With the seams of the Cambodian garment industry at first glance appearing to have come undone as a result of an unprecedented pandemic and a changing landscape of free trade partnerships, some argue that the country must cut its coat according to its cloth. However, the economic downturn has evidenced the resilience of the true innovators of the Cambodian fashion scene and an approach that could offer more to the sector value chain. Khmer Times’ Tom Starkey reports.
As the West looked increasingly east to cheapen production during the 1990s, it’s no secret that Cambodia capitalised on its strategic geographical position within Asean by using a series of preferential trading initiatives alongside competitive labour costs to offer itself as the go to cut-make-trim country.
However, this tactic found the sector trapped in a textile import-product export reality dependent on a low-skilled and low-paid workforce bearing the brunt of the environmental by-product.
Fast-forward to 2020, where a combination of the partial Everything but Arms (EBA) trade deal with the European Union withdrawal and the global pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the Kingdom’s garment sector power pillar.
Notwithstanding, the talent and unique fabric remains. Skilled silk weavers, fabric innovators and home-grown fashion small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and designers continue to produce original Khmer products in the most fitting tribute to a culture that has gone the distance.
These aren’t your Gucci or Versace household names. Instead they are quite literally, regular household names, today dubbed SMEs, offering fabrics and creations courtesy of a combination of ancient and modern techniques. Ones that more than hold their cultural weight while offering buyers timeless traditional aesthetics.
Carola Krainz, owner and manager of CULT, a platform for sustainable brands in Cambodia, is dedicated to promoting ethical products within the Kingdom and sharing the benefit between producers and consumers.
“CULT promotes and gives a platform to ethical SME brands, which we verify and endorse, something we have found a growing market for within Asean,” she said.
“Our social channel metrics reveal a high degree of high-frequency repeat visitors. They are looking to find out more about the brands we champion. They are seeking those with a brand ethos they can stand behind before they commit to making a purchase,” she said.
Krainz says that production-wise, sustainable or ethically produced products offer more within a value chain. If the Cambodian audience for Khmer produce goes full circle, it will be economically and environmentally beneficial nationwide.
“Trend wise, green is the new black. People are interested in buying sustainable goods and that’s positive for our SME brands,” she added.
Cambodia based designer Raynier Abello agrees that there is an untapped potential within Cambodia, especially in fabric.
“When I first came to Cambodia, working in the fashion scene was difficult. I came here as a casino events and entertainment executive and I found it very difficult to source the materials I needed for my shows,” he said.
“So I began sourcing my own materials. Since then, I have connected and worked with many Khmer producers, such as Khmer Silk Organza Fabrics, using their traditional silk and taking them to showcase in fashion shows across Asia,” he said.
“There is material available here which is unique, which in turn provides my brand a unique perspective,” he said.
Krainz agrees, saying that the message behind CULT is that being fashionable can be attached to mindful consumerism.
“We want people to know that you can still look good while promoting ethical and sustainable brands,” she said.
“Fashion is a huge part of expression and people, especially young people, are becoming more mindful of sustainability. This has resulted in not only growth for us but, in turn, growth for the SMEs and brands that we host, ultimately benefiting Cambodia,” she added.
According to a Business Research Company report, the global ethical fashion market size reached a value of nearly $6.35 billion in 2019, having increased at an annual growth rate of 8.7 percent since 2015.
The report said that the market is expected to grow from $6.35 billion in 2019 to $8.25 billion in 2023, a growth rate of 6.8 percent annually.
It said the growth is mainly down to increased awareness of and interest in the potential of ethical fashion being a driver for sustainability.
China made waves in the sustainable manufacturing world, especially in apparel manufacturing, when it threw its support behind green manufacturing initiatives in 2018. It was followed by textile powerhouse India in 2019, which launched a dedicated project in cooperation with 16 leading retail fashion brands who pledged to source or utilise a substantial portion of their total consumption using sustainable raw materials and processes by 2025, the report said.
In Cambodia, SME fashion products and ethical clothing production volume is miniscule in comparison to the big business of fast fashion. However, it does offer a glimpse at an alternative model for fashion, one which places more value on ethics, and could provide more upside to the domestic garment sector value chain.
The key to the growth of these independents will be consumer attitudes, which require a combination of factors coming into play in enticing people to buy into independents’ unique selling points.
Successful shoe brand, Amboh Espadrille, is one such business and has built ethical practices into its core.
Sebastien Gertgen first thought of bringing the popular footwear style, native to the south of France, to Cambodia more than five years ago. He has successfully combined style with essence, and built sufficient resilience into his business along the way to weather the pandemic.
“For me, being ethical is not about donating money to a charity or NGO [nongovernmental organisation) from my profits. It’s about investing in my team and product. I don’t want my staff to leave because they can earn a few more dollars somewhere else or can’t see their children because they are required to work too much,” he said.
“To that end, I made sure my wage rates were competitive and encouraged staff longevity and loyalty by upskilling my workers and encouraging them to bring their children to work where it is safe if they cannot find childcare,” he said.
He also invested in the product, ensuring all the materials are made in Cambodia by Cambodians.
“The two major selling points of the shoe are that it is made in Cambodia and the design. My customers knowing our product is authentic and ethically made is a big selling point for me. What makes the design so appealing is that it is in harmony with the culture here in terms of functionality. The Cambodian cultural norm is to remove your shoes when entering houses or certain spaces, so the functionality has to suit that behaviour. Our shoes do that, suit the climate and, just as important, people can customise them with traditional Khmer fabrics, made in Cambodia, such as the Krama,” he said.
Gertgen says that at first his business was predominantly targeted to expats. However, his customer base has shifted more and more towards locals.
“Three years ago, Khmer customers represented around 10 percent of my customer base. Today Khmer customers are nearly 60 percent of our trade,” he said.
Indeed, as global trends shift and Cambodians increasingly are influenced by social media-delivered environmental awareness and marketing messages, the magic elixir that drives the appeal of sustainable brands, the demand for ethical products is set to continue.
As Cambodian looks to reduce its reliance on exports to the US and Europe, particularly in the garment sector, harvesting some of its own talent could provide a winning, new look, say fashion observers.