Fashion in Cambodia,
a certain Khmer vision of beauty
With MAADS # LivingCambodia
13 November 2017
Photographer Jérémie Montessuis and fashion model Kongka Chan reflect on Cambodia’s fashion scene, the modern Apsara and a certain Khmer vision of beauty.
In jeans, tee-shirt and sneakers, Kongka Chan hops from a meeting to another, super busy at putting together the first fashion talk show in the history of Cambodia she will soon be hosting on CTN TV. “Edgy but not elitist,” says the Cambodia Next Top Model 2015 with that Khmer smile, a smile which combines so nicely youthful self-confidence, timeless wisdom and a good dose of whimsicality; “because here, fashion is much more about expressing yourself than being taught what to wear and how to look.”
That free-spirited atmosphere is what makes life in Cambodia as a professional photographer so attractive for Jérémie Montessuis, 45, who after 10 years in the Kingdom of Wonder remains highly energized by the natural light, the faces and the attitudes. “As a market, fashion photography may not be as resourceful as in surrounding countries,” he remarks, “but we are basking here in a great tradition of artistically representing female beauty, in a context less codified and rigid than in the West, propitious for experimenting with forms, period or cultural references”.
Keeping in mind photography masters like Helmut Newton – “but his genre would be too sexy here”, Nick Knight or Richard Avedon, Jérémie is also a big fan of Chinesevisual artist Chen Man, admiring her Eastern sense of glamour and perfected beauty. Chen Man, who noted in a recent interview to Harper’s Bazaar that “there is a unity required between body and soul”. Isn’t it where lies the secret behind Khmer female beauty, both deified but also naturally acknowledged as a reflection of an inner, personal harmony?
“I think we, Khmer girls and women have a rather spontaneous, instinctive approach to elegance, beauty, ‘looking good’ for ourselves even more than in the eye of others”, asserts Kongka, 25, one of five daughters in a poor family, a brilliant student who started to work as a tender age as a sales and marketing officer in the hospitality industry before devoting all her time to a modeling and fashion influencing career. “I love to dress up, this is not a ‘luxury’ for us, just one of the pleasures of life. And I love to wear our traditional garments for religious festivals, when I go visit my family, in no way it means that I am giving up my freedom as a young active woman in a modern, urban context.”
Similarly, Jérémie does not see any contradiction between his interest in cutting edge, innovative settings (for his latest photo sessions, he favors accessories by visual artist and designer Em Riem) or techniques (exploring the photographic resources of the new generation of smartphone cameras) and the ever-present reference to the Apsaras, the celestial dancers who grace so many bas-reliefs in Angkor. “ I want to work more and more on that kind of aesthetics”, he says before dashing to his next photo shoot.
So, is there something uniquely Khmer with beauty, going beyond social status, myths, unreachable ideals? In all religious ceremonies, the celebrant blesses the woman as “srey saat” (“beautiful woman”) and the man as “proh san’ha” (“handsome man”). This is also a common way to address people when you don’t know their name, or just as a gracious, often flirty salutation. Obviously, good looks are not the only factor, here beauty is an attitude.
Jérémie’s work is often featured in Huf Magazine.