Writer Ellie Dyer takes a look at the developing local handicraft scene in time for Christmas. Photography by Rudi Towiro.

Two-and-a-half years ago, an idea was sewn amongst the ancient temples and dusty streets of Siem Reap town. The concept was simple:  to promote Cambodian-made products at a regular market that could also help create jobs for local people.

What began as a once a month event has since blossomed into something much bigger. Every Saturday and Sunday, more than 50 stalls now promote their wares in front of the Shinta Mani hotel at the Made in Cambodia market.

“Each month new designs appear and new crafts are being revitalised,” says Christian De Boer, the general manager of the hotel, who first dreamt up the event. “The fact that suddenly various people have a future and are creating skill-sets means people become more hopeful and self-sufficient.”

Indeed, alongside such individual success stories, it seems that Cambodia’s handicraft and design field is on the move. Locally-made products are being promoted in increasingly savvy ways, while companies both big and small are creating cutting-edge designs that have the potential to draw attention on an international level.

“Things are slowly going from plain, woven bracelets and boring tunics to fashionably on-point pieces and products you actually want to use daily,” says Anna Mischke, co-founder at Cambodian-made jewellery brand TEMPER, of the local market for artisan goods.

“I’m thrilled to see this happening. Just because something is fair trade, artisanal, homemade, or crafted by hand doesn’t mean it should be unattractive,” she adds, singling out fashion brand Tonlé, which operates a zero-waste policy and uses recycled fabrics to create clothes and accessories, for special mention.

A message that is often repeated by designers and brands alike is the need to push creative design and innovation in Cambodia. This seems especially pertinent in 2014.

The Kingdom is facing greater integration into international markets with the arrival of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), set to come into force in December 2015.  This will bring freer movement of goods, investment and skilled labour in member countries throughout South East Asia. Meanwhile, mega malls in cities such as Phnom Penh are introducing global brands into the domestic sphere, alongside the imported handicrafts that already feature in local psars.

“We need to be innovative and take risks in our work to establish our own identity and design aesthetics. Importantly, to be aware of what is [in] the world outside,” explains Ly Pisith, founder and creative force behind contemporary jewellery house Garden of Desire, which launched its first gallery space seven years ago. “We need to be competitive and break away from our comfort zone.”

Using personal stories and encounters with people, history and culture as inspiration, the brand has built a worldwide client base and employs a team of young and skilful artisans to make beautiful, modern pieces – including Khmer Collection, inspired by carvings at Angkor.

Innovation has been at the heart of another inspiring business: Coco Khmer. The social enterprise has made the most of a common local resource, the humble coconut, to make a range of stand-out products using virgin coconut oil. The technique to extract the oil was developed in the Philippines in 1985 but didn’t become commercially available until 1992.

“During that time Cambodia was still rebuilding from the war so they were never exposed to the technique and they never incorporated [it] into their diets,” says founder Robert Esposito, who launched Coco Khmer in the Kingdom, which is  estimated to have more than 12 million palms, in 2013. “I wanted give the people an opportunity to realise both the health and the economic benefits of this awesome product,” he says.

The brand works with the community around the former Boeung Kak Lake to produce versatile, high-quality oil and hand-made coconut products, with Esposito‘s vision “to help make Cambodia a new hub for high-quality coconut-based products with the farming, processing, and manufacturing being 100 percent owned and operated [by] the Khmer people”.

Various schemes and projects are also being put in place to help develop swathes of the diverse handicraft sector, which can vary from handmade jewellery, pottery, fashion accessories and silverware to traditional stone carvings and furniture.

Alongside the successful Made in Cambodia market at Shinta Mani, the Angkor Handicraft Association has brought in a “seal of authenticity” that clearly shows when a product has been made in Siem Reap province. The country’s rattan industry, a sector worth an estimated $4 billion globally, is also being strengthened in a project run by WWF, in partnership with furniture giant Ikea.

The long-term scheme hopes to make the Cambodian forest product more competitive, sustainable and environmentally cleaner, with efforts being made to better connect the supply chain, from those who gather the product, to traders, processers and buyers. Small and medium-sized businesses are being brought closer to harvesters, who can also be trained themselves to process items and take pride in their craft and business.

Chey Koulang, WWF rattan senior project coordinator, explains that improving skills to create modernised pieces for high-class consumers can use the same amount of raw material but demand higher market prices, therefore creating less pressure on the forest.

“I think the future of the national market is improving… but what we have to do is bring the product and match the demand,” adds Thibault Ledecq, WWF conservation programme manager, emphasising that design is a critical factor.

