Phnom Penh, the “Wild West of the East”, has a fashion scene with two radically incompatible faces. Cambodia does have a fashion week, but even Filipino designer Don Protasia admits to its irrelevance. Under his strict instructions to “look stoned”, the gagged models, dressed in black, drag their feet along the slowest-ever catwalk, for the entertainment of the “Khmer Riche” – the new urban elite, sons and daughters of government ministers. There’s slightly more life in the afterparty, dominated by transvestites smeared in fake blood, making vampiric lunges at expats’ throats.
5am: the party barely over, it’s already time for thousands of workers to cram onto the backs of trucks, for the daily commute to the city’s many garment factories, which produce 80% of the country’s exports. The combination of long hours and harmful fumes have produced mass faintings (which are simply blamed on “evil spirits”) and peaceful protests over low wages have been violently suppressed.
A glimmer of hope comes from Rina Roat, a former factory worker who’s literally gone from rags-to-riches – now the owner of an utterly original boutique-cum-café, staging impromptu fashion shows with recycled trash.
But the current situation is summed up by Srey Thom – a garment factory worker in a “Berlin Fashion Week” hoodie. Obviously, she has no idea what it means – she can’t even read the words.
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