Miss Japan strutted down the runway in Bangkok, wearing a garland of cardboard leaves around her head, a tube top of tiny pyramids wrapped around her chest and a dress, short in the front with a flowing train, made entirely of rolled up copies of newspapers and magazines from Cambodia.
The gown, part of a fashion show in October for the Keep Bangkok Clean campaign, was designed by La Chhouk Recycled and Creative Fashion, a team of young designers in Phnom Penh carving out a socially minded niche in the country’s fledging fashion scene.
They outfitted the entire lineup of beauty queens for the event. Miss Thailand World wore a long, tiered dress composed entirely of shreds of plastic. Miss Grand Thailand wore a strapless plastic mini-dress and cape. Miss Japan 2015 wore an avant-garde yellow tulip dress with plastic ponchos bunched together at the bottom and wrapping around her neck, with a matching bonnet to boot.
“As graphic design and interior design students, we wanted to do something different from our field,” said Sovannareach Ith, who started La Chhouk with fellow students from Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine Arts. “We also wanted to create pieces of art that can contribute to society.”
Using only recycled materials, which might pass for trash in the eyes of some, the group began their collaboration working on a project for a school fair in 2014, each assigned to scour the city for different materials that would become their first experiment in recycled fashion.
Now much of the materials they gather – plastic bags, rice sacks, cans, bottles, cardboard, paper – come from classmates keeping an eye out for them, family friends who keep leftover bits from their businesses or directly from scrap collectors trawling the city’s streets.
“We want to educate people about using recycled materials and let them see the value of those materials through our beautiful dresses,” Ith said. “We want to let them know that waste could also be reused to make another wonderful thing.”
For their latest fashion shows in Phnom Penh, the La Chhouk crew have pushed the social possibilities of their projects even further, hiring transgender models to show off lines including a colourful collection of plastic dresses made in the style of Cambodia’s swinging ’1960s.
By mixing traditional styles with contemporary social issues, La Chhouk is encouraging Cambodians to pay more attention to both, said Ith. The group is planning their biggest fashion show yet for the end of the year in Phnom Penh.