Props: Miss Lucina and Deadly Companions

1234663_729617350445098_1159588222941025606_n You know you’re in love when it feels like everything good that happens to the people you care about is the Most Amazing Thing to Happen. Ever. Nothing can bring you down or dampen your mood. This was my experience during the summer when, while in Italy, I heard that my dear friend Lu (along with her business partner Isabelle),  had launched their very own fashion label, Deadly Companions.

It’s the culmination of years of hard work – of slogging through fashion school in Sydney, of years and years of waitressing and bar-tending. It’s the realization of a dream – testament to the power of vision and perseverance.  In Lu’s own words, she ‘has worked her ass off.’ And it seems to be paying off, with her clothes being sold in chi-chi boutiques as far-flung as Dubai and Hong Kong.

Anyone who has seen me in the flesh knows that fashion is not my forte. Thinking about this new phase in Lu’s life did two things for me. No, it did not make me question my frumpiness. I’ll deal with that another time, like when pigs fly. The first thing it did was make me start to wonder about my own dreams and how big I wanted to make my life. I’m sure I could write six thousand blog posts about that, which would be about as interesting to read as a book on tax law. For now, I want to focus on the second thing, which was feeling very nostalgic and reminiscent of our friendship. Good gal pals are hard to find in the 30’s because most of them are being Smug Marrieds and/or breeding. Also, in Asia, where the western white woman is a bit of a rarity, it’s even harder to find kindred spirits.

Lu made quite an impact when she arrived at my high school for her last year, having ditched the snotty girls’ only school in favor of our more liberal, ‘anything goes’ environment. She was tall, with long blond hair and a pierced nose. She was already quite the fashionista and had extra cool points because she owned a red Mini which became the preferred mode of transport for our gang of fun-loving grungers. She was already very independent, having left her home in the countryside to come to the ‘Big Smoke’ for school. She had a part-time job. She was also a very sought after model (although the most unpretentious really ridiculously good-looking person you could imagine). She gave me lots of her old clothes that I wore for years. Her generosity knew no bounds.

We became fast friends random photos from pentax 012and about a year and a half later, I found myself working as a domestic slave in a posh little town near Amsterdam, and she found herself waitressng in London. She came to visit me twice – we found ourselves sitting on a semen-stained bench in the red light district, being followed by creepy men through the Vondel Park and walking around the canals at 3am in the morning under the influence of what were known back in the day as Space Cakes. We stayed with a Dutch acquaintance of mine – an older woman who had seen a fair bit of the world. She summed up Lu pretty quickly: ‘She looks like she can take care of herself,’ she said.

That same year, I went to visit her in London for Christmas. I spent the whole ferry ride to the U.K. vomiting from motion sickness. In London, we were a bit excessive. One night, she had to bring me back home in a taxi after I started to feel very nauseous. I vomited all over the backseat of the taxi (not from motion sickness). She paid the taxi driver for the damage and took care of me even though I completely ruined her night. That Christmas was fun because of her and her company which made it easier to forget how cold it was and how hungry we were after we realized too late that every single supermarket, shop, and restaurant closes in London on Christmas Day.

We kept in touch and met up again a few years later in Sydney where she was living permanently and I was staying for the summer. We spent it at the northern beach near her house where her then-boyfriend tried to teach me to surf. My failed attempts had her splitting her sides for days. The last time we saw each other (apart from through Skype), was in Tokyo a few years ago. She was living there and I was staying for a few days in order to get ready for another global voyage on Peace Boat. She traipsed across the metropolis to meet me. We went out to a bar and had a few drinks. We told stories to my other friends about our shenanigans in various cities. As usual, she paid for everything.

It’s rare to find such a person – someone who can be a good friend by being open and honest, to call you out, to support you, to pick you up when you’re down. She could always be relied upon for giving brutally honest advice and observations. So I raise an imaginary glass of champagne to my amazing friend Lu, to not only toast her success, but also for just being a bloody good person and friend. Hopefully I can look forward to more clothes from her, but instead of them being designer labels she’s grown tired of, they’ll be all of her own making.

Italy beyond the pizza

Italy sonninoAbout five weeks ago I tumbled out of a plane into the fashion/food/history capital of the world – Italy. I am here for an extended vacation/look-see, to learn the language (ha!) to explore possibilities for the future and to spend time with my nearest and dearest. Given the fact that I have been here three times before over the past 15 years for brief stints as a tourist, you would think that I would know something about the place. However, I can assure you that while I can alphabetically recite every gelato flavour ever invented, it turns out this extremely beautiful country is rather mystifying. This, coupled with my laziness, idealism and naivety means that I am often left scratching my head about how the country functions (or, rather, doesn’t).

The first curious aspect that was brought to my attention (or, more accurately that I paid attention to because I have become cluckey for them) is the presence of dogs. Everywhere. It seems that every man and his dog has a cute little pet dog, the most common being yappy poodles and fat, pregnant sausage dogs. It seems that dogs are given special human privileges here and are basically allowed everywhere. I’ve seen well-behaved dogs in clothes stores, restaurants, bars, public transport, on Vespas and even at a wedding. I assume they’re also given access to cinemas, churches and public swimming pools too, but I will need to confirm and report back. While the dogs are, for the most part, obedient, the same cannot be said for their cousins, the children, who are left to run wild everywhere and are tolerated in all their caffeine and wine induced revelry (yes, wine drinking starts here at 7 years old I am told).

