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Vannary San of Lotus Silk: How She Started Her Own Business, Gave Back to Cambodians, and Created Ethically-Sourced Material

By October 2, 2015 One Comment
Founder Vannary San with Farmer.

Founder Vannary San with Farmer. Please note: All photos used in this articles are the property of Lotus Silk and Vannary San.

At Global Children, we believe that one of the best ways to inspire and motivate our students is by introducing them to leaders in the Cambodian Community. Vannary San, who grew up in Cambodia’s Kampong Chhang province, founded her own company, Lotus Silk, in 2003. Lotus Silk initially ran the business exclusively out of her own home, with only one tailor and a single sewing machine. Today, Lotus Silk has its own boutique in Phnom Penh, employs local talent, uses up-cycled fabrics, and supports Cambodian silk farmers while also preserving traditional agricultural methods and promoting creative designs. Vannary feels she owes much of her success to her Cambodian community, and today has made it her mission to give back.

Silk and materials used by Lotus Silk.

Silk and materials used by Lotus Silk.

When Vannary graduated from high school at sixteen, she expressed her desire to continue her education to her parents. While they were highly supportive, her father’s job with the Department of Public Health and her mother’s grocery business in the local market simply did not provide the level of income necessary to pay for further school. Undeterred, Vannary enrolled at Computer Training School and worked her way up to Instructor/Typist in only three months. For all her efforts, Vannary brought home a salary of $40/month and struck a deal with her family: if they could provide for part of her tuition, she would work full-time to fund her living expenses and remaining costs. Her family agreed, and Vannary achieved her childhood dream of moving to Phnom Penh and enrolling in the Instituted of Technology Cambodia (ITC.)

The design and construction process.

The design and construction process.

Though she lived with relatives, Vannary says getting adjusted to life in Phnom Penh was difficult: she feared getting lost navigating the streets, so her professors would pick her up and drop her off at her home every day for the first few weeks of classes. They also helped her to fine-tune her resume and interview skills, and aided in her job search. Vannary says that, to this day, one of her proudest moments was when she received two job offers not long after arriving in Phnom Penh. She ultimately chose to work at the Helen Keller International Foundation, working full time from eight in the morning to five in the evening, then heading to class from 5:30-8:30. She was able to save a small amount of money to send back to her family.

Lotus Silk presenting at an event

Lotus Silk presenting at an event

In 2001, Vannary decided to stop working for NGOs and found a job with the owner/designer of the fashion company BLISS/Orange River. This was where her love of textiles was born. Not only was she the manager, she also served as the translator for tailors and production teams, which constantly exposed her to sewing methods, design, fabrics, and all things fashion. Vannary says it was while working this job that she first recognized that almost all of the fabrics she saw told a story, and that much of their beauty was derived from things in nature.

A piece from Lotus Silk's Collection.

A piece from Lotus Silk’s Collection.

Vannary realized that, while textiles and designs were a huge part of the NGO sector in Cambodia, most of these organizations focused exclusively on bags, purses, or scarves. There was little creativity and next to no contemporary designs — let alone many organizations led by actual Cambodians. Vannary grew frustrated by the reality that it was mainly just foreign businesses, NGOs, or rich opportunists who were creating these designs — and she noticed that very few had the success or even the well being of Cambodians in mind. Wanting to support her own community, in 2003, Vannary founded Lotus Silk. She says she chose the name to reflect her own journey, as well of that of many Cambodians: the Lotus flower grows from mud, but its bloom is recognized as a global symbol of beauty that is appreciated everywhere.

A celebration of Cambodian design.

A celebration of Cambodian design.

Realizing that the cost of opening a boutique outright was astronomical, Vannary instead purchased one sewing machine and began to create and tailor her own designs — while still working full time. She began to save even more of her salary in order to get Lotus Silk off the ground. During the beginning stages, Vannary sewed on nights and weekends, while also taking care of her husband and children. Her first big break was when she successfully consigned with local hotels, selling her pieces in their shops. Her first boutique operated from 2004-2005, and she reopened from 2007-2009, until one of the major hotels she worked with changed its name and rebranded, effectively eliminating a large majority of Vannary’s market. Undeterred, she kept working, hiring three tailors and making the decision to resign from her full-time job in 2010 to focus exclusively on building Lotus Silk. In 2012, Vannary opened her boutique on Street 240 in Phnom Penh, where she remains today. She has two workshops, one still on the first floor of her home, and the second in the boutique itself.

The brick and mortar Lotus Silk Boutique.

The brick and mortar Lotus Silk Boutique.

One of the best things about Vannary and Lotus Silk is the commitment to employing Cambodians from marginalized backgrounds, or those from situations and circumstances that make getting off the ground harder than it is for most. Since Vannary knows that situation well, she has made it her mission to give back in every aspect of her production. The women Vannary employs are often their family’s highest earners, and many have been pulled out of the garment factories, where they worked long hours for minimal wages under awful conditions. Vannary also employs a disabled veteran from the 1980s wars in Cambodia, and has employed entire families while also offering free accommodation. She also offers two internships for students studying retail business at the local University. Best of all, she encourages students from Global Children Cambodia to apply for internships and jobs with Lotus Silk! Her goal is to give those who work for her a sense of self-reliance, creative outlets, business experience, vocational and leadership skills, and outlets to develop their craft and loves of design and fashion.

The Silk Process in action.

The Silk Process in action.

She is also environmentally conscious in selecting her materials, employing “up-cycling,” which uses end-roll fabrics, home decor textiles, vintage cloth, found prints, and swatches to provide the materials for her designs. That way, she can ensure that she is getting high-quality materials while eliminating waste: she urges anyone with extra fabric to send it her way! Vannary says she is inspired by the painting-like quality of fabric: she is drawn to traditional prints with a bit of mystery to them, and favors sunset and ocean colors, especially teals, blues, and turquoises.

Vannary San presenting her collection.

Vannary San presenting her collection.

Vannary also pays a lot of attention to the source of her silk, as she knows it can generate a good amount of income for the farmers and their families. Though many in design import their raw silk yarn from China and Vietnam, in keeping with her commitment to supporting her own community, Vannary searched to find a solution that was closer to home. Finally, she found the Golden Silk Farm in Kampot, where, with funds granted from the Kosal Foundation, she was able to help revive the traditional Seri-Culture. After the Pol Pot regime devastated Cambodia’s well-known Golden Silk production, many felt a huge part of their culture had been lost. Vannary is thrilled to not only ensure the ethical treatment of her employees while preserving Cambodian techniques, she also helps to train new farming families to ensure that the tradition survives to the next generation. Lotus Silk’s own silk is woven in the Prey Veng Province, on traditional handlooms, and the cotton weaving and color-dyeing process is sourced in the Kandal Province. Vannary also designs jewelry made from Cambodian silk, and is interested in getting into recycling shell and bullet casings, to make something beautiful and meaningful out of a dark history.

Lotus Silk Founder Vannary San. Making an impact every day.

Lotus Silk Founder Vannary San. Making an impact every day.

Vannary says she “Knows how difficult it is for Cambodian students,” that “We have our dream, we want to start our climb, but how?” Above all, Vannary wants students to remember that “No matter who we are, we can do it.”

To see more of Vannary’s collections and to learn more about Lotus Silk, please visit their website.