Elizabeth Kiester walked away from her hectic life in New York’s fashion scene to start a new line and store in Cambodia called Wanderlust — and to start a new chapter in her life. A veteran of the industry on both the editorial side and the design side, Elizabeth was a fashion editor for magazines such as Jane, Marie Claire, Mademoiselle, and others, as well as a concept director for Abercrombie & Fitch and creative director for LeSportsac. Challenges in her personal life — as well as a desire to explore the world and her own potential — led her to move to Siem Reap and launch her new business. With her New York drive and cohones still intact, Elizabeth has big goals for expanding Wanderlust and spreading what she calls an inclusive and global design language.
Elizabeth in doorway of Wanderlust in one of her own lovely creations
Find an expanded interview with Elizabeth Kiester in my new book Field Trip:Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my new book here.
First, I have to say, your bold move to Cambodia and this new venture is the type of far-fetched dream so many of us have. And you’ve actually done it! How did the idea first pop into your head, and was it quick decision?
I came to Siem Reap, Cambodia in April 2008 on a volunteer vacation, after doing a grueling one month media tour of Asia on behalf of the Stella McCartney for LeSportsac collection. I had just come out of one of the darkest periods of my life — a long, drawn out separation and divorce from my husband — and was needing to get away from all the stress of work and life. Blackberries and Microsoft Outlook calendars, eating dinner out of a paperbag on the subway at midnight, and divorce lawyers and moving apartments — and I wanted to do something other than sit on a beach and wallow in my pain! I needed to do something active and participatory, so I came here to work at orphanages and try to involve myself in something other than MYSELF! And I was immediately struck by how amazing Siem Reap was, how loving and generous the people were, the spirit of hope and forgiveness seemed to be so prevalent everywhere. And in these moments, I knew my life had changed dramatically, and I needed to follow my heart instead of my head for once! And by July, I was back here and signing a 7 year lease for the store.
Exterior of Wanderlust shop, with Elizabeth’s home on upper floor
I understand Siem Reap was a real artistic center in Southeast Asia prior to the Khmer Rouge. What can you tell me about this history and what’s happening now that is so exciting?
It’s bizarre to me, but I’ve realized that the Angkor Wat temples are sort of the best-kept architectural, artistic and historical “secrets” in the world. I am amazed by how many people I know who’ve never heard of Angkor Wat! The majesty and overwhelming beauty of the temples is really awe-inspiring. You stand before them, and you’re blown away by the realization that these were designed and built 1000 years ago. The artistry is incredible. The amount of artisans and craftsmen that built Angkor Wat over hundreds of years is countless — and that creative artistry, I believe, is running deep through the veins of all Cambodian people. The terrible tragedy that befell Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed much of this genetic creative lineage — the hand-me-down knowledge and experience from one generation to another. But there are plenty of people here who, when given the chance, the inspiration, the go-ahead, can tap into their imaginations and creativity and blossom again. It’s been a generation that hasn’t had these kinds of opportunities — and now, in their newfound freedom, I can feel that something here is just about to burst wide open! Phnom Penh is already flush with new young talents that are emerging on the international arts scene. Here in Siem Reap we have a large gallery scene that is taking off. People are now coming here to see Angkor Wat, but also to gallery hop. It’s cool and really exciting.
Angkor Wat temple, image from WikiMedia Commons
Do you ever wonder ‘what if I’d chosen to do volunteer work elsewhere, and how would my life be different if I had?’ Or was this region of the world already calling you?
I had done a volunteer program in Southern Vietnam a few years ago, and I loved it there, too, but for different reasons. My Dad was a journalist during the Vietnam War, and this really got me interested in this region of the world. When I was in college, my fascination with Southeast Asia, and particularly the Vietnam War, really took off. I went to the Boston Public Library and continuously checked out every single book they had there on the Vietnam War until I finished them all. (The librarians thought it was funny to see this “fashion” girl struggling with huge volumes on war history.) I realized then it was a war and a time in US and world history that we weren’t being taught in school, and I knew that I needed to know more about this time. And I knew then that I wanted to come over here and do something “right” for these people, to try and help undo so many of the wrongs, even if my contribution was in the smallest of ways.
