On May 6, 2010, Madewell will debut its new collaboration with an American designer based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The line of clothing, made in Siem Reap, is called Wanderlust. It is wanderlust that brought the designer, Elizabeth Kiester, to Cambodia.
Kiester had the fashionista's dream career. She had been a fashion editor at various magazines such as Seventeen and Mademoiselle; she helped launch Jane and Marie Claire; and she did trend forecasting for Abercrombie and Fitch and LeSportsac. And now she wants to change the future of fashion by making it more equitable and socially responsible.
I met with Kiester last week, at her boutique in Siem Reap, a tourist town near the Ankgor Wat complex of temples. We sat on a couch filled with brightly printed pillows in the back of the store. She was leaving for the United States the next day to launch her collaboration with Madewell and have a pop-up store in Brooklyn. Kiester has an ebullient personality that matches her store. The store is in a 1929 house on a small alley near the town's old market. It is filled with affordable and high-quality cotton dresses, accessories, and shoes. From the playful dresses to the funky bracelets, everything in the store can be worn easily and look right anywhere in the world.
Kiester's collaboration with Madewell will include sarongs, scarves, flip-flops, dresses, bags, and bracelets. Everything is handmade in Cambodia, in the tailors' homes. "I don't like factories," says Kiester, "so the girls work at home." The women handloom on wooden looms and hand dye every thread for the sarongs and scarves. Even the 600 pairs of sandals for the collection are made by hand and not in a shoe factory. Kiester clarifies, "I hate the word handmade, but I like to say 'hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart.'"
Wanderlust made 5,000 checkered and striped bracelets for the collaboration with Madewell. I had bought one of these bracelets when I first walked into the store because I loved the string embroidery. Kiester told me that a disabled woman had been making these bracelets from the plastic water bottles that tourists throw away at Angkor Wat. Now the woman makes them as part of a cottage industry for Wanderlust. Repurposing the water bottles also helps get rid of trash. But Kiester does not advertise the social and environmental benefits of these bracelets - she wants customers to buy the bracelets because they are fashionable. Kiester says, "it's not about the guilt - it's just cool."
Wanderlust, which opened in 2008, has already had great success. Kiester now has three stores in Cambodia and an online store. However, every time I mention the word "success," Kiester finds some wood to knock on. She says that deciding to open the store after visiting Cambodia on a volunteer vacation was "the scariest thing I've ever done."
I believe that the Wanderlust collaboration with Madewell will be hugely triumphant. The time is ripe for fashion to feel good again. It took a mover and shaker like Kiester to put her career on the line and challenge the status quo. I think that this is just the beginning of a trend towards equitable, responsible, and affordable fashion. It may only be a matter of time before other designers follow suit.
Look for Wanderlust for Madewell at Madewell stores across the United States. Visit www.wanderlustcambodia.com to order the glamorous goods from anywhere you are wandering.
Follow Julia Plevin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliaplevin