Former fashionista Elizabeth Kiester gave up a crazy-glam-hectic New York lifestyle (complete with full Sex and the City trappings, requisite high heels and sashimi-platter lunch dates) to give something back to the Khmer people she’d fallen in love with on a trip to Cambodia.
She sold her apartment, packed her bags and (quite literally) set up shop in Siem Reap. Which is where we discovered her, while researching star stays for our next hotel guide, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: South-East Asia (out later this year).
The result, Wanderlust, is a lifestyle concept boutique selling hand-made clothing and homewares, all created by local women – it’s been so successful that there are already three outlets in Cambodia.
We caught up with the one-woman responsible-retail wonder, Elizabeth Kiester, at home in Siem Reap…
Tell us a bit about Wanderlust, Elizabeth – how did it come about? What drew you to Cambodia in the first place?
I came to Cambodia in 2008 on a short-term volunteer holiday through an American NGO. I wanted to take a vacation, but I really wanted to do something. I was at crossroads in my life, and the idea of a week on a beach just didn’t appeal at the time. I have always loved south-east Asia and Cambodia was on my ‘must check out’ list. So I came to Siem Reap and installed water pumps in rural villages, painted a pagoda, and taught songs and English to the kids at a local orphanage.
I just loved the magic of the place: the light, the sounds, the unfamiliar and strange smells, and the sense of hope that I felt everywhere, in every eye and every smile – even in every tear I saw shed. I wanted to be part of it on a deeper level, and try to do what I could to help instill a sense of security in the Khmer people, and above all, to celebrate and make noise about all of it.
Here at Smith, we love hotels to offer characteristics that are unique to the place – not one size fits all. This is clearly an ethos that chimes with your approach: tell us how you ensure a little bit of your location is sewn into the fabric of your clothes and products…
First, I don’t use factories: I use people. My gang who sew and work with me are my sisters, my friends. They all work from home. This way, they can look after their parents, their kids, their lives and still be earning, creating, expressing. There is truly love, a sense of pride, and a whole lot of hope in every single stitch.
The girls that work in the shops are dynamic and inspired; they’re speaking English fluently now, learning to use the computer, moving their lives in new, exciting directions. I tell them all the time that they can be whatever and whomever they want to be: they are limitless, the opportunities are endless.
These are girls who maybe didn’t have great opportunities before, and what befell this country stripped away a lot of their vision for the future. So we spend a lot of time talking about moving forward, planning, dreaming, and conceptualizing tomorrow. When they see a customer wearing one of our dresses… wow! They are so excited, so pleased. I love that we all have a sense of ownership of Wanderlust.
Second, everything we do is about Cambodia. Wanderlust is an expression of color, hope, energy, newness.
What’s the first thing you’d show a new visitor to Cambodia?
Everyone comes here for the Angkor Wat temples – and they are amazing, awe-inspiring, glorious, majestic and magical. But Cambodia, particularly Siem Reap, is more than just temples: I show people around the amazing art galleries here – the temples of modern art! There’s a dawning of great creativity here again, and I am anxious for everyone to see it and enjoy that part of Siem Reap, too.
Tourists never go to Kulen Mountain, for some reason, as it is off the beaten path and an hour’s drive from Siem Reap. I love it here. It’s a holy spot, with an ancient Buddha carved into the mountain face that was only discovered in the last century. The river runs down the mountain and ends in an enormous, gorgeous waterfall that you can swim in. Khmer families visit Kulen on sundays and picnic there. Herbal medicines are grown on the mountain, and (for those who dare!), they are sold on the roadside. I love spending the day there, absorbing myself in the local culture.
Do you have any regrets about leaving the bright lights of the Big Apple behind? What would you miss most about living in the city?
I don’t regret it at all, although I do miss things about NYC. I am lucky because I get to go back about four times a year and get my fill of the incredibleness that is my New York. New York really is the best of the best: the best art, the best shopping, the best restaurants, the best theater, the best $2 pizza slice… to me, even the subway is the best. I love it, and it will always, always be my home.
Where’s your favourite hotel in the world, and what makes it so great?
In my old life, I was travelling to London a great deal, and I found a home from home at the Covent Garden Hotel. I am normally a ‘clean lines, graphic shapes’ kind of girl – not minimalist, per se, but I don’t like a lot of fuss and gilt and all that. And while the Covent Garden Hotel is certainly not modern, the charm and the coziness and the comfort and warmth of that hotel made me love it more every time I stayed.
Each room is different and unique – great prints and patterns mixed together, eclectic combinations of old and new – it’s classic elegance without the silly and unnecessary pomp. It is discreet but friendly, small without being cramped, charming without the corniness. And, as a New Yorker, I love to walk, and the neighborhood begs you to do so. It is quite simply a perfect hotel.
