When compassion comes before profit in fashion business

Mark Hughes

Meet the Phnom Penh-based designer who uses disabled Cambodian workers for their welfare

There are not many people who can lay claim to being a standup comedian, poet, fiction writer, artist, consultant, traveller, aficionado of dated British humour, humanitarian, social butterfly but, above all, artisan fashion designer.

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Say hello to Alan James Flux, whose surname might indicate the nature of his life and, in fact, represents it, or at least has done so.

Alan has been running shops featuring Cambodian cotton clothes, scarves, handbags, wallets and more for 11 years in Phnom Penh while maintaining the above eclectic interests.

His unique selling point is that he uses disabled workers to do his weaving, whether they have lost limbs having stepped on a mine or suffer from a debilitating illness and have difficulty leaving home.

The 68-year-old was a child of the 1960s, that period in the West of free love, flower power, pop music and the decade when teenagers came into a time of their own, finally earning money and escaping the drudgery and austerity of post-war Britain when anything seemed possible and the rigid shackles of accepted behaviour and dress were cast to the winds as easily as mind-altering drugs opened up a new world of psychedelic drama. When names and bands such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin bestrode the world, Alan cast aside tradition and went exploring.

The diminutive son of a florist and a grocer was born in the confined Isle of Wight, off mainland England’s southern coast (where Flux is a common name taken up by a French ancestor who was shipwrecked during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s that pitted the French empire against other European nations. He adapted his French name to something sounding more English in order to be accepted. It’s still a surname rare to anywhere in Britain bar his home region.)

A place such as the Isle of Wight would drive many island-crazy, especially during the heady days of the ‘60s, and a visit to London to see a cousin who made his own clothes was an eye-opener to a teenage Alan.

“I didn’t know men could make clothes,” he recalled nostalgically. “It fascinated me. I wanted to do it,” he said.

In 1969, at the age of 18, he left home and embarked on a foundation fashion course in Brighton and, after achieving a bachelor of arts at Kingston Art School, as it was then called, he moved on to ultimately be awarded a master’s at the Royal College of Art in London’s fashionable Kensington, the world’s most influential postgraduate institution of art and design.

The list of alumni at this prestigious academy is long and auspicious, featuring the likes of the sculptor Henry Moore, fashion designers Zandra Rhodes, Ossie Clark, Philip Treacy, Elizabeth and David Emanuel, who designed the wedding dress worn by Princess Diana in 1981, and that enfant terrible Tracey Emin (she of the unmade installation art piece known as My Bed. In 1999, Emin was a Turner Prize nominee for her piece that consisted of her own unmade dirty bed, in which she had spent several weeks drinking, smoking, eating, sleeping and having sexual intercourse. The artwork featured used condoms and blood-stained underwear). Not that such endeavours likely appealed to Alan, whose tastes are clearly more refined.

 

Fashion-hungry

 

Indeed he would probably agree with the fashion designer Vivienne Westoood, who said: “Fashion is very important. It is life-enhancing and, like everything that gives pleasure, it is worth doing well.”

However, we jump ahead. Life on the Isle of Wight was somewhat miserable for a creative wannabe fashionista. It, like most of war-battered and impoverished Britain, was desperately short of interesting materials. Alan made flared trousers from his family blackout curtains, ransacked jumble sales and re-designed army surplus clothes, even dressing as Lord Kitchener’s valet and using his father’s fancy Royal Army Medical Corps uniform and battle dress to work on and sell to fashion-hungry school mates.

But he had itchy feet. He joined the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation and spent three-and-a-half years in Bangladesh , where he was one of only three white people and therefore a celebrity, learning the language. That was followed by two-and-a-half years in Mongolia and four years in Cambodia, which possessed an allure that eventually brought him back for longer. In Mongolia he learned the dubious pleasures of a drink made from fermented mare’s milk called Airak, brought from the Steppes in tubs, and recalled it as a violent place with many drunkards. Not really his thing for a teetotaller.

 

Working with celebrities

 

Again, we jump ahead of ourselves. After college, Alan allowed his new-found skills to go to his head, literally. He turned to millinery, the making of hats, and set up business in North London.

