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Ambre, 20 years of being timeless

A chat with Romyda Keth, celebrated Cambodian designer and the soul behind a fashion brand like no other.

by Living Cambodia Team, 13 Dec. 2019

Ambre 20th anniversary gala on Nov 25 was a big Phnom Penh event. There was plenty of glamour (with a stunning fashion presentation showcasing the celebrated Cambodian brand’s latest creations), artistic vibes (Ambre combinations of colors and textures are truly tantamount to stunning paintings) and emotion, with King Sihamoni of Cambodia leading one minute of silence in memory of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the late director of the Royal Ballet. But this creative achievement can be dated earlier than 1999 : to 1994, exactly, when Romyda Keth came back to her country after 23 years abroad.

While in Paris, Romyda (1966, Phnom Penh) had started to successfully design dresses and accessories. Yet, upon her arrival with husband Denis Laurent and their children back to a country still recovering from troubled times, re-embracing cultural references, local fabrics and a certain way of dressing up, heightened her creativity.

"I rediscovered a sense of the place from my early childhood," notes Romyda in her workshop on a leafy street in downtown Phnom Penh; "specifically, I explored the resources of Cambodian silk, so particular in its texture and hues. Before, I had worked only with Thai or Chinese silks. And I realized Khmer aesthetics matched with my idea of timeless feminine elegance. The apsaras at Angkor? Body-hugging and fluid garment cut, a refined and streamlined celebration of the woman's shape."

Photo by Jérémie Montessuis
Photo by Philippe Bataillard

Equally stimulating was how Asian women easily relate to colorful, elaborate and super-feminine outfits. "No matter your social status, when you go out in Cambodia, when you attend a birthday party or a wedding, you have the desire of looking good", notes Romyda. It's a sign of self-respect, and of respect for your hosts, for the community. It is also the mere pleasure of...looking good.

"In Western countries nowadays, there's this fear of looking "over-dressed", because elegance has been frowned upon by political-correctness, and it's a pity", remarks Thomas Jaffré, who's been working with Romyda in Phnom Penh for ten years now after a Parisian career. "Ambre has been showing for two decades that high-fashion is not necessarily frivolous, and extravagantly over-priced."

Sketch-to-wear: a fluid production process

In spite of their clean-cut design, Amber outfits are indeed highly elaborate and require a variety of techniques, from laser or hand cutting to stencil patterns, from layered organza or fabric combinations to hand-stitched embroideries and applications. Yet, they remain remarkably affordable. Where is the secret?

"It certainly is all about our work management", suggests Romyda Keth; "we are more an artisan workshop than a typical fashion house. Our 80- to 100-strong working team stays involved in the whole process. Seamstresses, draughtsmen and store attendants know each other, often come from the same families."

Probably, it has also to do with the core principle of the brand: staying attuned of a certain vision of timeless elegance, leaving trends and fads aside, all of that sprinkled with a good pinch of Cambodian carefreeness.

With her collections sold in Brisbane, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris or Dakar, Romyda Keth remains intrisically a true artist, forever marveling at how her sketches give birth to elaborate yet easy-to-wear dresses or pantsuits. Not afraid of being whimsical, when needed. Have you noticed the cowgirl and cowboy hats during Ambre last fashion show? Was it some sort of statement? Romyda explains with a smile: "Oh, I was just thinking of some old western comedy movies I'm fond of, Les Pétroleuses -- oddly titled The Legend of Frenchie King in English --, Viva Maria!, the Wild West subverted by strong women...just love it!".

Fashion as inspired handicraft: Ambre behind the scenes