Mixed Reviews for Cambodia’s 1st Fashion Week

Cambodia’s first fashion week kicked off in the capital on Oct 27 in a 10-day event that organizers and designers hoped would help to put Cambodia’s nascent fashion industry on the map—encouraging young local talent, attracting international buyers and raising the profiles of the country’s established designers.

Fashion weeks are the lifeblood of the industry in the world’s fashion capitals—held twice yearly in Milan, London, New York and Paris for designers to show the spring/summer or fall/winter collections that set the global trends for the coming season.

In recent years, developing countries have begun to hold fashion week events aimed at boosting their industries and showcasing local talent. South Africa, Mexico, Zambia and Bangladesh have all held fashion weeks in recent years, with Islamabad holding its inaugural fashion week in January.

Regionally, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam have held fashion weeks in the past, and Bangkok Fashion Week started in 2005. China Fashion Week, held twice a year in Beijing since 1997 and renowned for its avant-garde catwalk shows, coincided with Cambodia Fashion Week this year.

Phnom Penh’s first fashion week involved a series of exhibitions and runway shows spread over a nine-day period, showcasing both Cambodian and foreign designers, and held at a number of different venues around town.

The whole concept of a Cambodian fashion week was first floated by the Cambodian Fashion Council–an organization that aims to promote Cambodian fashion by nurturing young talents and labels. However, after an inauspicious first attempt in January that failed to get off the ground, the CFC–headed by Sophy Ke, daughter of Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan–had to bring in an event management team.

Star Events, a Cambodia-based, Vietnamese-owned event management company was brought in to take over.

“They [the CFC] tried in January by themselves but it fell apart. The agreement was a percentage of the money we raised comes back to us as an event fee,” said Teia Rogers, producer of Cambodia Fashion Week with Star Events.

“They didn’t play much of a role,” Ms Rogers said, adding that all the financing for the event had come from sponsors and none from the CFC themselves.

So how did Cambodia fare in its first attempt at what is undoubtedly a daunting undertaking?

Reviews were mixed as the week ended yesterday, with some designers saying that for a first attempt the event had been a success, but others pointing to a dearth of Cambodian designers, poor organization, limited advertising, no press conferences, and a pricey $15 entrance ticket to shows as major drawbacks. Admission to fashion weeks in other countries is usually free.

Only three clothing labels out of the nine involved were headed by Khmer designers-Remy Hou, The Academy and Sentosa Silk. Out of those three, only Sentosa Silk is Cambodia-based, with Remy Hou and the brothers responsible for The Academy born in Cambodia but raised in the US. The other six designers were non-Cambodians who use Cambodian materials, most of whom have boutiques in the country.

While it is not uncommon for fashion weeks to show creations by foreign designers, even the Cambodia Fashion Week launch night did not involve a Cambodian designer.

Romyda Keth, arguably the country’s most prominent designer, had been slated to open but pulled out citing bad organization, large egos, poor venue choices and an entrance fee she believed to be overpriced.

Ms Keth, who owns Ambre boutique on Phnom Penh’s street 178, and who has boutiques in Paris, Tokyo, Singapore and elsewhere, said this week that she had initially been excited by the idea of the first-ever Cambodian Fashion Week, but that–after several venue changes, the limited number of clients she was allowed to invite, and steep ticket prices–she changed her mind and pulled out.

“We were going to [open], the clothes were ready, everything was absolutely ready but they kept on changing the venue…and finally it ended at Diamond Island. I was supposed to be opening, but I said ‘stop stop stop.’ The place [Koh Pich] is huge, it’s so impersonal,” Ms Keth said.

“I wanted to invite my own customers, they didn’t want to at the beginning. It should have been very VIP but who are the VIPs I don’t know…. I’m very happy I didn’t go. The price is impossible to make people pay. I don’t like the way it was planned…nobody knows that it’s happening.”

After Ms Keth refused to do the opening night show, she was replaced by

Eric Raisina–a Madagascan designer who has made his home in Cambodia for the past ten years, and whose “haute texture” silks are created in his Siem Reap workshop and sold at his Phnom Penh boutique, as well as being commissioned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Christian Lacroix.