Such was the meandering milieu of that period, he found himself making headpieces in the film, TV and commercial industries, producing work for the exquisitely eccentric band of comedians, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, including Life of Brian, and, by dint of contrast, a James Bond movie.

This Charles Hawtrey lookalike found himself teaching, making pop promos and TV commercials.

His first celebrity client was the rather full-figured British comedy actress Hattie Jacques. But he also made costumes for the 70s punk band, The Jam (famed for the line, “Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young”, heavy metal musicians Iron Maiden and the satirist Peter Cook, who jointly founded the popular satirical magazine Private Eye and had his own TV shows with Dudley Moore. Alan also counted Barbra Streisand as a client, as well as Prunella Scales, who played the nagging wife Cybil Fawlty to John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty in the classic British comedy series Fawlty Towers, about an accident-prone, neurotic guesthouse owner.

Another client of the times was the singer and TV celebrity Cilla Black, whose large house in the leafy outskirts of London had her gold discs neatly lined up her staircase and who would regularly drink and offer to guests Champagne at 10am.

Back to his travels and Alan undertook his first Fair Trade assignment to India’s Chennai to work as a hand weaver.

“It was my first time in  a developing country and it was this that led me to work for the VSO years later – in 2000,” he recalled. “We’d been given a talk about it in school and I guess it struck a chord.”

He returned several times and also backpacked around much of China, picking up fashion and techniques and opening his mind to the wonders and diversity of the world. To finance himself, he taught design in the UK and Hong Kong. Before he knew it, the year was 2011 and after four years with VSO in Cambodia, he started his own business, A.N.D., that stands for artisan and designer, with two others. It now has three shops, the main one in Street 140, that was attracting many tourists wanting something original and indigenous. He is assisted by his general manager, a Cham who goes by the name of Min Yusof (also known as Mr. Pheap), and serving staff.

 

Supporting producers

 

Alan returns to the UK for two or three months a year, giving talks and shows, and also visits Malaysia for the same duration. He keeps a small terrace house on the Isle of Wight and additionally occupies himself teaching at a Chinese art school, getting involved in interior design for heritage art buildings. He specialises in drawing their interiors for posterity but his heart remains in fabric, especially from areas such as Chiangmai and Chiangrai in Thailand, from where he collects Hmong materials.

“I enjoy working with minorities and disabled, people who suffered polio. They weave from home,” he says.

They specialise in bags and wallets, a feature that brings us to his humanitarian side. “Who else would do this?” he asks, referring to his Fair Trade partnership. “And we make nice things. We support people. We are a drop in the ocean but some people are thirsty for those drops. What we do incidentally is to help people live with dignity.”

His company has a mission statement: “A.N.D. is a design-led fair trade patnership; now ‘design’ and ‘fair’ do not always go together but we are here to help prove that it can be done: Without well-designed products aimed at the global market, which we can reasonably hope to sell, and thus keep the stock moving, we cannot properly support our producers, with whom we aim to constantly place orders.

“Will ‘slow’ fashion ever take over from ‘fast’ fashion?  No – slow fashion can never conquer a fast world.”

But there is also a less serious side to Alan. He used to do standup comedy at Phnom Penh’s Java Cafe, specialising in topical comic doggerel. He follows the one-liner genius Tim Vine on YouTube and remembers with relish the likes of Kenneth Williams – probably his favourite comedian and whose version of The Marrow Song on YouTube he strongly recommends – Benny Hill and the The Two Ronnies – Barker and Corbett (the latter being even shorter than him, he noted, somewhat proudly).

His taste in literature varies from the violent crime thrillers of Lee Child featuring the huge Jack Reacher as hero to noir gay, of which he has written and had published five under the pseudonym Alan James and which are still for sale in the British bookshop Waterstones under publisher Millivres Prowler.

And with that fascinatingtale of a life lived full and with an eye not so much on the money as the product and its creators, he’s off home on his pushbike, cutting a striking figure among the tuktuks and scooters of the capital’s congested streets.

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