Born in a small village in the rural province of Kampong Chhnang, life was tough for young Vannary. Poverty was an issue and, as a female, her life was mapped out: a short spell in school before finding a husband, having children and taking care of the home.
However, Vannary longed for much more, driven by a desire to move to the capital to study and find work that would help elevate her country from poverty. But convincing her parents was a problem. “It took a long time,” she recalls, adding they feared for her safety as a girl living in the big city, as well as being unable to financially fund her plans. Eventually, her powers of persuasion triumphed, and in 1997, Vannary relocated to Phnom Penh to study business management and English at university. Needing to fund her fees and living costs, it took seven years of working days and studying at night classes to graduate.
After graduating, she secured a full-time job working for NGO ActionAid International, but this social work wasn’t enough. She wanted to create her own business that would help revive and promote Cambodia’s silk weaving heritage while supporting poverty-stricken rural communities by providing them with a sustainable form of income.
Vannary scoured the country to find communities to grow mulberry trees to feed the silkworms in Kampot, training them to the highest standards. She bought one sewing machine and hired a tailor to create the first batch of silk scarves, created in her own home after long days working at ActionAid.
In 2003, Vannary opened her boutique and social enterprise, Lotus Silk, on Phnom Penh’s leafy Street 240, with the aim of empowering communities and producing ethical fashion that incorporates Cambodian silk.
Today, she works with 22 communities and producers, totaling more than 220 people. They include organic cotton growers in Battambang, weavers in Prey Veng and Takao and dyeing experts in Kandal. The communities and Vannary produce a range of eco-friendly products including golden silk, jewelry, scarves, accessories, fashion apparel and home decor.
As well as silk, Vannary also makes a range of products from upcycled fabrics thrown out by the many garment factories found on the outskirts of the capital.
Vannary also exports many of her goods globally, mainly to South Korea, Canada, the US and Germany. “I’m so proud all of my products are 100 percent from Cambodia and I am able to show the world what great fabrics can be made here while helping local communities to have better lives,” she says.
And her commitment to the cause and her country has not gone unnoticed, with her mulberry tree planting program catching the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Among her clutch of accolades, in 2012, she scooped the Women’s Creativity in Rural Life award and in 2016, was awarded the title of outstanding woman entrepreneur of ASEAN. She was crowned Top 5 Designer of the Year 2017 by the Modern Ethnic Design Centre.
The latest step in her mission is The Silk House. The interactive and educational museum aims to teach visitors about the ancient craft of silk weaving, from fattening up the silkworms with mulberry leaves, to creating soft silk scarves and other intricately designed items.
According to theculturetrip.com