the silk farm in Pouk district, and the others based in twelve villages around Siem Reap, with fifteen or twenty people working in each.
As well as selling online and through its boutiques, Artisans Angkor has made specially commissioned products for embassies, apartments and hotels including a large, stone wall carving at Amansara, and furniture and carvings at Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa, Heritage Suites and La Résidence d’Angkor.
Recently the company has also been working with the Apsara Authority on restorations at Angkor Wat. Its artisans are entrusted to reproduce bas-relief and statues at Kbal Spean, Angkor Thom South Gate and Terrace of Elephants. .