Tonlé is a contemporary Cambodian fashion womenswear collection, focused on providing customers with contemporary, wearable and relatable clothes, all at a median price point. “They’re quite accessible” exclaims Sass, who describes the collection as “based in jersey, while utilizing a number of different techniques.”
The brand is fully produced and operated in Cambodia, however founder Rachel Faller splits her time between there and Los Angeles. Sass describes Rachel as “very impressive in her understanding of the fashion system and its role in colonialism, neo-liberalism and the whole white-savior type mentality. She is very conscious of that and sees her role in developing a brand and a company out of Cambodia as an honor.” Sass continues, “She enables the population to show their capabilities instead of continuing a rather long and messy past between the U.S. and Cambodia.”
The company is very activistic in how they approach design and how they see themselves as global citizens. Sass emphasizes, “One of the things that is really quite special about them is their focus on worker training. First of all, all their workers are full-time employees; they don’t do piece work; they don’t subcontract; they encourage their employees to train, to upskill, to learn.” And this quite the reverse of the typical approach to fashion in Cambodia, where there is a significant fast fashion production business. Fast fashion is notorious for de-skilling workers, vis a vis automation, as well as underpaying them. Sass describes Tonlé’s approach: “She operates in a lean manufacturing model, which means workers work in a circle. They don’t work in straight lines, looking at the back of the person in front of them. They’re encouraged to learn new techniques, to try new machines. They are paid to up-skill. They’re encouraged to progress employment-wise towards managerial positions and so on.” Sass underscores that this approach is much more of a humane model, or an ethical model of production, following Fair Trade principles. The approximately 30 full-time employees benefit from free lunches, paid training and benefits, vacation and annual outings among other things.
From a business perspective, there is much to learn from this collectivist, community-driven approach to the manufacturing process, which provides a more authentic connecting point between the brand and its customers. Sass states, “I think that Rachel considers what she has developed as a movement and a community, rather than a fashion brand. She sees it as a community of makers, of customers and investors, rather than a business that produces clothing. Its mission is far greater than just producing stuff.” In fact, she says, “Those that work with Rachel are considered partners, as opposed to employees. It’s a reminder to business that employees are a company’s greatest resource.” Tonlé wholesales to a significant number of doors, and sells on their direct-to-consumer online platform. And Sass emphasizes, “their website and social media really tells a compelling story that connects the Tonlé design aesthetic with their community and their activism.”
Each month Sass Brown, an expert in ethical fashion, sustainability and craftsmanship, shares a fashion brand that approaches business differently and innovatively or operates outside of the main fashion systems and capitals. Sass is the former Dean of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the founding Dean at Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation.