Upcycling is a trend that is sweeping across Cambodia. Jessica Tana goes behind the scenes to find out more. Photography by Enric Català.

“It’s about making something beautiful from something that’s not,” Vanessa Ferrer says, referring to the hammered ring, made of brass melted from bombshells that she holds in her hand. “It’s about making something beautiful from tragedy.”

Ferrer is explaining how her label, La Boots, transforms by-products, waste materials and unwanted items into something of better quality or higher value. Like the jewellery made from used artillery, upcycling re-purposes items from the past and aims to expose the shocking amount of waste created by mass production.

“It’s the beginning of a movement,” Ferrer says, acknowledging that the trend is slowly taking root in a country known for its many garment factories.

Aside from jewellery, La Boots also makes colourful accessories from traditional, hand-loomed Cambodian fabric. Kromas are re-fashioned to make pretty, patterned tote bags, iPad cases, passport holders and purses.

While the traditional fabric is intricate and well-made, it has, so far, attracted little attention on the global market. By repurposing this fabric into practical items, La Boots creates a modern accessory that retains its Cambodian feel.

“I want people to be proud that something is Cambodian made,” Ferrer says. “I want to be an ambassador for Cambodian products.”

While supporting the cultural aspect of the fabric, Ferrer also buys her krama material directly from weavers in Takeo province, creating jobs for women in the countryside. By combining the off-cuts of fabric from garment factories she also minimises industry waste.

“Cambodia has a big problem with garment factory waste,” says Rachel Faller, creator of fashion label Tonlé. “I don’t think people around the world have an understanding of just how big the problem of waste in the garment industry is.”

Faller knows a lot about clothing waste; she has to, running a fashion label that produces zero amount of it. Tonlé, the Khmer word for river, takes clothes production to an entirely new level. While most garment factories produce on average 40 percent of waste product, Tonlé produces none. It is a time-consuming upcycling process, but one done with passionate regard for the environment.

Faller designs each collection in a way that uses as much of a given material as possible. This material is made up of fabric waste sourced from garment factories and remnant markets before it ends up in landfill. Fabric too small to use is laboriously cut up into strips of fabric and individually sewn back into yarn. The yarn is then knitted into new pieces, but it doesn’t stop there. The remaining two percent of tiny off-cuts of material are mixed in with recycled office paper and sticky rice to make the clothing hang tags.     

“We use every scrap in different ways,” Faller says. Belt buckles, pendants and buttons come from re-claimed scraps of wood and beads come from hand dug clay. “It’s hand-made 100 percent, it’s handwoven, it’s naturally dyed and it looks beautiful,” she says with pride.

Also, utilising waste from a very unusual source, Madeline Green from Ammo jewellery uses bullets as a base to create hand-fired rings, earrings, pendants and bracelets. She sources the used ammunition as scrap metal, which is re-fashioned into jewellery designed by her team or by customers who take her workshops. “We like to use the casings in a number of ways, but the signature style for Ammo is to cut the circular cap off the end of the casing, and then use that as a central motif for our collections,” Green explains. “But we use all the rest of the bullet too by melting it down and then casting it into more complex designs with delicate patterns and forms.”

In this way, Green is able to upcycle a product, which symbolises something negative, into something that can be worn with pride.       

Upcycling in Cambodia is not always a serious pursuit, which is something Christine Gauthier, owner and designer of Water Lily, believes. Using zippers, drinking straws, bright buttons, electrical wire, discarded toys, whatever captures her eye, Gauthier creates fantastical necklaces, bracelets, bags and clothes.

“Why not play with it?” she asks. “I feel like an alchemist, putting things together to see the result.” From a handbag made entirely out of drinking straws, to Monet’s ‘Water Lillies’ made from coloured plastic teaspoons on canvas, Water Lily shows how upcycling can be about ingenuity and fun as well as being ethically responsible. Gauthier runs workshops on recycling, buys used materials and uses garment factory scraps in her designs.

Slowly, but surely these innovative thinkers are challenging the idea that new is better, and that quick, low quality, mass-production is a positive thing for Cambodia. Upcycling may be a niche market for expats rather than locals at the moment, but things are starting to change.

“I have two local women who bought my necklaces,” Gauthier says. “One just to please me, I think, but the other, well,

who knows?”