Reflections on fostering a fledging denim brand

Author: Leisl Lancaster   Date Posted: 10 March 2017 

“Good morning my beautiful friends!” is my heavily accented Khmer greeting each morning as I enter the sewing room. Thirty faces look up from their tasks laughing at my attempt at the local Khmer language. My 30 Khmer teachers are sticklers for pronunciation perfection, but I prefer to encourage myself with the thought that ‘I nailed it’ once again. Ignorance is bliss!

When I first started with Outland Denim, I had not even an inkling of the type of role I would eventually be undertaking. But the Outland story took my heart as soon as I heard about this grassroots company with an ambitious vision and steadfast determination to have their part in ending poverty in the lives of as many women as possible, thereby stemming the tide of Cambodian women and children being led into sex trafficking and experiences of sexual abuse. 

I was shaken when I heard a story of a rescued young girl that had been tricked back into the sex industry and then forced to have an abortion, after pressure was placed on her once again to support the family financially. After hearing this I knew without a doubt why this vision of a sustainable business must succeed! Breaking the poverty cycle in as many lives as possible would have more effect than even we could imagine – and it has.

Still, not much could have prepared me for the task of pioneering a jean manufacturing enterprise in a Cambodian province. To be honest, I struggled more than I expected when I first moved to Cambodia. I had this dreamlike image of embracing every aspect of my beautifully chaotic new world, while hitting the ground running! But that’s not exactly what happened.

Seemingly wonderful ideals and plans we had made in Australia just didn’t float when push came to shove in Cambodia. Rapid changes of plans and direction were the only way to swim, rather than sink. But after I got past the restrictiveness of my fears and the unknown, I was only then really able to embrace and love Cambodia and my life there. You certainly can’t be without a good sense of humour in Cambodia. Lost in translation, lost in location, and just a little ‘lost’ in general some days was all part of the experience.

Though we cannot deny that the hardships, setbacks and stretching phases have tested us, with it has also come an indescribable amount of joy and sharpened problem solving skills.

When you meet the young women that are sewing for Outland Denim, and you have been greeted by their beaming faces on arrival to the sewing room, you can never doubt again that every dollar given, every tear cried, every ounce of energy poured in, every sleepless night, every boundary pushed, has not been in vain. It’s been absolutely worth it, because they are absolutely worth it. 

When times got tough, we simply had to press on with a resolved strengthened by Outland's founder, James. The incredible courage, determination and resilience he has shown as he's poured everything he has into his vision has been "leading by example" in the truest sense. What an honour to be able to work alongside him, his wife and family who have put the sewing team in Cambodia ahead of themselves too many times to count. 

For me, the most important aspect of my role has been to instil a deep sense of self-worth and of value into each of the seamstresses we work with. We endeavour to support them and their dreams and goals by providing training outside of sewing; training that is life enriching in other areas such as money management, health care, childcare and other areas our seamstresses are interested to grow in. We remind them how proud we are of them, and strive to connect their world with that of our loyal customers in Australia and around the globe. 

I have watched our sewing team grow in confidence and seen their unique personalities shine through. Though many of our team are from backgrounds of hardship and adversity, we are delighted watching them as they flourish. These are women who have come from backgrounds of sexual exploitation and trafficking, those who have become sick from the chemicals in garments factories, women that have struggled to find work due to disabilities, and also local tailors who have been unable to earn a living wage running their own small businesses. This diverse group working alongside one another as one team, and one family, is nothing short of amazing. Many of our team members are now starting their own families and the knowledge that their precious children will not be in the same position their mothers were in, is mind-blowing and such a powerful reason this project must grow and continue.

I have endeavoured to grow in my understanding of Cambodia; its intricate culture and heart-breaking history. I know I’ve only scratched the surface of understanding while working alongside and getting to know the young women in our sewing room, who have a beautiful, inspiring resilience - the greatest honour and privilege of my life thus far.

Let’s create change on an individual and global level by educating and loving the communities we already have influence in. Let’s listen instead of speaking on issues we haven’t lived through. Let’s set the example and encourage our sphere of influence to better the world around us through very simple but thoughtful acts. Let’s make mindful purchases from companies that invest back into the lives of each of their staff and indeed use their profit for purpose.

On behalf of the beautiful women sewing with us in the Outland Denim sewing team, THANK YOU for buying our jeans. The team and I hope that you love your jeans and continue to wear our product that has (take it from me!) been produced not just with the finest organic denim, but also with a double measure of perseverance, determination, love and care. With faith, hope and love, we press on!