During your years as a fashion editor and then creative director, did you have a nagging desire to create something of your own? And what from that experience has been most important in developing Wanderlust?
I think everyone has a deep-seated desire to have ownership over what they do. I know I always did. I’ve been creating things my whole life. My sister, Ann, and I used to write and illustrate our own books, bind them and “sell” them to our neighbors and the poor unfortunate family members who got suckered into coughing up 25 cents for the “privilege” of reading our novels. I’ve never, however, learned to sew, much to my Mom’s chagrin. But I always drew, I always painted (badly), and I always had creative ideas that I wanted to make happen.
I was lucky enough in my career to spend an inordinate amount of time traveling all over the world to fashion and design hotspots and getting the opportunity to see new ideas flourishing all over the place. I was trained to have an editor’s eye, and to see things not subjectively, but completely objectively, and to understand design — good design — in a larger context. And one of the things I saw over and over again were people buying “souvenirs” that I knew were destined for the heap in the back of their closets when they got home. Things that wouldn’t translate to their lives at home, once removed from the context in which they were created. Like a fez from Morocco looks cool and interesting in Morocco but silly and foolish in Manhattan. A cheongsam looks chic on a girl in Shanghai but rather costume-y on a girl in Chicago. Conical hats, cowboy boots, kimonos…these are all things that are gorgeous, but gorgeous in their own spaces and places. These are beautifully designed things that look gorgeous where they are and should be left there. And it drove me mental. Mental! And my mission was to create a place that spoke a design dialogue that many people could translate and work into their very own language. Hence, Wanderlust.
Store interior, with everything merchandised by color to enhance the emotional experience
What kind of support network did it take to renovate this French Colonial building, create your Wanderlust line and store, and figure out the production process? Do you think you could have taken on this challenge if it weren’t also for the fact of being able to connect via email with friends and a support network back in New York?
When I came to Siem Reap for the volunteer program, I met a very enterprising Khmer guy, Dine Tuy, who eventually became my Wanderlust manager. When I went back to New York in May, we emailed constantly, and I asked him if he would help me start this business, get it up and running. He said “of course!” — I was very fortunate. I also did a lot of research on the internet, joined expat chat rooms and peppered these expat vets with all kinds of questions and queries, and they were enormously helpful — and patient. I went on embassy websites, talked to friends who worked in embassies, emailed friends-of-friends-of-next-door-neighbors’-hairdresser’s-cousin… I researched a ton of things before I came back in July. And with Dine’s help and connections, once I was here again, we could make it happen. It wasn’t easy, and there were A LOT of “lost in translation” experiences, but generally, we just hunkered down and tried our best to make it come together. And because I am truly a New Yorker, I am able to juggle 1000 things simultaneously. So in 2 months we had the store renovated, all the seamstresses trained, materials purchased, clothing sewn, sandals finished, store interior retrofitted with racks and shelving — we did it! And, yes, I now know how to swing a sledgehammer!
But I do long for my friends in New York, and they’ve been enormously supportive and cheerleader-ish on this whole journey. I look to them for so many things, from “what the hell is going on in fashion right now?” to “I’ve got veritable ‘dial up’ internet here — can you download these pics from this website and cut and paste them into an email and send them back to me in a small file?” to “I am exhausted, and I need to vent.” The 12 hour time difference does make things difficult, but I feel really blessed and lucky to have incredible friends and family who take time out to stay in touch and indulge my craziness!
My sister, Amy, has been particularly helpful and incredibly supportive. She’s an interior designer, and she sends me fabrics she’s got overstock on (even if it’s only enough to make one dress!) and sends me links to blogs and sites she thinks I will find interesting and inspiring. She understands the “Kiester mentality,” which in our familial language means “no rest for the weary,” and we just go-go-go and never stop. Amy is really an unstoppable creative force of nature.
