What is the Real Cost of Your Clothing?   2 comments

In the aftermath of a fire that claimed the lives of over 100 people in Bangladesh, I begin my annual holiday time shopping caveat letter. I know it’s depressing, but its only once a year and then we can go back to talking about pretty photo shoots and new designs.

A website platform for ethical goods which I regularly frequent, (Ethical Ocean) both for interesting products and interesting news stories in the sector, wrote a piece about this disturbing incident calling out Walmart, Disney, and Sears for producing garments in this factory. Readers commented that in fact we, the people who buy from Walmart and the like, are the ones who have blood on our hands for buying things that are so cheap that they couldn’t possibly have been made in a fair way. One reader posted a comment that I am going to address directly here. She stated that she would continue to shop at Walmart because the prices of fair trade groups were so high and that groups like Ethical Ocean simply needed to lower their prices so that people could buy them. A fair comment, given the economic reality in our country, and one I’ve heard from many people.

I’ve been to a couple of large factories and numerous smaller ones in Cambodia, with very similar conditions to those in this Bangladesh factory. No fire escapes, walkways blocked, piles of flammable fabric everywhere, people using combustible glues with their bare hands. (And that’s just fire safety – never mind about long hours, child labor, chemical exposure, and low wages.) This situation could have happened in any number of Cambodian factories producing any number of American brands. It’s not helpful to name names because honestly, it’s an industry wide problem. Some large brands are making some good progress with factories, but the general problem remains. The brands complain and say it is not their fault if a large certified factory outsources to a small un-audited one (which is what Walmart said) but the fact is many brands are paying such low prices for their goods that factory owners have to squeeze their workers for everything they’ve got and take every shortcut they can, including outsource to a cheaper factory, if necessary.

Do you know what the average profit margin (worldwide) in the garment-manufacturing sector is? Now, I am not talking about fashion, what the brands mark up after they buy from the factories; that margin is much higher. The average margin in manufacturing is 2%. 2%!?! My friend who works in the sector reminded me that there are a lot of issues with corruption and such so it might be high than it is on paper, but still. 2%!! Let that sink in. It is one of the lowest profit margins of any sector. If the factory owners are only making a 2% average profit margin on goods sold to these large brands, of course they are going to take every short-cut possible and pay their workers as little as possible. And if they don’t, the brands will go elsewhere. Plain and simple.

So back to the question at hand, can ethical brands just lower their prices, still pay their workers fairly and have proper safety conditions, and compete with Walmart? I hope you already know this but, NO. I can’t speak for every fair trade company, but I can say that our profit margins at KeoK’jay are lower than many of the large brands (I am talking about on the fashion side now) and most of those profits get re-invested in new training programs and additional improvements to the business that actually benefit our staff. Many other companies similar to us do this. The difference between KeoK’jay and a typical factory is huge, in how we pay our workers, how long they work, they conditions they work in, and the benefits they receive. And all that costs money. I am not saying that to be condescending, because its not that different from what an American worker would be entitled to by law, adjusted to cost of living. I think that if your aunt or sister or mother or friend had died in a factory fire, or if you had seen how your clothes are actually made, you would feel the same way. And most of you probably do just reading this. Our prices are not exorbitant, and neither are those of many fair trade companies. That is just the cost of doing something the fair way. There are ways to make things more efficient without sacrificing ethics, and as people start to demand more ethical products from companies I am sure the companies will find a way to do this. But there is no way to get to prices as low as Walmart without these kinds of things continuing to happen.

Now on to the second part of the question, what if you can’t afford to shop fair trade?

The average American probably believes they can’t afford the prices at places like KeoK’jay and brands on Ethical Ocean. And that may be true. (Believe me, I make a Cambodian wage! So I know what you are saying.) But that is also because we, as Americans have become acclimated to “needing” so much more clothing than we actually need. It is also because cheap clothing wears out quickly; indeed, it is designed to do so. A well-made garment should last you many years and still be stylish through many fashion seasons. Remember when clothing was the most expensive item in the home, because it was all hand made, and it was made well, and it was all made locally? Okay, that was more than 150 years ago, so maybe you wouldn’t remember… People would wear the same thing over and over again, and they would just alter things slightly or fix them, re-use and re-purpose. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution was in full swing (and worker exploitation and child labor was in full swing in the US, something we also like to forget) that things started to change. We can’t go completely back to that in our modern global economy, but the principals still apply. Re-use, repurpose, recycle; trade things with friends, have a clothing swap party. Go DIY and fix your clothes in creative ways. Buy second hand. Do research – there’s a lot of public information out there about which large brands are actually requiring higher manufacturing standards. Save money, and when you need something new, splurge and treat yourself on something you know comes from a good place. And when you’re giving gifts, you don’t just have to give things. Gifts can be acts of service, homemade bread, cards, a vacation or a day out, or other things that you make at home; they just take a bit of forethought. If you have the money to buy all your friends a handbag from KeoK’jay, by all means! But if you don’t, we understand and we just hope that you take a minute to think about what you are giving and what that gift really says, especially during the holiday season.

