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Cambodian Couture

The Wild West of the East wants to be known for something other than mass murder and landmarks made of human skulls. That's why in November Cambodia hosted its first-ever fashion week.

Photos by William Fairman & Rhys James

One of the most remarkable shows was for Remy Ho, an expat living in LA. His family escaped Cambodia during the 70s, when Remy was a baby. During the escape his father packed him into a backpack, but when he crawled under some barbed wire, the bag got caught, scratching Remy’s face and leaving a scar. Cambodia’s recent history has been defined by genocide, war, and corruption. But it wasn’t always like that. During the 1960s, Cambodia was a happening place; they loved psych rock, the girls had Mrs. Mia Wallace bobs, and most young people partied accordingly. Then the Vietnam War came along and Cambodians watched Vietnamese and American teenagers mow each other down with machine guns, thinking, “I’m glad that’s not us!” (Aside, of course, from the carpet-bombing they endured.) Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, when everyone had lost interest in Southeast Asia and gone off the idea of military intervention there, a man using the nom de guerre Pol Pot, the French-educated leader of the communist Khmer Rouge, quietly got on with murdering around 2 million Cambodians in a massive land grab. If you didn’t want to give up your farm to the Khmer Rouge, you were summarily executed. Fast-forward 40 years, and the country known as the Wild West of the East understandably wants to be known for something other than mass murder and landmarks made of human skulls. That is why in November Cambodia hosted its first-ever fashion week. Obviously, the Fashion Week Internationale team had to attend. Phnom Penh is a strange city, part crumbling French colonial glory, part shantytown, and punctuated with the occasional pristine royal palace or Buddhist temple. By day the city is fairly unremarkable; it’s at night that you see its real character. Walking along the Mekong River promenade gives one a good insight into the local scene: Tweenage boys dressed as girls act out scenes of domestic abuse for local families out on an evening stroll. It’s like their version of the juggling clowns in Covent Garden, but more depressing and with far more sexual ambiguity. If you can make it across the road—through the millions of swerving, beeping tuk-tuks and mopeds—you’ll find a more sinister part of town, where swarms of middle-aged Western men lurk around clubs with names like Heart of Darkness. We went into one for about five seconds, enough time to witness a tourist roughly fingering a sex worker under the watchful eye of her pimp. An American girl who had been working in Phnom Penh for the past year told me that people come to this city and become “lost souls.” And it’s easy to see how.  Prescription drugs are dirt cheap and freely available from open-front pharmacies, restaurants with names like Happy Pizza sell fist-size bags of weed for $5, and an unlikely community of West Africans runs a lively trade in heroin.  Somewhere in the midst of all this, the garment factories hum with the sound of 400,000 young women making crappy high-street clothes for the likes of you and me. Watch Fashion Week Internationale: Cambodia. The 81-year-old king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk (on the left), is rumored to be gay because he not only supports fashion week, he is a former ballet dancer and a proponent of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, he does have 14 kids. A member of the “Khmer Riche,” as the children of powerful government figures are known. One in particular, Sohpy Ke, daughter of the deputy prime minister, is so fond of clothes that she erected a six-story mansion/shop in praise of the god of fashion. The store, named Sophy & Sina, has a relaxing shoe garden, wine cellar, and personal tailoring room. They publish F, Cambodia’s only fashion magazine, which is run by her brother Sophea. Two weeks before our trip we read in the online edition of the Phnom Phen Post that 300 women had simultaneously fainted in a factory (much like this one) that produces clothes for H&M. The official report said that the fainting was due to “bad spirits” in the factory. Cambodian Fashion Week does all the things a fashion week should: lights, models, guest list. At one of the shows a guy said, “We all know that Cambodia is a third-world country, but when they organized this fashion week it meant that we’re progressing, not only in political or economic situations but in fashion too.”