Cambodia’s Inaugural Walk Down The Runway

The country’s first-ever fashion week shows there’s more to Cambodian fashion than fainting garment workers.

These days, Cambodia is known more for its clothing manufacturing than its clothing design. But with the launch of the first-ever Cambodia Fashion Week, that’s about to change.

Festivities kicked off yesterday in the capital city of Phnom Penh and continue through November 5, with a full slate of fashion shows, invite-only receptions, celebrity studded after-parties, and all of the glitz and glamor you’d expect from an international fashion showcase.

But in Cambodia, Fashion Week takes on additional significance in a country where most people subsist on less than $2 a day, and the clothing manufacturing industry provides a much needed step out of extreme poverty for many rural poor. Difficult working conditions, child labor, and toxic waste still permeate the industry, a fact recently spotlighted after a string of mass fainting incidents in Phnom Penh factories – suppliers to fast fashion giants like H&M – hit the mainstream media.

Event organizers are hoping to trump that negative attention and are more focused on Cambodia Fashion Week highlighting the more positive side of Cambodian fashion: its ability to showcase the country’s rich artistic and craft-based heritage.

Keok’ Jay, Fall ’11

“There’s a lot of manufacturing here, but very little design,” says Rachel Faller, founder of Keok’Jay, a social enterprise that will debut its latest collection at CFW. “Fashion Week will be a great opportunity for Cambodia to create and promote its design identity.”

Faller is one of many local designers who are proving that it’s possible to produce great fashion while respecting human rights.  Since 2008, she has worked with low-income, HIV-positive women to create sustainable apparel and accessories. Her latest collection is inspired by the sea, and makes plentiful use of recycled jersey and fabric scraps, but in a way that’s cohesive, not patchwork, she says. The collection will be sold at Keok’Jay’s three Cambodia retail locations and an online retailer located on their website.

Another ethical highlight of the week is the opening show from Eric Raisina, a Madagascar-born designer who has worked with traditional silk weavers to produce unique textiles for nearly a decade. His Siem Reap workshop employs nearly 30 Cambodian artisans, each groomed by Raisina himself, trained in a diverse set of skills, and paid a living wage.

Eric Raisina

Raisina’s new collection is inspired by the black orchid, a rare flower found only in Madagascar. “This collection will show exactly what Eric likes to do with silk in Cambodia,” says Christine Gleizes, Raisina’s publicity director. The show will also feature new prêt-à-porter items made from cotton, linen, and other fabrics found in local markets, which will be sold in Raisina’s new Phnom Penh boutique.

The week will culminate with an exclusive two-day shopping event featuring participating designers and local boutiques. The event will also include a social enterprise showcase, with projects and products from socially responsible businesses and NGOs. Unearthed are some great treasures including contemporary ikat handbags and accessories from Push Pull Cambodia; traditional krama check urban gear from Good Krama; pop-art inspired t-shirts from Friends International, an NGO that works with marginalized youth; and much more.

“Traditionally there is no social enterprise component to a Fashion Week,” says Emma Fountain, Marketing Advisor for Friends International and a showcase organizer. “But Cambodia is a special case. With the essence of the country still recovering, it is important to acknowledge this in a country where fashion is still very much emerging.”

Check out the full schedule online and follow the action on Twitter by following @CambodiaFW.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.