Presently, Cambodian fashion products are not as well-known as their counterparts from Vietnam, Thailand and other bigger, more established countries. But one young Cambodian-American, Cindy Leewood, is trying to turn the tide around and make Cambodian fashion products like silk become better-known in the United States (US) and other parts of the world. In this Q and A with BPVE.COM, Leewood talks about her participation in a major fashion event in Minnesota, where she managed to showcase some of Cambodia’s silk and other fashion products; current state of the Cambodian silk industry; Khmer silk’s potential on the world market; her plans to promote them in the US and other parts of the world, among other topics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BPVE.COM: You have become an emerging force in fashion in Minnesota, and potentially in the entire United States in the future; please tell us more about your background.
Cindy Leewood: I am a Cambodian-American student at the University of Minnesota Apparel Design programme working towards my Bachelor of Science degree.
BPVE.COM: What was the main reason you went into fashion, instead of other vocations?
Cindy Leewood: I have always had a passion for creativity and I wanted to use my skill set to be a voice for Khmer people.
BPVE.COM: You took part in the Coalesce: 2022 of the Minnesota Fashion Week a few months ago. What was the event all about?
Cindy Leewood: The event was a highlight on AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) creatives and their designs. The time period for this show was 1922 which highlights parallel times to 2022 (1922 was a period for women to break social standards and shorten the hem of dresses. This is a parallel to current events of women having to fight for their reproductive rights). The show let designers have a take on what 1922 would have looked like through the eyes of AAPI creators.
BPVE.COM: It was mentioned that seven designers, including you, were invited to take part in the event. Were you the only one of Cambodian descent there? Who were the other participants?
Cindy Leewood: I was personally asked by the producer, Mao Xiong, to be one of the designers for the Coalesce show. Despite being a full-time student, my outstanding work and portfolio had been a key factor in gaining this amazing opportunity. I was the only Cambodian designer out of seven. The other designers/Labels are M.Heurh Designs, Melevated Designs, Lowken Co, Isabel Atkinson, Suree Sompamitwong, and Lucy Vange. Their amazing back stories and details are listed under Coalesce instagram @Coalescecollectivemn. I am so honoured that Coalesce has given me the opportunity to have worked alongside other established designers and AAPI creatives!
BPVE.COM: How did you feel showcasing Cambodian designs and products?
Cindy Leewood: I am extremely proud and excited to be able to have the opportunity to spotlight Khmer Culture and to introduce Cambodian/Khmer silk products into the world fashion industry.
BPVE.COM: What was the reaction from the audience? Did they like Cambodian designs and products?
Cindy Leewood: The reaction was overwhelmingly positive with many inquiries about future products and potential. Khmer culture is one of the most unique cultures that are well hidden amongst Khmer people. We don’t wish to hide the culture, it is simply just the lack of opportunity to express ourselves. This reaction has prompted me to focus my senior collection for graduation, on incorporating Khmer textiles into modern-day formal wear for Cambodian-American women 20s-30s to wear outside of Cambodia.
BPVE.COM: What can you say about Cambodian fashion design and products? What can you say about their potential, not only on the domestic side but also internationally?
Cindy Leewood: Cambodian fashion designs and products are wonderful but they are exclusive to Cambodia and the events inside Cambodia. My goal is to give gold the true price it should have in today’s society. I use “gold” as a metaphor for Khmer fabrics because our fabrics are unique, handmade, and expensive. Younger generations have started to stray from traditional fabrics because they aren’t as “Trendy”. I am giving Khmer fabric a new platform to shine by meeting the needs of my target audience and their modern lifestyle outside of Cambodia. We have many Cambodians living outside the country, and many audiences who have never seen such intricate fabric, and that is a powerhouse for support and appreciation in itself.
BPVE.COM: What particular Cambodian fashion designs and products, in your own view, have the potential to attract customers in the US and in other countries?
Cindy Leewood: Our superb craftsmanship. We have a lot of products that only we can produce including fabrics like Hol, Seung, Krama, Sot and Phamoung. Our fabrics are one we know best how to create and care for. What makes us different from the Western world is how we dress and that is something we have not seen within the fashion industry. The fashion industry is currently oversaturated with Western ideas and have been turning to ideas inspired by different cultures in the recent decade. Some amazing designers include Guo Pei, Zuhair Murad, and etc. We should take that opportunity to be next.
BPVE.COM: Currently, such items, and Cambodian fashion in general, are not yet so well-known outside Cambodia due to various factors. What do you think should be done by the government, private sector and other stakeholders to reverse the trend and make Cambodian fashion as attractive internationally as their Asean counterparts from Thailand, the Philippines or Vietnam?
Cindy Leewood: I will first work with Cambodian communities around the world to promote Cambodian silks and then with businesses who are culturally focused. An amazing brand I have had the honour to talk with is Rajana Threads and I hope to continue talking with more brands.
Second, I will definitely need full support from the people and government of Cambodia to make Cambodian silk a primary fashion item. An item that we are proud of to represent us to the world.
Third, I hope to work alongside the press/media that are interested and really care about Cambodian culture and silk. We need amazing advocates, who have the power to convey messages to the masses.
BPVE.COM: It was mentioned that you want to promote more Cambodian silk to the outside world. What is the current state of the Cambodian silk industry?
Cindy Leewood: The current Khmer silk industry is very exclusive and expensive due to the delicate nature of most of the silk being handwoven and naturally produced on a small scale. Which makes it even more attractive with the unique factor of it being one-of-a-kind that is nearly never seen outside of Cambodia.
BPVE.COM: How can it compete with more established silk-making industries in other countries like Thailand?
Cindy Leewood: We definitely cannot compete with the established one on prices; but we sure can compete on the value, the artworks and the cultural identity.
BPVE.COM: What is your personal assessment of Cambodian silk and silk products? How does it compare with their counterparts from other countries?
Cindy Leewood: Our designs are unique to us. For example, Hol textiles are much more intricate and vibrant, which is a distinct characteristic to our culture.
BPVE.COM: What are you planning to do to further promote Cambodian silk in the US and other parts of the world?
Cindy Leewood: Accessibility is key. Cambodians love cultural fabric but it is not always accessible and reusable for events outside of Cambodia. Creating designs that people can actually wear as part of their regular life is essential to encourage them to embrace and promote Cambodian silk.
BPVE.COM: What are your plans for the future? Do you have plans to later bring your fashion/design talents to Cambodia? Or open a business, in the US or in other parts of the world, selling/promoting Cambodian silk and other local products.
Cindy Leewood: My goal is to open a business locally and internationally. I plan to source from Cambodia and support local businesses. I am most excited to work alongside local communities to further develop and showcase Khmer craftsmanship. With the use of technology and social media I plan to reach my international audience and eventually open physical stores once I am more established.
Introducing Cambodian silk onto the world fashion industry requires concerted efforts by everyone in the society. The government needs to make necessary rules and regulations to promote silk development, the people who make/weave the silk and the people who make use of the silk.
I’m glad that I have support in place on this initiative already and would like to thank everyone involved; particularly my parents, my relatives, my university, my professors, my classmates and friends around the globe who are waiting to see this initiative too.