With that in mind, 2011 saw a designer from Sweden brought into Cambodia for six months, alongside local artist Em Riem, to work with the Rattan Association of Cambodia to create sustainable, modern designs that used less chemical processing.

Yet the long-term future of Cambodian handicrafts also lies in the next generation, with schemes in place to ensure that craft skills are passed on to young people throughout the country.

Artisans Angkor, which has a 20-year history in Siem Reap province and runs 48 workshops producing stone carvings to silk and silverware, is one business ensuring that new skills are passed on through its extensive apprentice scheme.

Since 2012, it has taken on more than 260 paid trainees, who train with master craftsmen for three to six months. More than 100 students graduated as fully-fledged artisans last September. The company’s Phnom Penh representative Rasmei Pech Janody explains that once they have completed three months of training, they can decide to strike out on their own or work within the Artisans Angkor structure.

And it seems many artisans and Cambodian-based companies are poised to take on the opportunities and challenges that working in an increasingly globalised world will bring.

“I believe there will be more opportunities than challenges if Cambodian businesses focus on brand building and quality. From a political and geographic position Cambodia is strategically well placed, as long as governmental reforms, democratic freedoms, and infrastructure development continue to progress, I believe Cambodia and Cambodian business will profit greatly,” says Esposito of ASEAN integration.

As jewellery designer Ly Pisith believes: “We need to be interesting and can’t do the same old thing over and over again. We need to always look forward and move on to the next level.”

Cambodian-handicraft-scene-TemperTemper

Bullet casings and bombshells provide the base material for TEMPER jewellery, where Cambodian culture and day-to-day encounters are inspiring a range of eye-catching rings and necklaces.

TEMPER has linked up the best of both worlds with its simple yet chic pieces, which see smiles, snakes and teardrops transformed into statement items.

The designs are thought up and rendered by co-founders Anna Mischke and photographer and graphic designer Jesse Morrow, who both hail from the Seattle area of Washington State in the US. The pieces are then handcrafted at the Cambodian-run Rajana fair trade workshop in Phnom Penh.

“We had the option of having our products made in China and churned out by the hundreds for a very low cost, but that didn’t add up to the values we wanted to live up to and where is the story, the heart in that sort of thing?” says Mischke.

The arduous process of creating the items tells a story in itself. With the help of Rajana, scrap casings and shells are soldered down and turned into nuggets, before being flattened and cut into designs, then plated with different precious metals to create the finished pieces.

“We find it especially impactful to be using these resources since they were used for such an ugly purpose in the past and while the country continues to move forward, these tokens of pain and terror can be transformed into beautiful, whimsical things – wearable history and a memory of the past,” explains Mischke.

Since its launch, the teardrop – an elegant shape that seems symbolic of TEMPER’s aesthetic – has proved popular.

“We believe it’s because everyone knows tears, whether they be from an emotionally or physically damaging moment in their lives or from a wonderful occasion,” she adds. ”It’s simple, it’s understated, yet it still makes a statement.”

Temper items are available at Paperdolls on Street 57, Phnom Penh, and in the United States. For more details, visit www.temperbrand.com. 

Cambodian-handicraft-scene-D.-WilkinsD. Wilkins

The smell of leather permeates the D. Wilkins workshop at the Samai rum distillery in Phnom Penh, as a skilled craftsman rhythmically hammers holes into a stretch of cow’s hide, a pot of protective whale fat at his side.

Swathes of leather, some marked with the brands of the beasts themselves, are displayed nearby, ready to be transformed into the classic, hand-crafted bags and accessories that line the walls of the airy space.

The D. Wilkins brand sparked into life when its namesake Diego Wilkins, an expat originally from Uruguay, tried to repair his own leather bag around a year and a half ago.

He bought too much material, and decided to make another – which he went on to sell. Orders started flowing in, leading to the creation of the D. Wilkins workshop, which opened at the stunning, industrial-style distillery in September.

“Everything’s handcrafted: we cut by hand, we do the holes by hand, we sew by hand,” says Wilkins, who comes up with the designs organically, after observing the individual characteristics of each piece of leather.

“This is something you buy for many years. Hopefully you can give that to your son in 20 years’ time, when the leather is more beautiful, as the leather is aging,” adds the expat, who creates one-off belts, wallets, covers, wash bags and, of course,  timeless gentlemen’s bags, with the help of two Cambodian craftsmen.

“Cambodia allows you to do whatever you want to create,” he adds. “If you have an idea, and you go for it, you can do something.”

For more information, visit the D. Wilkins Facebook page.