I knew exactly who I wanted to interview for my first Life With column as I soon as I got the job here at Fashionista, my old friend Elizabeth Kiester (pictured here with one of her besties, Loven.) I’ve been very blessed in my 11 (gasp!) year career in this business to be able to work with some amazingly talented and wickedly smart and funny people. Eliz pretty much tops that list. And I was lucky enough to get to work with her twice, at Jane and YM.
But it’s not because she’s my friend that I wanted you all to meet her. She truly has had one of the most interesting careers in fashion—going from magazines to trendspotter for A&F to creating collaborations with Stella at LeSportsac.
As of late last year, she is a full-fledged designer, selling her wares at her incredibly colorful store, Wanderlust, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Yep, Cambodia.
Unfortunately, a trip to Cambodia isn’t exactly in the Fashionista budget, so I talked to Elizabeth via email about how she ended up where she is today and how a life in fashion in Siem Reap is so very different from the one she used to live in New York.
Monday, we’ll chat more about what’s selling out in her store, what she misses most about New York, where Wanderlust is going next, and how to rock 5 inch Marni pumps in a Cambodian village.
So let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from and when did you first fall in love with fashion?
I am from Westport, Connecticut, the bastion of all things preppy and classic. It’s like a J.Crew catalog come to life! I was always way into clothes and fashion and color and style and pushed the preppy thing a bit, even as a teenager. My mom was quite a clothes horse/style maven in her day, and I think that was passed down through my genes!
Take me through the jobs in your career and how they came to be. You have one of the MOST interesting paths of anyone I know.
The cool thing about my career is that it proves that timing was everything! I have been very, very lucky. When I started in magazines in 1989, in the days before internet and cable TV and all of that new media, magazines were so important. They were such a critical tool to get visual messages out there and across to women. Back then, there were about eight women’s fashion magazines available and each one had its own ‘voice’, its own very particular reader. So there wasn’t the competition that there is today. When I got the job as an assistant to the fashion director of Mademoiselle, I had NO CLUE what that meant, had never seen a runway show on tv, didn’t really know any designers or any of that. We just didn’t have the means to know about that kind of stuff. So it was all so fresh and exciting and new–every day was a great learning experience. By the end of my first year there, I knew every designer by name, their phone numbers by heart, the fabric content of every piece of clothing in every designer’s collection…it was incredible. I worked so hard to learn learn learn and later, I became known as the ‘fashion encyclopedia’ because I had taken it upon myself to study everything about the industry and learn it and KNOW it. I moved on to Seventeen, then to Marie Claire–I was one of the founding fashion editors–and then from there to Jane, which was the single most valuable career experience in my life. Jane gave me opportunities I did not know existed for me–it took me away from a job title and allowed me to explore all kinds of things within the framework of fashion–I started writing, styling more, editing my own section of the magazine, shooting covers, writing album reviews. We were allowed and encouraged to do whatever we felt like doing there and it was so liberating and so incredible. I felt so lucky every single day. from there, I went onto to work on the relaunch of YM with a small posse of Jane-ers, and we remade that magazine into something I was very, very proud of.
After that, I got the chance to ‘change sides’ and went over to Abercrombie & Fitch, where I became the Global Concept Director. It was sort of like being a Fashion Director for a magazine, but with more at stake–this was serious business! A&F is HUGE! I traveled all over the world searching out the new, the cool, the trendy, the directional. It was AMAZING. I spent an enormous amount of time in Japan, and fell madly in love with Tokyo. God, Tokyo is the most magical, incredible place. Talk about fashion and trends and inspired design–every time i went there, I was honestly moved to tears the entire time. The deliberateness of Japanese design is what really moved me. Everything is so thought out, so studied, so honestly and lovingly and proudly done. It really rocked my world, and I learned so much from being around the Japanese and their work.
So, it made sense that from A&F I went onto be the Global Creative Director for LeSportsac which is HUGE in japan, as well as being super important in the US. I worked on the launch of the Stella McCartney for LeSportsac collection and was going back and forth between NYC, London and Tokyo. It was amazing. I got involved in so many things there–marketing, merchandising, store design, advertising, visuals, design, print, color, collateral–I wore about 100 different hats and i loved all of them.
I know you’ve always been interested in this part of the world. What drew you to it initially? And what do you love most about it?
Well, my dad was a journalist and covered the Vietnam War as a reporter, so I grew up very aware of this part of the world. and because of all the things that happened here during the war and then the civil wars, i really felt the urge and the longing and the desire to come over here and do something positive for the beautiful, extraordinary people of these cultures.
