A Cambodian designer introduces Khmer-inspired design to the runway at Milan Fashion Week
Translation and additional reporting by SoPhanna Lay
The latest buzz in the Cambodian fashion world is Oliva Kong.
Born Men Seyha in Pursat, the self-taught fashionista is owner of the well-known Phnom Penh boutique Brand Queen Victoria, and the designer fresh off showcasing Khmer haute couture to the world at Italy’s renowned Milan Fashion Week.
Oliva’s garments encapsulate motifs of Khmer spirit and culture. They also carry a creative vision for sustainable fashion with educational messages. The themes of Oliva’s collections often commemorate the biodiversity of the Mekong region and its harmony with the grandeur of the Angkor historical era.
But the designer’s pathway to success was not clear-cut. How Seyha became Oliva Kong the fashion designer is a story littered with obstacles and stints of soul-searching.
Focus had a chat with Oliva to learn what goes on in his creative laboratory.
You have just returned from Italy, where you earned a Top Fashion Designer award while directing your models down the runway in the Palazzo Dorazzi during Milan Fashion Week. How did you learn you would have the opportunity to showcase your work and represent Cambodia on the international stage?
I used to dream about participating in a show during Milan Fashion Week, but I had no idea how to step up to such a big event.
One day, I held a fashion show in the Sun & Moon Hotel. The event was inspired from ancient Khmer culture and royalty. It was going well, and then Paola Distaso, the organiser in Milan, contacted me. At that time, I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a scam. It was in fact not a scam.
I wasn’t that hopeful. I was under the impression that the event organiser would only pick leading designers with an extensive resume to represent their country. I was also unsure whether I could pass the visa interview or not, or whether I would have enough money to spend – because I planned not just going to Italy but France too. I ended up travelling to both
I started to scramble because I only had a month to prepare the designs and I didn’t have much money. And then, I initially failed the visa interview because my company failed to register properly. When I finally passed the interview, I was so happy and I was crying from the excitement. I guess you could say my dream panned out!
In your show you constructed some of the models’ hair into renditions of the Apsaras’ crown. It seems that your heritage is focal to your character and work. What are the aspects of Khmer culture that you try to incorporate into your designs?
Everything! But I don’t only incorporate culture. My design is also related to marine life and tourism. All my concepts usually begin very broad. My concept is based on what/how I want the show to be.
For example, when I made the crown-like Apsara hairstyle, I was inspired by Angkor Wat, when I went there for meditation. I noticed the Apsara hairstyle and I took photos of the Apsara crown on the temple wall. When I came back, I went to meet with the hairstylist and I brought the concept for them to help me out.
Although I am a contemporary fashion designer, I don’t neglect the ancient. I was thinking about what would happen if we put hairstyles on modern women in 2023. I wanted to see how it would look. Therefore, I decided to do it.
The Ministry took my work to discuss within their team, to find out if such renovation defamed the image of the ancient angel dancer. Surprisingly, I received a lot of encouragement [from them] and I got more projects at Angkor and from Samdech Techo. This is how I felt motivated.
However, when I just got back from Italy, I was frustrated and upset about it because I was thinking that although I won the award, nobody cheered me up. As a result, I got a reality check. Actually, I don’t need anything besides encouragement and support.
How do you think the international audience received these Khmer-inspired pieces? Did you think your vision was authentically conveyed to those who have yet to experience the fashion scene in Cambodia?
I was so excited [to see the international audience and their reaction] but at the same time, I was surprised because it seems like Cambodians don’t feel so proud of this. I mean, they compliment it but it seems like they don’t feel so proud [of it]. But when I got to Europe and while I was in the dressing room as models were putting on their makeup, they also went to touch the hairstyle and the dress that I designed for them. To me, it seems like they were amazed by it. It really empowers me.
This also changed my perspective. I used to think that foreigners don’t value Cambodia because it’s just a small country, but when I got there, they really valued it.
What is Cambodia’s fashion scene like? What makes it different from everywhere else?
Actually, all [fashion] designs are the same. They have their uniqueness and we have our uniqueness, too. In general, the sleeve, the collar, and everything is the same. The main difference is culture. For example, the European Dolce & Gabbana has its own unique “pattern”, the technical sketch and the sequin decoration inspired from their culture. So we have different signatures.
Apsara hairstyles distinguish us. So does “Kbach Angkor”. We don’t share this pattern. The look is the same but when it comes to detail and uniqueness, it’s really different. This is what makes our Khmer-style designing different. I try to show the sense of “Khmerness”.
What role do you see yourself playing, as an innovator, in the future of Cambodian fashion?
Personally, I see myself as a model for Cambodians. What I do isn’t only about myself. It’s about the love out of my heart for my country.
In fashion, I let them see my accomplishments. Although I was broke and didn’t attend university, I didn’t lose hope. Where there is life, there is hope.
I raise awareness about the environment. I’ve tried to recycle discarded things into something useful. My students, who attend my school, often came [here] with plastic bottles. In the end, I cleaned those bottles and turned them into runway dresses.
However, I am not yet the best role model because I haven’t accomplished my biggest goal.
I don’t do alcohol advertisements or online gambling even if I were paid thousands of dollars. I want to inspire them to have a similar mindset. Let’s imagine if I were regarded as their idol but I smoke, I am drug addicted, or I promote beers or gambling. It’s not how the term “idol” or “inspiration” should be.
On behalf of the idolised fashion designer, I am determined that what I do is spread positivity to them.
You studied finance at university before starting a sculpture business in Pursat Province. After that you moved to Phnom Penh with new aspirations, you were in a tough spot, even homeless at one point. Could you elaborate on the turning point that led you to become Oliva Kong, the fashion designer?
My first major was architecture because I am good with drawing. After my freshman year, I changed to study finance because everyone in my family does it. But I still felt like it wasn’t what I wanted.
I lost myself until I sold sculpture. I had three successful shops around 2013 and 2014 – one in Toul Tum Poung, one along National Road 5, and one at my house. I sold marble/alabaster sculpture and furniture. In 2015, I was cheated by my business partners and I was so broke.
When I left my hometown, I said to myself that this time, I had to follow my passion because I love runway modelling and [fashion] design. In order to make it come true, my financial situation had to be better so I decided to look for a job to earn money. But [what followed] was a full one-year hardship. Sometimes, I didn’t have enough food to eat. I remember I was 49 kg and now I am 76 kg.
One day, I went to a cafe to surf the internet because I had sold my mobile phone. When one worker quit to take a new job, the cafe asked me to work there. With the $100ish salary I could save some money to buy some materials for design. Later, I got a job [as a tailor] with a $900 salary. Then I passed the Phnom Penh Designer Week exam. It was my first time being a runway model, in 2016.
I choose to appreciate my hardship in life rather than appreciating my comfort zone because it was a life lesson for me, to be who I am today.
Oliva Kong has seen his creative life change like a butterfly’s. Photo: Chey Rotha.
What is your creative process like? How do you conjure up that light bulb for a new concept or design for your collections?
I don’t know if it’s accidental but I have a lot of concepts. Most of the time, I do what I want to do. Most people dream and don’t execute it right away but this isn’t me. For example, when I went to Angkor Wat and I saw the Apsara crown, it made me want to do something with it.
I believe in the law of attraction. I always try to think positively and I encourage everyone to think the same way. Success doesn’t show up immediately but it definitely will.
You must have a lot of exit plans. When you fail at plan A, you must look for Plan B or C and start executing it. At this point, you must be ready to solve problems when you run into one.
There is an old saying that successful people always have a way because everything has a solution. I am always hopeful and think positively when I am stuck with problems in life. And that is what keeps me going.
I am different from my siblings because they tend to look at the past and get stuck there. I look at the past and I regard it as the past. When we think like this, it allows us to keep walking and not be so stressed about life.
Another point is determination. Without determination, nobody can help you. It’s you who helps yourself.
Finally, there is networking. No matter how good you are, if you don’t have a good network, you’re not going to get anywhere in life.
What would you say to inspiring young fashion designers in Cambodia? Any advice on how to navigate the industry and their own creative endeavours?
It doesn’t matter if you are a fashion designer or not. If you love something, you must do it confidently and be determined to do it, then you’ll be successful.
If you have a dream, you must be willing to do it. Don’t just sleep-dream. There’s no success without action.
If you fail, do it again. It doesn’t matter.
An old saying is that a fallen-down tree still has a tiny sapling. We are human, we have limbs, we can do anything, why don’t we stand up? Use what you have to stand up again.
The day that you lose hope is the day that you die.
I want everyone to have hope and self-confidence.