Tucked away on a quiet street in Phnom Penh, sits KeoK'jay. The brain child of American designer Rachel Faller, KeoK'jay is a fashion label with a purpose. "Growing up I was always interested in the arts and social justice, and was seeking something that combined my passion for both of them," says Faller. "I learned how to sew from my mother and grandmother, and although I didn't consider it "art" at the time, it greatly affected what I ended up pursuing."
Although Faller wanted to study painting when she originally enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she was drawn towards textiles and eventually graduated with a degree in Fibers, with a focus on community arts and education. While at college, she worked on a series of collaborative art projects and public installations. "That [collaborative art projects and public installations] started getting me to think about the arts and social justice work as an exchange, rather than something that an outsider of a community comes in and gives," says Faller. She was invited to go to Cambodia to start a business and though the opportunity eventually fell through, she was already fascinated by the country and its textile traditions. Her main goal became to make it to Cambodia on her own to research the traditional crafts and the role that fair trade was playing in rebuilding the culture and economy of the country.
When she received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2008, she used the opportunity to visit several handicraft organisations and businesses using fair fashion to create new opportunities for the people they were working with. However, she felt there was something missing. So, when Faller decided to start her own business in Cambodia, she partnered with a local hospital, who recommended patients from its HIV clinic to work with her. The idea was to create modern, fun, comfortable and affordable clothing while creating new jobs and sustainable livelihoods for women with HIV.
KeoK'jay is not just about social responsibility, though. When creating her collections, Faller also makes sure she uses recycled materials, such as vintage bed sheets and factory off-cut jersey (about 75 per cent of the company's products are made with this) or locally-made sustainable materials, like hand-woven, naturally dyed cotton, handmade ceramic buttons (collected from local tailors) and organic reed mats.
KeoK'jay (meaning "bright green" or "fresh" in Khmer) also believes in no-waste production; making sure even the smallest scrap of fabric gets used. "While many traditional manufacturing houses waste up to 50 per cent of their materials in the cutting process, we actually waste less than 5 per cent of our raw materials," says Faller. And Faller believes it's important to go a step beyond by making sure the company uses natural dyes and learns from the local artisans they work with. Even the packaging material is handmade by recycling newspaper, cardboard and shredded paper into new paper.
Keok'jay Fall 2012.
KeoK'jay faced a lot of hurdles at the beginning, particularly because most of the women the company works with came with little knowledge of sewing. Because each item is hand crafted and hand sewn, there are also many opportunities for production errors - which can cause some challenges. "On the flip side, we can produce items that a factory can never produce, with touches of handiwork that show the love that goes into each product." And because KeoK'jay uses a lot of vintage fabric, products are never standardised, making each piece truly unique.
Although most items produced by KeoK'jay could be considered "funky modern with a touch of Cambodia," the company's newest collection was actually inspired by life in the countryside and the traditional Cambodian way of life. "One of our Cambodian design interns wanted to use the rice harvest and the colours of the fields as inspiration for her designs, so, we took that and turned it into a whole collection," explains Faller.
KeoK'jay has been inspired not only by the young designer who founded the label, but also by the local workers, who have taken a hold of the opportunity and changed their lives in meaningful, exciting ways. According to Faller, this is what really drives her and her staff to continue to do what they are doing.
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