While Mr Raisina’s catwalk show last Friday night at Diamond Island went off without a hitch, there were quite a few empty chairs in the large aircraft hanger-like exhibition center where it was held.

Asked how he felt the event had been handled, Mr Raisina, who has shown at New York Fashion Week, said he was happy on the whole to have been involved with the first local fashion week, but that there was plenty of room for improvement in terms of the organization of the event, the venue, media coverage, the entrance fee and the guest list.

“Myself, I wasn’t that excited about the venue (at Diamond Island)…. If I should choose the venue myself I would never choose that location. It’s impersonal,” Mr Raisina said.

“I wasn’t really happy…we couldn’t manage to invite people. I’ve been here ten years, I had 30 to 50 seats…. Here in Phnom Penh I could invite 250 people from my side. They wanted to manage from their side. We asked them for the list of guests, they sent it at the last minute. I myself was on the list as a guest!”

Communication between organizers and designers was a problem, Mr Raisina continued, saying he was unaware there was to be an entrance fee of $15.

“You never pay for any tickets for fashion weeks in any other places in the world,” he continued. “I had the feeling the local people weren’t really involved.”

While Mr Raisina said he believed the event would help his sales, he added: “If I could have made the show like a real fashion week, I could have benefited more.”

“Besides everything–the disorganization–I have a feeling something happened in the city for sure,” he continued, adding that he would still like to participate next year. “My hope is next year will be more organized and the whole country will be involved.”

Rachel Faller, whose label KeoK’Jay showed on Friday night, said that while she had been pleased with the turnout at her show, there had not been many buyers and she did not think the event would increase KeoK’Jay’s profile internationally.

“There were not so many buyers,” Ms Faller said. “There were a lot of unforeseen costs that I ended up having to pay for. They didn’t have enough people to do what they set out to do.”

Not everyone was a critic, however, with New Zealander Kellianne Karatau, whose Phnom Penh-based boutique Jasmine showed on Tuesday night at Raffles Hotel, saying the event had been a success.

“We had a great location and…everything flowed very well. There was a great turnout of people so generally we’re very happy,” Ms Karatau said. “It all came together-very professional-it’s the right time to be doing this. Cambodia has developed so much over the years.”

Ms Karatau said she had been able to invite everyone she wanted, and that while the ticket prices were something that could be looked at next year, noted that the money had “to come from somewhere.”

“They tried their best,” she added. “It’s a big undertaking…. It’s the first Cambodian fashion week we’ve had so don’t want to be over critical.”

Ms Rogers, producer of fashion week for Star Events, shrugged off criticisms about lack of Cambodian designers and poor organization.

“I’m incredibly pleased with how it’s gone,” Ms Rogers said.

Asked about the event not being Cambodian enough, she replied: “I would say, what does that mean? Eric’s been living here for years and…we’ve picked designers who’ve shown commitment to Cambodia, but [one] shouldn’t exclude designers who are not Khmer.”

The event has acted as a kind of “cultural exchange,” Ms Rogers said, adding that a lot of local fashion students had been taken on as volunteers, and this had created an opportunity for young local designers to mix with more established ones.

Asked about Ms Keth’s pull-out from the event, Ms Rogers said that while she had very much wanted Ms Keth to be involved, the budget would not allow for some of her requirements.

“When she pulled out…she wanted to invite 300 people and we didn’t have the capacity or budget…. We wanted to keep them [Ambre] so we kept the venue and only changed when they pulled out,” Ms Rogers said.

Sar Chantho, vice president of the CFC, said while he believed the week to have ultimately been a success, there were always bound to be teething problems with an inaugural event.

“It’s been a success, there are always problems, but it’s new…. We hope to bring in more Cambodian designers in years to come,” Mr Chantho said.

The fashion week finale took place on Saturday night at Canadia Tower with a catwalk show by Remy Hou, the Khmer-American designer whose clothes have been worn by pop stars such as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. Mr Hou said on the sidelines of the event that he was pleased with the way the week had gone.

“In my perception everyone enjoyed it. This is the first ever. I don’t expect things to go as planned. The second one will be better,” Mr Hou said.


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