I am not a religious person, but I do admire Buddhism, and I admire the importance that this religion plays in every day life. I love the history here, the mix of old and new. I love the climate. I love the way rice paddies look at around 4PM when the light is golden and yellow and hopeful. I love seeing an elephant walking down the street dodging an SUV. I love the sounds of monks chanting, I love the smell of frangipani and incense and the way water lilies float in the paddies, all pink and blooming against a cacophony of green. I love how I’ve learned a new shade of blue by simply looking at the sky.
“I am constantly inspired by the colors I see every single day.”
Tell us how you ended up landing there for good.
So I was doing a month long media tour of Asia on behalf of the Stella collection. I was all over Asia doing interviews, hosting launch parties, running around blabbing about how cute and amazing this collection was. It was a blast! But i knew i needed a vacation after this insanity. So I had booked myself a trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia to do a ‘volunteer vacation’, which is to work for a non-profit for a short time, doing volunteer work, sleeping in a cheap hostel, etc. I had done one before in southern Vietnam, and I loved it. And I had always wanted to visit Cambodia. So I came to Siem Reap after sending back all my fashion outfits from the media tour to NYC, I came with a backpack filled with cargo pants, tee shirts and Chuck Taylors and went to work. We installed water pumps in rural villages, painted a school house at a pagoda, taught english to kids, worked in a ‘street children’s center’…and it changed my life. I loved Cambodia, I loved the spirit of the place, I loved seeing hope and feeling hopeful and touching people and having them touch me in this very powerful, meaningful way. The Cambodian people were teaching me way, way more than i was teaching them! Nothing was ever, ever going to be the same again, and I knew it. And I decided I needed to turn my life upside down and reset it in a way that seemed more powerful, more real, more exuberant, more honest and perhaps, a little bit more challenging in a new way.
So, I found a space for Wanderlust–a 1929 French Colonial house, all dilapidated and a wreck, right in the center of town, and rented it and started renovating it with the help of some Khmer friends. Yes, I even swung a sledgehammer!
“Wanderlust! On the Alley West, Siem Reap, Cambodia. The building is an original french colonial, from 1929. the lantern my parents bought at Cligancourt flea market in Paris in the 1950s! The whole thing is very Indochine, no?”
What is Wanderlust all about?
Wanderlust is a culmination of fashion, style and ideas that I learned and absorbed while traveling all over the world for my work. I can’t tell you how many times I saw women buying ‘souvenir’ fashion and cramming this stuff into overhead compartments–I knew they’d never wear this stuff once they were home in Stockholm, Stockton, Scotland, wherever it was. A conical hat, a cheongsam, a fez, a dramatic beaded djellaba–where were they wearing this outside of the context of where they bought it? They weren’t going to. I’ve made the very same mistakes–buying a tie dyed, sea-shelled bedazzled bikini in Hawaii because it looked so cute there and then I would take it out of my suitcase at home and try to imagine myself wearing it in Montauk or somewhere and thought, “What was I thinking?” So Wanderlust is all about fashion and style that looks great wherever your wanderlust takes you. It translates. It speaks a global design dialogue. You can wear one of my dresses here in Siem Reap to dinner, but I promise you’ll wear it to drinks in Sydney or to a gallery in San Fran or Soho or wherever. Everything I offer at wanderlust is made in Cambodia, but it doesn’t say, “I WENT TO CAMBODIA AND BOUGHT THIS TEE SHIRT”.
“The interior of Wanderlust (I moved the grab ‘n go table because my customers were pouncing on it while I was trying to take the picture!!!!!!)
I have a back garden for hanging out, with piles of Vogues and CN Travelers and Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and we get the Phnom Penh Post daily–it’s a great boyfriend/husband retreat–and we have wifi for web browsing.”
So what is a normal day like for you? What did you do today?
Funny, my routine is different every single day. Once you get out of the mainstream or the corporate world or a huge city, life works very differently. We don’t have Blackberries here. We don’t have Microsoft Outlook calendars, and I haven’t worn a watch since i moved here. So my day unfolds in ways I can’t predict. I live upstairs from the store, so my commute consists of walking down a flight of rickety wooden stairs. Today, for example, I started my morning at 8AM going out to see this young girl who makes embroidered bracelets for Wanderlust. She lives across the road from Angkor Wat, the world famous 9th century temples we are lucky and fortunate enough to have here in our backyard. She speaks no English, and I don’t yet speak passable Khmer. So tom, who is one of my bilingual staffers, rode me out there on his motorbike and we gave the girl a new order for bracelets for the store and for some shops in the US. She is so sweet and so happy. She is handicapped and this bracelet project she does for me helps sustain her and gives her employment. She would otherwise have a very, very hard time finding work. and she’s learning English by embroidering these bracelets with English words. And through Tom, I explain to her what ‘wanderlust’ or ‘serenity’ means. And we laugh a lot.
