As one of Southeast Asia’s late bloomers, Cambodia is only just beginning to flex its powers across a number of areas.
Dining options have exploded, and watering holes are definitely not in short supply. Specialty stores that cater to specific niches pop up almost every other day, yet there is one thing that Cambodia has yet to prove its mettle in, and that is the fashion industry.
One can argue that with the plethora of outlet shops that dot Phnom Penh’s urban areas, shopping would not be too much of an issue. But for those who are likely to fuss over a missing button and uneven seams, pickings are slim, and choices are even more limited for premium labels.
But does this mean that Cambodia’s high-street fashion is stagnant? Will this mean Phnom Penhers will have to be content with fashion throwbacks and tributes to the past decade when ‘Sidekick’ was not just another word for buddy and Tamagotchis reigned supreme?
This is where Elsewhere comes in. First established in 2004 by Natalie Parize and Marie de Suremain, Elsewhere has managed to remain in business by filling in the niche that to date, has yet to be sufficiently met.
“The entire concept was to create a ready-to-wear collection that is simple, elegant, yet easy enough to wear for any occasion,” said Neang Santhro, who has been managing Elsewhere’s day-to-day operation since 2004.
Neang really was not joking when she said that simplicity is the tie that binds Elsewhere’s menswear and womenswear collection together. There are no outlandish cuts, nor overly complicated designs. Even the colours are kept to a muted minimum, bar a few pattern pieces that make up its last summer collection. The small selection of menswear items are also kept tight and basic. Their weekender bags are the only exceptions, but even their bright hues cannot detract from their underlying pragmatic design. Made out of treated plastic, these weekenders are waterproof and as roomy as they are eye-catching.
“What we’ve noticed is that there is a bigger demand for functionality over complex designs,” explained Neang. “Even with more complex designs, we want to make sure that everything is wearable for all occasion – it has to breathe and allow for the ease of movement.”
With most items priced below $50, a snobby sartorialist would probably never consider Elsewhere’s stock as a luxury products to be compared with the likes of Thailand’s Greyhound or Laos’ Prabal Gurung. After all, all of its products are made in Phnom Penh by local craftsmen. But is it fair to judge an item as ‘luxurious’ simply by how much it costs? After all, isn’t luxury better understood as a concept that relates more to quality, than quantity?
The answer, as it turns out, comes not long after the question surfaces.
“Anyone can pick up a piece that they like and if the size isn’t available then our team of tailors can alter it to a customer’s liking, free of charge,” explained Neang. “It should be ready within the week.”
This level of attention – more commonly associated with Rue Cambon than Cambodia – is made possible by the way Elsewhere is run, as all of their products are designed and produced by a team of tailors in their atelier off Sothearos Boulevard.
“At present, we employ nine tailors and apprentices from NGOs like Mitt Samlanh,” explained Neang.
“This way, we can keep our prices low, while at the same time ensuring that our staff receive a fair wage.”
“I’ve worked here for 14 years, but one of the tailors has worked with the designers for 16 years,” said Neang proudly. “None of the staff would have stayed if they receive anything less than what is appropriate, no?”
As such, despite the relatively small number of employees at the atelier, Elsewhere has managed to continue to churn out new collections with a rather impressive frequency, often exceeding six different collections within a year.
“Sometimes we can come up with enough designs before we are due to announce our latest collection,” said Neang, still beaming proudly over the well-oiled operation that she has helmed for 14 years. “All this with just nine tailors and some freelancers.”
As impressive as Elsewhere’s operation may be, one cannot help but wonder if any further expansion is even possible, especially considering the limited number of staff that Elsewhere has on its roster. But once again, Neang had an answer to this query.
“Even with our limited number of tailors, our products are now available in Vietnam,” she said. “Hopefully this labour of passion can take us to new markets in the region that we have yet to explore.”