For her first six months in Cambodia, Stephanie Lesage had no luck finding underwear. The 26-year-old textile designer from France simply did not fit diminutive Cambodian sizes. So she took matters into her own hands. Using a single treadle sewing machine, a photocopied book of patterns and herself as a test subject, she began making her own.
Earlier this month, after perfecting her designs for nearly a year and hiring four seamstresses to help make the items, Lesage opened Shenga, Siem Reap town’s first self-proclaimed fair-trade lingerie shop. The designs, some demure undergarments, others racy, corset-like pieces, come in a rainbow of colors.
“I looked at what was missing in Cambodia, and I thought, ‘It’s silk underwear,’” Lesage said. “I saw weaving, bags, a little bit of clothes, but everybody was saying, ‘You can’t find your size of bras here. You have to go to Bangkok or back to France.’”
Prices at Shenga run from $40 for simple bra-and-panty sets to $70 for more complicated lingerie.
“Fair trade” is a label indicating that a business meets standards set by the international certification body Fairtrade Labeling Organizations, such as minimum health and safety standards in the workplace. In Europe, the FLO owns the trademark to the term Fairtrade; Transfair USA owns the label Fair Trade Certified in the US.
In Cambodia, shops like Lesage’s use the term “fair trade” informally, without official certification from FLO or Transfair, as shorthand for progressive business practices, economists said.
For Lesage, it means she treats her four employees like partners. She pays her full-time workers $100 a month and her part-timers $60 a month, and offers all four a percentage of the sales. She said she is also saving money for each worker to be given as a lump sum in five years. And, Lesage said, she buys only locally produced fabric.
As a self-proclaimed fair-trade business owner, Lesage is venturing into an area usually dominated by agricultural items, such as bananas, coffee and sugar. But economists say the appeal of fair-trade practices, combined with the well-off tourists who populate Siem Reap, could mean success for her new business.
“The principle of fair trade is kind of across categories. It could be coffee, non-animal-tested bath oil, it could be lingerie, it could be sneakers,” said Tim Smyth, managing director of Indochina Research. “I think the whole Cambodian garment factory has found a niche” in fair-trade practices, he said. “If an industry can find that sort of a niche, maybe something like [Lesage’s shop] would appeal…people don’t want Cambodian kids working their fingers to the bone.” He added that Siem Reap’s affluent tourist population was ideal for the success of her business.
Council of Ministers economic advisor Chap Sotharith agreed, but said he had never heard of the term “fair trade.” He said that re-gardless of whether Lesage pledges to follow progressive business practices, she could catch the nation’s wave of small business success.
So many new shops are opening, he said, that the Ministry of Industry has opened two new departments—one to handle the 300,000-strong small and medium businesses, and one to handle micro-enterprises.
Lesage said, however, that she’s not yet thinking about a big picture.
She said she plans to set up a Web site for the store, and hopes to some day move to a larger workshop. For now, she and her four workers are focusing on perfecting their product.
“We improve month by month,” she said. “I think they are very proud of it.”