Back garden of Wanderlust for customers and locals to hang out
You’ve talked about a ‘global design language.’ Can you describe what that means to you and what the overall aesthetic of your line is?
I really believe that good design is just good design. I’ve bought incredibly cute dresses in Tokyo and equally cute dresses in London, Sydney, Copenhagen, Harbour Island and Beijing. And I would wear any of these things anywhere I go. And that, to me, is a “global design language” — a visual dialogue that says, “I’m from anywhere and everywhere.” Not basic, but not overly designed either. Just cool, easy, international, connected and well-traveled. A design aesthetic that translates wherever it’s put, wherever it finds itself living. My clothes in Wanderlust speak directly to this. I’ve had customers from all over the world — Australia, Singapore, China, Japan, France, Brazil, England, USA, Poland — respond the exact same way to the exact same dress. The just love it, and they imagine themselves wearing it in their hometown. It says “me” and not “I bought this in Cambodia.” I’ve mailed clothes to my “girls” in Warsaw, Melbourne, New York, Bangkok.
My clothes are fashion but not FASHION. They’re on trend but not TRENDY. They’re modern but not experimental.
Sasha, from Russia, visits Siem Reap and shows off Wanderlust dress
It’s quite a culture shift — maybe shock is a better term — coming from the fashion world of NY to southeast Asia. How has your image of yourself, your design philosophy, and what you consider beautiful changed in the process?
Honestly, my eye has always been the same, since I was in junior high! Yes, it’s developed and ebbed and flowed, but I’ve always had a very particular aesthetic. My mom used to say, “you have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is.” I just like clean lines, simple geometry, sharp corners, strong graphics. I like mixing messages, I like taking bits from here and there and combining them to make something look new. I was never, ever a “label” person, never someone who needed an “it” bag. If I see something at Target that I think is amazing, I will buy it. I don’t care about price and status. I care about design. I crave things that make sense, that solve problems instead of creating new ones. I like covert as opposed to overt. And I was always that way. And suspect I always will be.
It’s funny, because when I first moved here, I was wearing flip flops with my dresses every day. It’s summer here year round. I love flip flops, but I realized that in my “other” life, I was a high heels girl. So I said to myself, “you know what? That’s just who you are, so don’t edit yourself. Who cares if the roads are dirt? Break out your lonely overlooked heels!” So now, I am back to wearing my 5″ stilettos sometimes, and other days, my flip flops or Chuck Taylors, just like I did in New York. And while sometimes my shoe choices get well- meaning stares from my neighbors, quite frankly, my choices elicited the same kinds of stares at home sometimes. You can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the girl.
A lot of things about me have changed and evolved though. I have learned to be more patient–although sometimes I still find myself secretly snapping my fingers when it’s “taking too long” — and I’ve become way less judgmental. I have so many incredible new friends here, people I would never have been lucky enough to meet or cross paths with in my old life. And this road I am on brought these people to me, a ragtag crew of independent, international individuals who are focused on re-creating their own futures. And I am intoxicated by that. I’ve learned so so much from these people in such a short amount of time. And I feel really, really lucky.
Wanderlust accessories, made by locals to support orphanage and village
I understand your focus is on dresses — djellaba style. (One of my good friends in Paris sent me a djellaba from a local flea markets years ago, and I have loved it ever since!) Do you envision this style of dress translating back to American culture?
Well, my dresses aren’t all “djellaba style” — I’d say they’re more in line with the idea of a djellaba–an easy, beautiful, throw-it-on-and-immediately-you’re-ready-to-go kind of design philosophy. And what I am sure you love about your vintage djellaba is that it’s solving problems for you instead of saddling you with more. You put it on, put on sandals and an earring, and you’re done. You don’t have to think about “what does this go with?” or “how do I wear this?” The design is done intentionally to take away these questions. And that’s what my dresses are about.
Caroline, a French expat and NGO worker, in a Wanderlust dress
What’s your vision for where you want to take this line and how you think you might expand in the future?
