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Cambodian designer Sor San (pictured front, left)
Image: Sor San

Cambodia designer brings Khmer fashion to Europe

Somethea Tann
August 27, 2019

Sor San, a disabled designer from Phnom Penh is introducing ethnic fashion from her country in Berlin this year. She is one of five female designers to showcase her work at a fashion event.


Twenty-five-year old San, who was born with a defective leg, joined a course at Cambodia’s Modern Ethnic Design Center (MEDC) last year to promote ethnic fashion among audiences abroad.

The Modern Ethic Design Centre is a project by Bazaar Berlin, an annual international lifestyle event, the Fashion Design Institute in Düsseldorf, Germany and the Raffles International College in Cambodia.

Read more: How Chinese money is changing Cambodia

The three-year-long project was launched in 2017 and trains 15 students every year. The best five of these visit Berlin to promote their collection. Sor San is one of the five winners and has the chance to bring her styles and other Khmer ethnic products the Berlin Bazaar from November 6 to 10 this year.

Before joining the program, San sold Khmer products and silk at the Disability Action Council in Phnom Penh. She also owns a Facebook page called Cambodia Disability and Pride.

San has been dividing her time between work and studies
San has been dividing her time between work and studiesImage: Sor San

One of the reasons that motivated her to participate in the fashion program was that it would help her and her colleagues find more work. “It is a huge achievement, but not only for me, for all of them [the colleagues] as well, because if I sell my products, they get more work through me,” she explained.

Pride and Inspiration

Many disabled people in Cambodia are forced to beg on the streets to make a living, but San was unwilling to compromise on her dream. Speaking to DW, she said she wanted to find something interesting to do and began exploring the field of fashion and design.

"I am the kind of person who likes to find something new to do in her life. I am interested in clothes and creative designing," San said, adding that she could express herself truly through design. Her disability is not an obstacle for her anymore.

"I want to show everyone that even if I was born with a disability, I am capable of doing what normal people do," she insisted.

Read more: Beauty with health - Cambodia's new preference

An eye-opening opportunity

Joining MEDC has been life-changing for San. She now understands the European market and has been working on improving her communication skills and technical knowledge. This will help facilitate her business in the future.

"I want customers to understand the process of producing clothes. The process needs patience and perseverance so that everyone can see the beauty in these clothes," she said.

San with a colleague
San with a colleagueImage: Sor San

The concept of her collection is, "Strength makes you beautiful" and through this, she wishes to showcase the inner strength and endurance in women, which is much more than clothes and outward appearances.

Sor San has faced many difficulties during her course in fashion designing. "I have to divide my time between studies and work. I spend my own money on making these clothes and I must climb seven floors by myself to get to my class," she told DW. But these obstacles have not made her want to give up.

Seeking stability and support

In Cambodia, indigenous designs have not attracted many local people, although these are quite popular among foreigners. But San is determined to make her business profitable by making locals understand the value of using Khmer products.

"In the future, I want to have a place to exhibit and sell my own designs as well as traditional Khmer goods,'" she told DW. "I will try to find a local market and export abroad as well."

She also wants people to understand that disabilities need not come in the way of a successful life: "To people with a disability: you have to fight hard and not feel discouraged. Try to think positively and motivate yourself. You will reach your goal if you keep trying."

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