Posted December 2, 2012 by keokjay in Uncategorized

KeoK’jay Spring/Summer 2013   Leave a comment

Spring/Summer 2013 is here! Or almost here…it’s here for us because we’re making these garments right now in our Phnom Penh workshop, so you can have them in February. Colors are exuberant this year, as they are in Phnom Penh all year round, so we wanted to share a little of the love with you. Love of geometric and floral patterns that is, inspired by modernist architecture, and Cambodian flowers and fabrics. These designs give a big nod to the celebrated Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, and we even shot the whole editorial in one of his famed buildings, the Institute of Foreign Languages. We hope you’ll enjoy these as much as we enjoying shooting them!

PS: all photographs were taken by Balazs Maar, hair and makeup styles by The Dollhouse Cambodia, and our beautiful models are Chan Pharom and Srey Pov. And of course, all designs created exclusively by KeoK’jay. See more spring designs on our website.

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Posted December 2, 2012 by keokjay in Uncategorized

In Search of Illusive Indigo   1 comment

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“You have to go to Sapa! Everything in the town is blue from the clothing to the houses to the hands of the weavers.” My friend told me a few years ago, about that beautiful town in Northern Vietnam, home to Vietnam’s highest peaks and several ethnic minorities. The jewelry, indigo-dyed hemp textiles, and meticulously embroidered garments of the H’mong people have inspired fashion lines from Jean Paul Gaultier to Free people (whether or not the designers give the nod back is another story.) I’ve been trying to find someone to supply KeoK’jay natural indigo dye for several years, as most of what is purported as natural indigo these days is well, not. So it was the mountains, cool air, beautiful textiles, and my lust for indigo that lured me to Sapa; a place that had grown to mythical proportions in my mind.

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A H’mong woman putting traditional clothing on me during a hike

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H’mong inspired garment by Gaultier

When my friend and I arrived in Sapa the reality hit hard and I chided myself for not expecting it. Sourcing fabric and raw materials in an ethical and transparent way is always a challenge.  Its taken years of developing relationships with suppliers in Cambodia to know what we are really getting when we purchase our supplies, who makes them, how they make them, and how much money the producers get. On our first day in Sapa, we visited several weaving villages with a guide, and 5 or 6 houses with women dressed in H’mong costume, each with a similar display of wares to sell and a loom set up, but no one actually making anything. My instincts told me something was amiss. There were a few women with blue dye stains on their hands, but it seemed to be a turquoise tinted chemical indigo, and not grey/navy shade of natural indigo.

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Finally on the third day of our visit, we stumbled across a small shop called Indigo Cat, run by a young woman named Pang who spelled it out for me.

She told us that her shop was the only H’mong owned boutique in Sapa, and that the rest were owned by Vietnamese people who bought the items from the H’mong and other groups and sold them with high profit. She said that some of the sellers even dressed as H’mong people, but were not. Though I had no particular reason to believe her over others I had met, her claims fell neatly inline with my suspicions and what I have seen in typical markets in Cambodia and other countries. When I asked her why she claimed to be fair trade, she said that all of the products in her shop were made by herself and her family members. She said that if I wanted to see I could go to her village and meet her family, and see their production for myself. We accepted the generous invitation and went up to visit them the next day.

On the drive up to her family’s farm by moto we passed through stunning scenery, terraced rice fields and waterfalls. We were greeted by Pang’s mother and hiked up the hill to see her dye vats and indigo plants. When I explained to her that I was trying to get indigo dye and fabric to Cambodia for our business, she promptly dug up an indigo plant, packed up the roots and shaded it with ferns to protect it on the moto ride back, and gave it to me, along with some indigo mud from the bottom of her dye bath, which we will need to start our new vat of Indigo provided we can get our new Indigo plant to grow. (Let’s just say getting the plant back to Cambodia was a bit of a challenge, as it had to travel on a bumpy bus journey down the mountains, an overnight train, a two-hour flight, and another 6-hour bus journey. It was finally planted two days later and is how happy in it’s new home on my balcony in Phnom Penh. I’ll have to update you again if/when it survives and we harvest it. )

