Dorsu: Finding a way to give back and create change
Leading the way in socially minded business, Hanna Guy tells us how she started her label Dorsu in Kampot, Cambodia
When Tasmanian Hanna Guy first arrived in Cambodia as a tourist in 2007, she knew she wanted to give back to the local community—but she had no idea how. She eventually found her way to Kampot, a picturesque riverside town in the country’s south, and started working with a local NGO. It was there that she met Kunthear Mov, an ex-garment factory worker. Armed with one sewing machine and a $200 loan, together they launched Dorsu: a small-scale sewing studio that has since morphed into a fully-fledged fashion label, providing fair, skilled employment to more than 14 men and women. Dorsu recently celebrated a major milestone with the opening of their new production/retail space in Kampot, and the launch of a fresh collection of ethically made basics.
What is Dorsu’s ethos?
The ethos of our company is simple: real people making clothes for real people. Dorsu is the Khmer word for persistence and is often translated as ‘to try and try again’. Growing our company comes with challenges, but we believe that working hard, being open and being brave enough to fail has allowed us to build a transparent and honest lifestyle brand that people can be inspired by. Our company values are to ‘buy better’, ‘travel often’ and ‘be you’, and we hope we are creating a space where people can live that.
What (or who) inspired you to get involved in the fashion industry?
I started Dorsu with my Co-Founder, Kunthear. Our initial concept was to develop a small business to generate income for Chumkriel Language School, a local community school. Kunthear has extensive experience in sewing and garment production and there was a lack of locally made clothing and accessories here in Kampot, so we set up a small store.
We reached a point two years ago where we decided to scale. We had built a strong team and we were very aware that there was a growing demand both here in Cambodia and overseas for greater transparency in fashion and better quality in garment production. We rehashed our approach and focused on building an approachable and progressive clothing company.
We still financially support Chumkriel Language School as we believe that education is a key component to community development and growth. We also strive to set an example and show that it is possible to be socially minded and commercially successful at the same time. Now we are not only aiming to be part of the fashion industry, but to be a voice in changing it for the better.
What is the basic process behind designing a new collection?
One of the key advantages we have as a company is that our design, production and sales are not independent entities, but instead are connected as a team. We start with a creative concept, review which items are selling well at the time, and focus heavily on avoiding trend-based designs that will not last for our customer. We source fabric during this process and sometimes re-design based on what is available.
We produce small runs, listen to our customers and then respond and adapt accordingly. We don’t eliminate old collections to release new, but instead work on growing our overall product range to offer staples plus a few key favourites. The idea is to offer an entire wardrobe that is adaptable for travel, work and home. Our goal is to build a community of people who know they can grow their wardrobe with us. Our approach is grounded, pragmatic and so far, effective.
What materials do you use and where are they sourced?
We currently work with cotton jersey remnants that we source here in Cambodia. Many large-scale clothing producers have garment factories here that sell massive amounts of leftover fabric into the local supply chain. We scour the warehouses of our select suppliers in Phnom Penh to purchase the best quality jersey, a versatile fabric that is in abundance in Cambodia.
Cambodia is (in)famous for its garment industry. From the perspective of your staff, how is working for Dorsu different?
We’re a much smaller team so the main thing our staff talk about is being more connected with each other. We work from an airy, open-plan workshop with a communal kitchen and staff area. Physical space is important to us as typical garment factories are quite literally often hot boxes.
Quality of production is paramount to our operations and our team are encouraged to move at a slower pace to ensure our garments are produced for longevity. We also focus on personal health and safety. We intentionally run a 40-hour week (Cambodian standard is 48 hours) because producing clothing is manually intensive. Our team members take breaks through the day, are provided with lunch and have paid holidays and leave.
One of the key issues specific to the garment industry in Cambodia is transport. Workers often ride in the back of trucks for long distances in all-weather conditions. Crashes are common and the commute is exhausting. Our team all live locally and we provide helmets for motorbikes. While it isn’t directly related to our operations, we still want to set an example and hopefully encourage other people in the industry to prioritise road safety.
What is your hope for the future of ethical fashion in Cambodia?
My hope is that ‘ethical’ no longer needs to be a separate approach, but instead becomes the norm. Garment manufacturing is the second-most environmentally destructive industry on the planet, and producers intentionally operate in countries where labour is cheap and health and safety laws are lax. This is incredibly confronting.
As customers, we have literally been tricked into believing that clothing should be readily available, cheap and disposable—but this is not the case. I would like to see value put back into products; focus placed back on quality, longevity and design. I also hope that customers, brands and manufacturers alike will start recognising that the producers who make our clothes are people who share common values.