I am very, very into fair trade and I insist on paying the locals who do work for wanderlust good wages. She loves our projects together and is very proud to be making things she sees on westerners and tourists. And knowing her stuff is sold in the US is very exciting for her! Then I came back here and worked with my head seamstress, Leng, who is incredible. We work on the clothes together. When we first met, she thought my ideas were loony–they’d never really seen or sewn any western garments before! Now she comes up with ideas of her own and loves to look at the American Vogues I keep around. She loves the December issue–she thinks Jennifer Aniston is beautiful!!!!!
You’re now designing. How is it different than what you’ve done before? And how is the process different in Cambodia than it was when you were at LeSportsac or the process you’ve seen with other designers you worked with in NY and Europe?
Here, I work hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye. I don’t use factories. I have 6 young Khmer women who sew for me in their homes. This way, they can take care of their kids, their parents. In most Asian societies, you live with your entire extended family, and it’s critical that the women take care of everything–cooking, cleaning, child rearing, etc. So being in the home is important, but so is earning a living. and again, I pay them fair wage. As Wanderlust grows–and with luck it will–I will probably have to work with a bigger circle of women in order to fill orders. But again, it’s so important to me that I support young women and help them in the workforce while simultaneously supporting and acknowledging their responsibilities to their family.
Is everything in the store designed by you?
All the clothing is. I also sell leather and grosgrain sandals that I work with a family in Phnom Penh on making for me. I sell a ton of them! They’re amazing! And I sell jewelry and accessories that I either buy locally, or order from NGOs that support women in handicrafting and jewelry making.
“Inside of Wanderlust. this is my ‘grab ‘n go’ jewelry and accessories table, filled with fun, chunky, colorful, delicious little treats—giant cocktail rings, rattan bangles women out in the villages make for me, our ‘wanderlust’ embroidered friendship bracelets, pendants, silly coin purses—just fun and fab stuff. My customers LOVE this.”
What is your design process, from sketching to production to seeing it in the store?
Well the cool thing about not working with a factory is that the turnaround time is very short. If I decide to try a new style, I call Leng and she comes over and in a few days, we have it in the shop. I cut very close, meaning I don’t keep tons of stock or have 20 of anything. If I find a fabric I like, and I can only get five yards, I buy it and make three dresses out of it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The customers love this ‘one off’ concept’, as it makes the pieces they buy seem very special and ‘couture’-ish!
And the age old designer question: where do you find your inspiration?
Travel, travel, travel. That is the crux, the core of the Wanderlust experience and concept. I’ve been so lucky in that I’ve seen a lot of the world and have picked up things from here and there that I love or that I’ve worn to death because they work. And I use those experiences and translate them into the things we have at Wanderlust. For example, everything I have in the store has pockets. From traveling, I realized how essential pockets are. for my camera, cigarettes, train ticket, my pass to the temples, whatever. Having things on hand quickly and easily—pockets are KEY!
What is your customer base like? It must be so eclectic!
OMG, it is so eclectic! What is so COOL is that I have customers from all over the world. The Japanese LOVE Wanderlust. They love the colors, the “kawaii”-ness (“kawaii” means ‘cute’ in Japanese and this is the ULTIMATE compliment!) The Aussie tourists love my things, too, as they are perfect for the australian lifestyle—laid back, casual, easy. I get tons of customers from Singapore, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Korea, China, Europe and the US. What’s so amazing and so inspiring and gives me chills—even in this hot hot weather here—is that no matter where my customers are from, they respond to things in the same way—with love, excitement and enthusiasm. We all DO speak a global fashion language and it’s fun to see it happen in front of my eyes.
My regular customers are girls who live here in Cambodia—yes, some Khmer girls but lots of expats who are living and working in Cambodia, either in the non-profit sector or in hospitality. These girls are from all over the world, and they come in again and again and again. They’re all my friends and my muses.
“Me and my best GF, Sheree O’Donnell. Sheree is a Brit, funnier than anyone I’ve ever met, beautiful, smart, down to earth, snarky–all the things that make someone cool. And she is my wanderlust muse.”
Check back for more with Elizabeth on Monday!!