Artisans in flux: A.N.D. and the future of fair-trade fashion in Cambodia – part one

Artisans in flux: A.N.D. and the future of fair-trade fashion in Cambodia

MT stepped inside A.N.D.’s pastel Phnom Penh paradise for a conversation with co-founder, photographer and fashion maestro Alan James Flux.

WORDS & PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS

THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF ALAN JAMES FLUX’S INTERVIEW WITH MODERN TRAVELLER. READ PART TWO HERE.

“When I arrived seven and a half years ago, I had no idea I’d be sitting here talking to you, showing you this collection. I’m very fortunate, especially to be doing this as an OAP. I have to remind myself that I’m very lucky – it’s like another life, and that’s been quite a surprise.”

Meet Alan James Flux: the self-effacing, somewhat eccentric co-founder of A.N.D. – Cambodia’s answer to sustainable style in the heart of the Kingdom’s capital city. Some-time Isle of Wight resident, Flux now calls Phnom Penh home for most of the year.

“I really live here. I go back maybe one or two months a year, sometimes to collect pieces of porcelain that have been polished by the sea – which isn’t really the most sensible thing to be putting in a suitcase.”

So works the world of Flux and A.N.D.. Named as a play on “artisandesigners”, A.N.D. is “a small fair-trade partnership which grew out of the fact that I [Flux] came here as a volunteer with VSO. I worked for four years doing design and marketing in the fair-trade sector, then – as an unsupported volunteer – I started A.N.D. with two local colleagues.”

Was that always the plan? “Not at all. I had no intention of opening a shop, but Watthan, our neighbours and partners, had a good business model using wood and sewing workshops, so we tagged onto that. They weren’t fully utilising their carvers until we gave them more modern pieces to produce – simple, cute things that didn’t take a lot of wood, such as the hardwood elephants inlaid with vintage porcelain, which are now one of our signatures.”

Stroll into any one of the three A.N.D. stores in Phnom Penh and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Flux’s fair-trade fashion house is as established as the city itself. Leaning back in his wooden chair, floral shirt billowing loosely in the fan-moved air, Flux sets things straight: “We opened our first shop in December 2011 – we’d been going a bit before that, but without a shop.”

“At first,” continues Flux, “we just had scarves. We opened up the shop and had nothing but a whole wall of scarves, really. Then we began to create new items. A lot of products came from people asking about things I might not have thought about – so, for example, we worked with a local spa owner, who enquired about wraps and sarongs. Our weavers put these together for her, and they’re still selling well today.”

So, what is A.N.D. all about? According to Flux, “A.N.D. started up to support disabled producers – I’d worked with disabled groups for around four years. Then the weaving grew more and more. Now, the shops are very commercial: we support many weavers and artisans, and we have to sell to support them.”

“This is what they do – the design comes from us, there’s no local design school. But they have considerable skills.” It’s not all just clothes and fabrics, either. As Flux elaborates, “for the bags, materials like cement sacks and local hardwoods are up-cycled, and we often use bottle tops and lighters, which we pay the local barrow boys [scavengers] to collect.”

“For the clothes, the weaving comes in as fabric and we tailor it. A lot of scarves, wraps and shawls come in as finished pieces. We also found a way of putting all of our remaining scraps into rugs – we now know we never have to waste any fabric, and have a group creating the string to weave into mats.”

A.N.D.’s model is about so much more than simply re-selling, though: “When the fabrics started to come in we had no sewers, so we had to get some – in a hurry. Now, we have eight full-time tailors who work across the road. We even have a small house, with a workroom on the ground floor and an apartment upstairs. Anyone who wants to work for us and stay in Phnom Penh can do so for free.”

“All of our staff are really from the provinces,” Flux goes on, “and they have to come in and work and send money home – that’s the deal in Phnom Penh. They could get cheap accommodation on the outskirts in a rough area, but, with our stores closing late, we don’t want them taking long journeys at night – so they can all stay if they want to. When someone becomes full time, we offer them accommodation because that’s what they really need.”

And a place to stay isn’t all that the A.N.D. tailors are given: “They’re very well trained. Eventually the aim is that everyone learns every machine we have, so that they can do everything we want – but also that if they leave they have a good grounding to set something up themselves, or to work elsewhere.”

If it sounds like the workers here enjoy a sweet situation, it pays not to forget how hard they work. “Obviously, it’s not easy. The work has to be good – but we do pay well. They have to learn everything, which is good for them in the long run. We actually dread them leaving, in a way, after training them up. Many of them help to train new employees, which takes time.”

A.N.D., then, provides a place where locals can learn true skills that will last a lifetime. Surely this must attract hoards of workers from the large-scale factories? “People don’t really come from the garment factories,” Flux explains. “We pay more, sure, in better conditions, but they have to do much more. In the factories all they’re really doing is one single task, and that’s it. We offer to train them to do all of it, to know how to make every kind of item. Generally they decline.”

As for the weavers, the relationship is a clear one: “I’m the designer, the creator for the brand. We like the weavers to have as much input as possible, but I pull things together.”

It’s far from dictatorial, though, as Flux is quick to clarify: “They don’t have to worry about hours or commitment – we have one loose contract with a group of farming families who do weaving beneath their stilted houses as a supplementary income. They weave all of the Ikat fabrics, and we guarantee to buy every inch that they produce, which keeps it exclusive to us. We work carefully with them on colour and the kind of dyes that we use, but we like them to do the design of the weaving – they tend to pick up on what we like, and try different things.”

In fact, the notion of giving weavers work that they can do at home is one central to the way A.N.D. operates. As Flux says, “a lot of our ladies cannot leave their home, whether due to disability or an unfortunate relationship, so we give them work they can easily do there. There’s a bit of trial and error, and a period of adjustment, but it works.”

It’s clear, then, that the A.N.D. approach is one which seeks to balance commercial viability with economic sustainability – but how is that achieved? “We’re a non-profit making partnership, which runs very hand-to-mouth,” says Flux. “We have a lot of customers who are backpackers and flash-packers so we have to try and keep the prices such that everyone can afford to take something back.”

“We also have a lot of expats who support us,” he continues, “and anything they don’t see we’ll make or change for them. Many are young professionals who want something unique.”

Is there an international market? “We do a little bit of export, which we have to work on to get us through the low season – though the money we get per item is not huge. We can’t put much markup on, otherwise it won’t sell. Still, we balance things so that we have nice products for the shop that are suited to the international market.”

The other difficulty – as is often the case in Southeast Asia – is copycats. “People do replicate. When we started we asked weavers to transfer from silk to cotton – because not many were doing that and I thought cotton was the way to go – to create the cotton Ikat products. Now people are doing it all the time.”

Does Flux begrudge this form of competition? “Lots of the sustainable stores do different things, so we’re not rivals as such. We buy from other people doing nice things, and we give advice. Sometimes weavers come in and we’ll buy if they’ve made what we want, but it’s very casual – we can’t keep everything exclusive.”

In fact, Flux reflects, “there’s a much bigger fair-trade community here, and there are a lot of people doing sustainable things. We ourselves now have 60 or 70 families who do the Ikat weaving for us; before it was just a few. I’d welcome a thriving sustainable scene.” Wouldn’t we all?

To find out more about A.N.D., visit the Facebook page or pay a visit to one of its three Phnom Penh stores.


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