Cambodian Couture: Phnom Penh Meets Paris Fashion

The 25 creations selected by Cambodian designer Lim Keopiseth for his fashion show at the French Cultural Center on Friday night included the 20 items that earned him first prize at the Saint-Etienne Design Biennial in France last November.

The week-long festival, which attracted an estimated 500,000 people, involved artists and designers from more than 80 countries who competed in fields ranging from fine arts and architecture to furniture and car design.

In the fashion show category, Lim Keopiseth faced participants from 15 countries, ranging from Japan to Canada.

The 10 Cambodian models, still jet-lagged after traveling 36 hours to get to Saint-Etienne, presented his creations. They were accompanied by Cambodian traditional and modern music mixed with Western pieces. Since Lim Keopiseth was awarded first prize, his fashion show was staged five times during the festival.

He had just three months to prepare his collection for the festival. “I decided to get inspiration from modern art since Saint-Etienne (festival) is in the vanguard of arts and design,” he said.

Still, the Cambodian designer drew inspiration from an ancient legend, adopting “Silk for Princess Nagi” as the theme for his collection. According to a Cambodian legend, the country was borne out of the marriage between a dragon-princess, or nagi, and a foreign king. The story goes that she held the tail of a serpent to cross an expanse of water. This has led to the tradition of having the groom hold the tail placed at the bottom of his bride’s dress upon entering their bedroom after the wedding.

Lim Keopiseth’s white wedding dress in the fashion show spirals down in a serpentine motion, ending with the traditional tail. It took six women one month to embroider it with minute, tube-shaped beads, silver thread and crystals on silk, he said. As a result, the dress weighs 2.5 kg.

In an evening gown made of fuchsia, purple and Indian-rose squares linked by mother-of-pearl buttons, the traditional tail becomes a train.

Lim Keopiseth’s collection takes silk beyond woven fabric. A strapless evening gown with a flared skirt is made of thousands of silk cocoons, left in their natural pale and deep yellow colors, flattened and sewn on fabric in classic geometric patterns.

Lim Keopiseth studied at the “Chambre syndicale de la haute couture parisienne,” one of France’s oldest fashion design schools, and spent his internship at the world-renowned fashion house Ungaro Couture.

Using Keo as his label, he has set up his studio and shop in Phnom Penh with his father Sylvain Lim, a fashion designer who worked for years for the major designers in Paris. They create both haute couture and ready-to-wear clothes.

But it is not his father’s influence that led Lim Keopiseth into that field. Sylvain Lim was in France when the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. Lim Keopiseth, who was two years old at the time, was in Cambodia with his mother.

Sylvain Lim lost track of his family. In 1987 he advertised on television to find his son. He discovered that most of his family had been killed, including his wife, and that his sister-in-law had cared for Lim Keopiseth all these years.

Father and son had to wait until 1991 to finally meet. Lim Keopiseth moved to Paris in 1995. “I was interested in hotel interior design,” he said. “But you have to know at least four languages to get into that field. So I turned to fashion design because I wanted to get into something that changes all the time.”

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