In the second part of Modern Traveller’s interview with Alan James Flux, co-founder of Cambodia’s A.N.D. artisanal store, we talk to the man himself about all things creativity – and what happens when the shackles of saleability come off…
WORDS BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
THIS IS THE SECOND PART OF ALAN JAMES FLUX’S INTERVIEW WITH MODERN TRAVELLER. READ PART ONE HERE.
“Did you see our fashion show last week?” Regrettably, Modern Traveller missed it, courtesy of a visit to Laos. “It was part of Phnom Penh designers’ week,” Flux goes on.
As all present company sips refreshing green tea in the back of A.N.D.’s main street 240 store, the discussion moves away from the world of weaving for sale, to Flux’s favourite realm: fashion.
“Clothes in the store are quite simple, to show off the hand-woven fabrics. The shows we do as something a little more indulgent.” What does he define as indulgent? “It really depends on the theme of the show – all of the clothes are made in our own workshops, using a lot of scraps and vintage materials I’ve been collecting for years and years.”
And the theme of this latest show? “Heroes and anti-heroes,” says Flux, matter-of-factly. “It came together because I had a lot of fabrics with faces on. Some were villains – like anime villains, manga cartoons; others were people like Che Guevara. All sorts of fabrics from all sorts of periods with faces on. Japanese fabrics, too, with warlords and dictators.”
“In fact,” Flux says, as he unfurls further garments from this most recent collection, “I put this together based around Idi Amin. It’s some electoral candidate who’s had his face put on a shirt, and I paired it with this fun tartan I found.”
Perhaps, then, not the sort of thing you might expect to see adorning the walls of A.N.D.’s soft-cotton stores. “No, very much not,” affirms Flux. “I put the collections together as a completely different offer from the shops. It’s really much more adventurous, non-commercial and, I suppose, theatrical. We have two minutes on the catwalk to make an impact.”
It must intrigue some people enough that they visit the stores, though? “Oh, of course – it all has the A.N.D. name on, so it’s promotion for the brand. In fact, it is all for sale after the show, and we do have private clients who want one-off couture items, so they might be interested. There are sometimes pop-up shops after shows, but we don’t tend to sell a lot from those – people prefer to look at it, and think about it.”
“Really,” continues the brightly patterned designer, “it’s very liberating not to have to worry about selling the collection. We like to give the organiser something, but for us it’s just exciting – it’s good fun.”
Where, then, does Flux draw his inspiration from? As it turns out, both near and far. “The last collection was based on The Lotos-Eaters by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was all dreamy, soft colours, with a lot of feathers brought back from the Isle of Wight. The rich textures and androgynous fits really sold to ladies.”
“That said, if there’s anything in the cupboard,” continues Flux, “that looks like it’ll go with what we’re doing, I’ll put a bit of Ikat in the show, or cotton, or silk.”
From catwalk to catalogue, is it these same items which feature in the editorial shoots he produces? “It really depends. I record everything we make – sometimes we feature relatively normal, commercial items which just look different because of the context. At other times we do slightly different things, like something more erotic, which are distinct from the shop’s style but still good for the brand.”
In fact, it seems a lot of Flux’s photography work is very good for both the brand and the store. “It all started because I do our ads in a couple of magazines, largely because we don’t have a budget for publicity. We also don’t put the shop in magazines – we do something different and fun for print.”
“From that, I got a few offers for editorial, and an offer to do an exhbition in Java [cafe].” The eternally modest Flux describes his captivating photography work as “portraiture with a fashion bias”, which is often shot in unique urban places.
“I use a lot of natural light in the photographs, like the light from a television, shooting in exisiting environments.” It’s not just the locations that are existing, either: Flux’s models are usually locals he meets in the street.
“I shot a guy who works in the restaurant I go to down the road,” Flux elaborates. “There was also a guy who was a hairdresser, who then went back to his province to be a farmer.”
From professional catwalk models to inexperienced strangers, it must be tricky getting people to agree? “Most people say yes, some say no. I’m quite shy, so a lot of people I see and don’t ask – they go past on a bike and I never see them again.” What of those that do say yes? “Often I’ll meet them a couple of times, they’ll come in here and we’ll show them some previous work; it’s a built-up process. It’s a professional thing done for payment, so that’s helpful to them.”
Is it always shop products that they’re shot in? “Sometimes I just shoot what they’ve got on, but not really. Generally they’ll try a few things and see what they like. They wouldn’t always choose what I would choose, because it wouldn’t suit their body.”
And does it work? “People do come in and ask about things they’ve seen in an editorial or an ad. Normally it would be shop things. They’re local publications, so people see them and it works, in a modest kind of way. It’s encouraging.”
If the ads are working and the shows are popular, things might rightly be regarded as looking up for artisans in Cambodia, and A.N.D.. But it’s not all plain sailing, as Flux is keen to emphasise. “Within five years we have no idea what the state of hand-weaving will be in Cambodia. Who wants to sit at 15 and do this? It tends to be the older generation. The younger generations are prime candidates for being carted off to the garment production factories.”
But, for all that fear might cause sleepless nights, A.N.D. seems to be in safe hands at home. “We’ve just had a new girl start – she can start on the simple things, before trying a little more, and a little more.”
“In fact,” he continues, “a lot of the simple things our tailors don’t like doing – they don’t like the smaller tasks. They’d all prefer to be making and sewing! I can’t sew how they sew; they’re amazing.”
Is he worried? “It’s a very good team, and it’s very exciting. At the end of the day, people moan in Phnom Penh all the time. But I have to ask – where would you rather be? What would you rather be doing, really?” With that, we couldn’t agree more.
To find out more about A.N.D., visit the Facebook page or pay a visit to one of its three Phnom Penh stores.