Needless to say although it was very difficult to find transparent groups to work with (and the government is a little less welcoming to foreign NGO’s than it’s Cambodian counterpart) I went back and bought a bunch of items from Pang’s shop, and hope to be able to work with them if we ever do want to source things from Sapa. But the moral of the story from this trip is, once again, sourcing things in a responsible manner is hard. It takes time and relationships. I’d have to spend some more time in Sapa before I’d feel comfortable purchasing there, but I was very grateful for the chance to meet Pang and her family and for the little indigo tree they gave me which will hopefully, with a little love and care produce a fruitful crop of indigo leaves next season. And I highly recommend that if you visit Sapa, take a visit to Indigo Cat, located in the middle of town. She even offers embroidery classes so that you can try your hand at learning the local craft. You might gain a deeper appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the garments the women are wearing, and next time you buy something from free people, know the difference.

Special thanks to Grant Salisbury for all the amazing photos. (except the one of the Gaultier hat. I grabbed that from google.)

Posted October 30, 2012 by keokjay in Uncategorized

KeoK’jay Spring 2012 – Beach Detritus Collection   Leave a comment

At long last our Spring 2012 collection has arrived! Here are some photos from our shoot that was done in Otres Beach, Cambodia, last fall. Many of these items are now for sale in our Phnom Penh Flagship boutique as well as with selected retailers. See our website for more information about where you can find them. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Posted April 13, 2012 by keokjay in Uncategorized

Implications of insensitive media coverage of human trafficking   9 comments

Attention Nicholas Kristof: this time you’ve really gone too far.

The recent live tweets that you posted while observing a brothel raid are beyond inappropriate and insensitive; you are hurting the very cause you seek to promote. (Please read Kristof’s own account of the incident here.)

I don’t want to address the journalistic moral dilemma of using twitter as a means of disseminating such sensitive information, and the encroachment on privacy of these young women in the most vulnerable situation – upon which subject pages could be written, but on Mr. Kristof’s writing in general and it’s implications.

Friends, please think this through for a minute:

Ever wonder why an average person, journalist, or even celebrity can’t just walk into a school, a hospital ward, or especially a home for abused women and children, without a proper reason to go there and background check? No? Never wondered that?

Seems like common sense right?

Well for some reason it’s not in Cambodia, where orphanage and tragedy tourism seems to be the norm. Mr. Kristof and his band of celebrities are making tourist attractions of the centers they visit and the girls they talk to, take pictures with, and force to tell their stories. And guess what, contrary to (apparent) popular belief, it DOES hurt. I have personally seen the impact of Kristof’s breed of journalism on the young women he wants to help. I made the same mistake of falling head over heals for Somaly when I read her book, and I recommended a girl I worked with to enroll in her shelter, who had been trafficked, because I thought she would be able to get the proper peer support, therapy, and education that she needed. She was further abused in the shelter, and did not get any of those things she desperately needed. Forcing (or pressuring, manipulating, encouraging) these girls to retell their stories over and over again to an insatiable media (and even just tourists who want to give money) is another form of trauma. They aren’t given proper therapy, and are exposed on a daily basis to unscreened tourists and journalists asking them probing and inappropriate questions and using their photographs to post all over the media. If a girl is in a “safe house” because a pimp is really trying to come after her, how is it possible this organization is allowing these pictures to be taken? It leads you to ask two questions, 1.) Is that girl really in as much danger as the organization claims, and 2.) If she is, what kind of organization would really allow this?

Furthermore, these young women are called victims on a daily basis, which instills the self-image of them inflicted upon them in the brothels. Or in the case that they were never in a brothel to begin with (which is true more often than certain organizations lead you to believe) they now are stuck with a label that never should have defined them in the first place, and become prey to a whole new form of victimization.

Sensationalizing the problem of human trafficking and turning it into a sexy media story opens the door for new non-profits to open fake shelters and legitimate non-profit organizations to become corrupted by the desire to get money which results in more people being trafficked – this time into shelters where they are not getting appropriate education, upbringing and care. In some cases, the line between fake orphanages, brothels, and shelters can be blurry. The fact that growing numbers of children in institutions has paralleled growing numbers of tourists is scary.  So, while the Phnom Penh Post concluded that by and large, although they disagree with Kristof’s tweets, he was getting attention to the cause and that “couldn’t hurt”, respectfully, I disagree: this really and truly can hurt, and has already inflicted severe damage.

