A lack of stylish clothes in western sizes was what first inspired French expat pals Gaëlle Toussaint and Hélène Tijou to found label Mitsou, back in 2011.
Mitsou is now perhaps Siem Reap’s best-kept secret. While the main shop is in Phnom Penh, the creative centre is in Siem Reap, with togs sold locally at Senteurs d’Angkor, Shinta Mani’s monthly street market and at occasional private sales at venues such as Upstairs Café.
At their Siem Reap workshop on National Road 6, the girls conjure up designs from which their head seamstress, Rotha, creates templates. The prototypes are then transformed into clothes by graduates at the Life and Hope Association Sewing School in Wat Damnak.
The duo, who first met a decade ago studying graphic and textile design in Lille, France, and later worked together, got the idea after moving to Cambodia in 2009 with their boyfriends to “have a new life.”
Charmingly finishing each other’s sentences in that way that only old friends can, Gaëlle and Hélène explain how it all started with a discussion about fashion.
“We’ve always liked fashion,” says Hélène. “We studied it so we said, ‘Why not create something together here?’ Because we are used to working together. We’ve known each other a long time and we have the same feeling about ideas.”
“And how to work,” adds Gaëlle. “We used to work together so it’s really easy, it’s not inconvenient. It’s natural.”
The girls quickly noticed there was not a lot of fashion in Siem Reap, particularly for expats such as themselves who struggled to find suitable clothes in their size. Towards the end of 2010, they founded Mitsou, and early 2011 saw them selling their first collection in the former Shanti shop on The Alley.
The concept was simple, but essential; clothes for everyday use that were comfortable but stylish and above all, easy to wear in the tropics. Their recent collection includes classic white shift dresses and tops with accents of neutral pink or grey shades, with a splash of tangerine thrown in.
“We like to do creative things,” says Hélène “But also practical. Clothes that you can wear all the time. I don’t want to say romantic but cute, or kind of poetic. Feminine – but not too much.”
They admit their dream celebrity to dress would be someone like Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin or Kate Moss. “Casual but chic” says Gaëlle. “Kate Moss is the kind of person we like because her style is simple but sophisticated.
She adds that they draw inspiration from many things. “A song, a film or if we see a good shape on somebody. We also keep an eye on all the magazines.”
“You just have to be curious about everything,” says Hélène. “But it could be a landscape, a light; you could be inspired by a colour.”
Last June, after countless requests from male expat friends, Mitsou introduced a menswear line at their Phnom Penh stockists. The range is now also sold in Siem Reap and proving possibly even more popular than the women’s line.
“We did a collection for First Floor Fashion Store and we decided to do twelve girls’ outfits and four men’s,” says Gaëlle. “Men’s shirts are so essential.”
Hélène adds, “I think it’s worse for men – they cannot find nice shirts that are fitted.”
The girls started off using their boyfriends as models, creating slim-fitting shirts for the metro-sexual man – their partners being “not too big, quite skinny,” as they laughingly explain.
The soft cotton shirts sell for between $38 and $45, while the women’s wear starts at $25 for a vest top.
Mitsou clearly has a steady fan-base of loyal fashionistas, and every couple of months they’ll get a request from a friend and are happy to carry out this kind of bespoke service.
“We have around ten people who are always asking for new clothes or a special order. It’s quite made to measure,” says Gaëlle. “We adapt from our model to the person.
Sometimes people have ideas, they will show us a picture, so we also work like that.”
The duo’s fourth collection, inspired by dreamscapes, is due out in June, to coincide with the inaugural Phnom Penh Designers Week in which Mitsou has been invited to participate.
“It is a show over three nights showing three designers per night at The Plantation Hotel,” says Gaëlle. “They chose us and we were really pleased. It’s a mix of Cambodian people and also European, but all based in Cambodia.”