Pinoy panache, Khmer charisma

WHAT the fashion capitals still can’t do, an emerging market is now successfully mounting: a fashion spectacle with a live audience.

Cambodia, with the third-lowest Covid-19 cases in the world, has efficiently contained the virus. The Khmer Times on February 16 reported that the kingdom tested 434,424 people, of whom only 479 were tested positive. Their inoculation program started on February 10. (Cry, my beloved country!)

And because her amazing public-health response to the pandemic has resulted in zero deaths, our Southeast Asian sister is now resuscitating her economy. One such high-profile effort was held recently at the capital Phnom Penh, a fashion presentation called Spectrum.

Top-billed by Filipino expats Reynier Abello and Don Protasio, and South African Drewe Taylor, Spectrum was showcased at Paris-inspired The ElysEe on Diamond Island.

“Early last year, Don and I had this conversation about whether we as artists should push to continue doing what we do despite the crisis, that designers should continue to create and keep the inspiration alive,” Abello recalled. “That’s why when the restrictions for events were lifted in January here in Cambodia, we decided to produce a hybrid show focusing on digital content.”

Together with their Filipino friend, Mary Shelistilyn Clavel-Yoro, Abello and Protasio founded a platform they called SpectrumKH.

For the venue, they wanted somewhere open air and spacious.

“We thought: Enough doing shows indoors. Let’s breathe fresh air and feel the sun on our skin. We also wanted a venue that is dramatic, something that looks like an abandoned city,” Abello added.

Budget constraints, naturally, became a challenge. “Also, the question of sensitivity amid the backdrop of the pandemic. We were asking if it was relevant to have a fashion show. That’s why we followed all the health protocols that was advised and required by the government. Thankfully, we didn’t have community infection, and we waited until schools and the necessary amount of allowable gatherings were approved,” explained Abello.

The pandemic has greatly affected the economy for a country like Cambodia that partly relies on tourism. “Imagine the trickle-down effect of it in the fashion industry. We lost a lot of travelers who could potentially be our customers,” Abello said.

“That’s why it is important that we engage with the domestic market and somehow capture that for revenue and sales.”


“Desolations x Creations” is the idea of destruction as a catalyst for transformations. The fall and the rise, death and birth, ruin and build. The collection focused on the idea of rapture, war, famine, social collapse and crisis, using these destructive forces to create and be inspired rather than to sulk in the corner.

“This is the energy that drove me to mount a fashion show in the middle of a global pandemic,” bared Abello, 33, a resident of Cambodia since 2012.

Abello took visual notes from Japan, Siberia, Cambodia, Mongolia and Spain. “Our research went from known national and social catastrophes such as the Rohingya genocide, Gaza conflict, wars in the Middle East, and the global migration due to famine and war,” Abello said. “We also took some inspiration from Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway to Japanese myths about death and after life. Hence, the cat masks.”

Don Protasio edited and styled Abello’s pieces. “It was so that it focused on the direction I wanted to convey. It became too overwhelming for me to think of all the references and the inspirations, that I needed another eye to guide me when to stop, because I know I can never stop,” Abello admitted.

His opening look was an homage to the people who, despite the trials and ravages of conflict, still continue to move forward with dignity and bravery.

“I wanted it to be a strong look despite the obvious fragility. The closing look was ultimately a reminder that beauty can be cruel, that humans can be capable of cruelty despite all our brilliance,” Abello lamented. “That we can make sport out of cruelty and there is blood in everyone’s hand. I asked the model to crush red petals in her hand and spread it on the runway. Blood in our hands.”


Cambodia has been home to Protasio since 2007, and she has nurtured his radical aesthetic that was honed in his native Iloilo. A lot of the pieces Protasio presented gave a “feeling of imbalance, disruption, an anomaly, distortion” with “unfinished or raw edges, or cut in half and the seams displaced.”

He used cotton twill made into woven vests. He created pieces that were layered or can be worn inside-out, ensembles of reused denim and clothing that evoke military jackets. He also mixed pieces with bonded Japanese silk satin and vintage designer scarves that were fashioned into dresses and shirts.

Developed under uncertain times, the collection was a way to navigate and process Protasio’s emotional journey under self-imposed isolation. To look inward and recontextualize what defines his brand. To approach the collection as a rebellion against what has come before. To be free to create a new visual language he hasn’t explored.

“Brutal,” Protasio emphasized, is his way “to understand the elements that we are faced with every day. To feel strong. To feel empowered. To be prepared to make necessary changes. To achieve the correct balance between quality, aesthetics and functionality. To have a shield from the aggression that surrounds us, to somehow feel safe.”

In his head, it’s that desperation to repurpose and reuse what available fabric he can find.

“I love that there is an inherent nostalgia in some of the pieces. That it had a previous life before and now it goes on another journey as a new object,” Protasio said.

“Some of the looks paid homage to my favorite designer, Helmut Lang, where I made my own version of the prisoner pants and shirt in big bold stripes. Maybe it was the feeling of being locked up? I had looks that had chains for accessories.” n

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