Lets be clear. Human trafficking is a real issue, and it’s very serious and needs attention – At least we can agree on this; I don’t know who it is exactly that Kristof is speaking of whom he calls “non-judgmental about trafficking” (are those just people who disagree with Kristof?) But there are constructive ways to move forward with the issue – and by and large its not going to change until the demand changes as many have notably pointed out. The portrayal of the issue by key media figures and celebrities is making some problems worse and creating new ones, and at the same time not offering real, constructive solutions. The problem is not as black and white as Kristof makes it out to be and I guess that if he goes and watches a brothel raid and can write about everything that happened in twitter feed, he has shown that his knowledge of the situation is extremely simplistic.

We should have known that when he bought two women from a brothel and “freed” them. One of them went back to the brothel immediately.

These young women need to be offered constructive therapy, alternative options, and transitional help into supportive communities. There are other great organizations in Cambodia that do a much better job at this than the organizations Kristof champions. Critics of Kristof are quick to point out, and rightly so, that he never discusses what happens to the girls that are rescued in Somaly’s raids, more than a month or two after. The so called “success stories” that he notes in his columns are girls that have escaped sexual slavery – but are still living under the protective wing of AFESIP and SMF. What happens next?

The answer to this question for some is extremely sad.

To be fair, the good thing that’s come out of this is that finally some members of the international press are beginning to express outrage at Kristof’s actions and perspectives. The allegations of abuse, misconduct and corruption within AFESIP and SMF are well-known among the community of people working in this field in Cambodia; lets hope the international community will start listening as well, instead of to celebrities and journalists that drop in for a week long (highly) guided tour of Cambodia sponsored by the aforementioned organizations.

Posted November 25, 2011 by keokjay in Uncategorized

Capturing the fall collection in the wild: 6 travelers, 1 van, extra sushi   Leave a comment


Erin strikes a pose for our photographer.

We’ve just released our fall collection, which of course means: PHOTO SHOOT! Which also means: ROAD TRIP! Phnom Penh is amazing. It’s hot and noisy, dusty and chaotic — beautiful in a million ways. But it’s not exactly prime to photograph clothes for autumn because it’s so (you know) tropical.  Our sights on a cooler climate, we piled into a van and headed for Kirirom, a magical national park full of pine trees and chilly temperatures perfect for a fall-like feeling.

The KeoK’jay crew of travelers included founder Rachel Faller, photographer Grant, models Nimol, Erin and me, and photo intern J-P.  We arrived late at night and set out a homemade sushi picnic, thanks to Rachel and Nimol. The next morning, fueled by extra-strong coffee from the mountaintop guesthouse, the photo frenzy began.

Kirirom boasts plenty of beauty — of the natural kind. No poolside glitz here, so we brought our own glam. Rachel applied makeup and styled all the looks. Grant took the striking creations of our designs and set them against the lush outdoor backdrop. Models valiantly stood on windy rooftops and tromped barefoot through the grass to get just the right shots. J-P held the light reflector. Rachel hand-rolled yet more sushi as our van drove down a rocky mountain pass on our way home.

All in all, an amazing team effort. We’d like to think our shoot was even better than the time Angelina Jolie sat in a wooden boat with a bajillion-dollar handbag. (Love you, Angelina!)

Visit the shop on Street 240 in Phnom Penh, or in Siem Reap, to pick out the newest additions to your closet.  Check our Facebook page to stay posted as we release our collection, photographed in the wild.

Nimol, J-P & Erin chill out between shots.
–Posted by Lindsay

Posted July 21, 2011 by keokjay in Uncategorized

KeoK’jay products available online through Wanderlust!   Leave a comment

KeoK’jay is pleased to announce our newest partnership to bring our goods to buyers in the states and beyond! Wanderlust, one of Cambodia’s most prominent fashion labels, is featuring our products on their website for this holiday season, so you can now purchase KeoK’jay products and have them at your doorstep within a couple weeks!

Wanderlust was started 2 years ago by Fashion editor Elizabeth Keister, who came to Cambodia for a short visit and ended up staying. She set up her cheerful, quirky and fun line of women’s clothing, accessories, and homewares inspired by Cambodia’s bright colors and Elizabeth’s own love of travel. Wanderlust launched their online retail shop one year ago to international acclaim. For this upcoming holiday season, they’ve created a new page on their website to showcase and sell some of their favorite products made in Cambodia, and graciously invited us to participate. We’re excited to be featured along with some of Cambodia’s most interesting and beautiful products, and looking forward to how this will help the handicraft and fashion industry in Cambodia as a whole. There are a number of other groups featured here that have some incredible products as well, all produced fairly in Cambodia. Sleep soundly knowing you’ve shopped responsibly!

Posted December 8, 2010 by keokjay in Uncategorized

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