The next striking thing is the fashion. OK, so everybody knows that Italy is the fashion hub of the universe. But knowing it intellectually and living it are two very different things. I only realized this after I found myself in a sobbing heap one day as a tsunami of insecurity that I haven’t felt since I was like, oh I don’t know, 13 and unable to afford any of the clothes the cool girls were wearing, washed over me. And by ‘washed over’ I mean pummeled. No, wait. It’s not the fashion that is so insecurity-inducing. It’s the whole industrial complex of beauty that places a disproportionate emphasis on appearances. This means that designer glasses, sunglasses, handbags and shoes are the norm. And that’s just the children. Imagine the sense of discombobulation and cultural confusion one feels when faced with the fact that what the average woman in New Zealand wears to a wedding is what the average Italian woman wears to supermarket on Saturday morning to buy milk. Imagine how one feels, when during a job interview in Milan, the interviewer says, ‘you have to up your dress game. I don’t agree with the importance of appearances here, but it’s the reality. It matters more than you think.’ Yip, that happened to me. This does not bode well as I have always been someone who has avoided heels and make-up like the plague (chronic clumsiness is debilitating, people) and who would rather spend an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning than waste time putting together a nice outfit. The times I have put in a lot of effort I just look like I raided the dress up box at 3am after too many shots of tequila.

So, the point is that Italian women, 80% of whom are incredibly naturally beautiful anyway, have upped the game by spending all their money on designers clothes and accessories in an aggressive effort to outshine women of other nationalities in a kind of Darwinian survival of the most beautiful. This means I must dust off all those old pretentious books I bought and actually read them, so that I can compensate for my frumpiness. War and Peace, anyone?

But, it could be worse. One of the most eye-opening things here has been the presence of prostitutes. While I’m no stranger to seeing ladies (and ladyboys) of the night – I’ve walked through the red light district of Amsterdam and passed by the girly bars of Bangkok. What makes Italy different is that prostitution is illegal. So, how have pimps and police gotten around this? There are two solutions. The first is to set up massage parlors with names reminiscent of a spa in Asia, like ‘Zen Dreams’. Decorate the exterior with pictures of water flowing over rocks, jasmine flowers and a lot of pink. This might be the sort of place I would consider going to for a mani/pedi, but luckily locals in the know set me straight. The second solution is somewhat more bizarre. The sex workers (women – often very young –  and transgenders, who are often from Africa and Eastern Europe and are in all likelihood working against their will) stand on the roadside of busy sections of highways on the outskirts of cities in their heels and skimpy, blingy clothes, at roundabouts and outside gas stations. Day and night a prospective client will drive by, slow down and pick them up and they’ll do the deed in the car or a nearby field or forest. Sometimes on the car in broad daylight and in public. The reasoning goes that it’s just a woman standing on a street and a man stopping to give her a ride, so to speak. There are so many reasons why it’s wrong and is a good example of the hypocritical Italian government turning a blind eye while people find a way to dance around the laws.

These observations have caused a kind of splitting in my mind – perhaps there are two Italies – the one enjoyed by tourists and the much more complex and bizarre society that I am trying to understand every day. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg – I could go on about the obsession with hygiene but the lack of public bathrooms, causing one (OK, me) to pee in the street, the arcane politeness and formalities, the homogeneity and xenophobia. But no, it’s time to take some more gelato and literally put my head in the sand.

 

Props: Rachel Faller and KeoK’jay

The Incredible Rachel Faller

The Incredible Rachel Faller

When I was in Cambodia earlier this year, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting American expat Rachel Faller who resides in Cambodia running an ethical, socially responsible fashion business. Her business, which is called KeoK’jay, means fresh or bright green in Khmer. Although I didn’t get a chance to speak with her much that night at a dinner for a mutual acquaintance, I did stop by her boutique in Phnom Penh and buy two eco-friendly dresses which are made from recycled fabrics. I also did some research into the back story of how the business and label came about.

Long story short, Rachel studied Fibers (is that a major?) in the U.S. and went to Cambodia with a friend who was thinking of starting a textile business. That business never materialized but Rachel fell in love with Cambodia, won a Fullbright Scholarship to return and research the textile sector and then moved there permanently to start her business. What is interesting about her approach is that she trains and employs women who have HIV/AIDS to make the clothes and pays them an above average wage so that they can support their families and send their children to school. It is not a charity or an NGO.

As Rachel recently told the Huffington Post:

KeoK’jay is (in some ways) a traditional, sales-supported business that can compete in the international fashion scene, but without all the labor violations and environment trashing. By creating high quality products that resonate with the ever-changing fashion market without sacrificing our principles, we aim to combat the traditional victim mentality that leads to dependency by building a business model that does not rely on charity to sell products.

While I admire Rachel’s business model and her commitment to her chosen community, I am in awe of the fact that she is but a 26 year old whippersnapper who is incredibly mature and ambitious. She has sacrificed a lot to make her vision a reality and has sustained that through hard work and passion. To say that she took the road less traveled is a massive understatement. Because of her drive and courage, hundreds of lives have been transformed. Her commitment to social justice is inspiring. Props to you Miss Faller!