Who or or what inspires you? Do you draw on any resources in particular for your designs?
I am an extremely emotional person – the smallest things can move me in huge, huge ways. The colors here drive me wild. I am rocked to the core every time I see the sunset blaze over the verdant palms. The sky is so incredibly blue – a color that I think Yves Klein invented, and yet it’s here, up in the sky, almost every day. I used to be a girl that only loved black things, and Cambodia forced me to see the world in Technicolor, and it’s awesome.
I would also say the artwork of Sister Corita Kent is the single strongest visual source of influence I’ve ever had. That woman had guts, she had vision, she had moxie. She changed the face of graphic design. But she said things through her work, she really expressed herself. She commented on social issues, her own personal feelings, in the most beautiful, extraordinary, modern and cool way. She moved things forward tremendously; her voice was so clear, so strong, and it resonated. And still echoes. I admire her greatly.
Wow – I’d never come across Sister Corita Kent’s work before – what a visionary. And graphic design is such an underrated arts stream. You gotta love a sister with a sideline in art and activism – like a super-combo of Sister Wendy Beckett and Mother Theresa!
And Marrimekko fires me up like nothing else. I practically fainted when I went to their flagship store in Helsinki.
Oh gawd, I couldn’t even look at the website without wanting half of what I saw, especially the homewares.
So, we’re in Wanderlust, having a browse: what are the latest must-haves for style-conscious globetrotting gals (other than maybe the seersucker Sumatra shirt dress [right], Wanderluster sunglasses and fantastic kitsch cotton totes [below] we’ve already got our eyes on?)
I have been working feverishly on some great new styles, and I am really proud of them. The goal of Wanderlust is to provide clothes that look great in, say, a beachside café in Belize, but equally cool on the streets of Rome. I personally don’t have ‘day clothes’, ‘evening clothes’ and ‘holiday clothes‘ – who does? I want our clothes to live with our customer, and wanderlust with her, even just throughout her everyday routine. So we’ve got some gorgeous new clean-lined shift dresses that pop over jeans or leggings; a great, chic pull-on skirt that’s an appropriate length for all ages of gals and looks cool with flip-flops or a heel; a beautiful long strapless easy-breezy dress… gosh, there’s tons. We’re really inspired and really excited.
What do you never leave home without?
My biggest problem is I never leave home without everything and anything. I am a ridiculous over-packer, and I can’t seem to edit. I hate myself when I am dragging some huge bag around, and I swear I will never do it again, but… I do it every time.
And me – it’s especially embarrassing when you work in travel and you’re supposed to know better! Where’s next on your holiday wish-list?
My goal is the Maldives. I imagine it’s heaven on earth. Just looking at pictures of it sends shivers up my spine. When I get really stressed, I say out loud, ‘MALDIVES!’
Ha ha, us too – you should have seen us go green when we had to debrief Amber of Team Smith after her ‘arduous’ Indian Ocean reviewer trip to Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi and Cocoa Island! Our post on Amber’s Maldives trip will add more fuel to your fantasy fires…
I think, though, first, I will go to Kerala, India, with my best friend and stay on a houseboat. We’ve been talking about it for over a year now, and we want to make that happen immediately.
You must – there are some great cruises that set off from Alleppey, on traditional wood and palm-thatch houseboats: you wend your way around the Keralan backwaters and their village communities, and are given amazing meals made with fish that’s caught from the boat – you’ll never forget eating Keralan fish curry as the sun sets over a palm-lined freshwater lagoon… Try Malabar Escapes for one of the best houseboat experiences.
I also like traveling alone, and my goal is to someday sit on the banks of the Ganges River in Calcutta, India, for an entire day – sun up to sundown – and not move, and just watch and listen and absorb. The Ganges represents so many things and is a vessel for so much of life in India, and I am fascinated by it.
And I am desperate to go to Sri Lanka, and may join my friend there in February…
Where in the world have you felt most at home, and why?
As corny as it sounds, when I am with someone I love, I could be on a mountaintop in the freezing temps, or laying on a beach, or watching some dumb TV program, or walking silently down a foreign street or laughing my arse off in some stinky pub in some random neighborhood someplace. Home IS where my heart is, and when my heart is engaged, home is there.
Wanderlust : Alley West, Old Market Area, Siem Reap (+855 (0)63 965980) Wanderlust at FCC : Pokambor Avenue, Siem Reap (+55 (0)63 969698)
Wanderlust Phnom Penh: 21 Street 240 Phnom Penh (+855 (0)23 221982)
Visit the online boutique: Wanderlust Cambodia
For more destination inspiration, check out Mr & Mrs Smith’s guide to Siem Reap