Since I am a go-go-go person, having one store is simply not enough for me. In my dreams, my wildest, deepest dreams, I would love to have Wanderlust stores in resort destinations all over Southeast Asia and Asia. The Maldives, Bali, Koh Kood, Kerala, Phnom Penh…. Oh, how I wish this to be. I would love to be in the position to be able to be the Creative Director of Wanderlust so that I could keep moving, exploring, searching, seeing and discovering more places and design inspirations. Travel is KEY to my aesthetic. I am the ultimate “dumpster diver.” I like the search and the find. I can get inspired by an all-black q-tip I find in Tokyo, an exhibit at the V & A museum in London. It sounds so hokey and borders on the pretentious, but these are the things that keep me creative, keep me fresh and intrigued and moving forward. I would love to have someone take over the operations, all the management part so I could be freer to see and explore and tap back into my well! My well needs to be fueled! But right now, I am a veritable one-man-band who does everything virtually on my own.
I wanted to take a moment to ask about your years growing up and what lead you into the fashion world in the first place? What were you drawn to and what turning points were there along the way?
My parents were both in publishing. My Dad was a journalist, my Mom a fashion illustrator and layout artist for newspapers. When I wanted to go into magazines, of course, I had no clue what that actually meant — I always loved clothes but I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a “fashion editor,” as these were the days before the internet and 24-hour-a-day “style” programs. I was clueless, but I got lucky, and landed a job as an assistant in the fashion department of Mademoiselle magazine (I think they took pity on me because my interview outfit was so pathetic!). And I had a boss who was incredibly patient and saw my potential. I went to every single event she allowed me to go to, I studied every book, I listened hard at every meeting. I learned a ton. And from there, it went.
Our family life went into turmoil when I was 7 and my Dad virtually disappeared, and I saw my Mom struggle to keep me and my sisters and brother afloat for many, many years. I grew up in a very, very wealthy community outside of New York city, a town that was filled with “haves” and we were the “have nots.” But my Mom fought to keep us in this town, by working a zillion different jobs, renting out our bedrooms to boarders, making doll clothes, baking peach pies and selling them out of the garage — all so we could have the best public school education possible and grow up in a protective, safe environment. So I got to see both sides of the fence, and when I went into publishing, as a fashion editor, I used my personal experiences to cover fashion. I championed the cause of affordable clothing, and always, always believed that fashion needed to be inclusive as opposed to exclusive. I wanted everyone to be able to love and appreciate good design and be able to have it, and own it simply because they liked it. And that’s where the “dumpster diving” came from. I was determined to find cool, new, fun, affordable things to show to our readers and “invite” them into this fashion club. And I became sort of known for this in the industry.
My Mom eventually opened her own interior design business, much like Wanderlust, actually. It started in her bedroom, and she slept on a twin bed since her sewing table took up most of the room. And she handmade everything herself, and eventually, found a real following and a strong customer base. Her sense of color, pattern and design influenced me enormously, as did her can-do spirit. She is an incredible, incredible person.
Considering what’s happened with the economy in the US and globally, do you think this was pretty great timing for Wanderlust?
Oh God, I am not sure! The global economic meltdown has and will definitely affect Cambodia. It’s very, very scary. There are days when I think, “oh, my God! Am I going to be working in a rice paddy any day now?” — and other days my New York friends give me a reality check and say “You’re so lucky you’re not here!” So, like everyone else in the world, I pray that things will recover quickly and people will start feeling optimistic again. I keep reminding myself of the year after the 9/11 tragedy in New York, when all of us New Yorkers felt we would never recover financially or spiritually/emotionally from this disaster. And people pulled together and rallied, and in what felt like no time, New York came back and people started spending again, moving back downtown, supporting small businesses, and the fears were dissolved to some extent. I am hoping this same spirit will pull us all out of this mess we’re facing now.
Elizabeth adds her own collections to displays to set the mood
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
My favorite things are… the sound of monks chanting at the pagodas in Cambodia; Tokyo and sitting in the subway station and watching all the gorgeous people and the incredible, amazing style run through; Alber Elbaz, Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang & Hedi Slimane; my gorgeous nephew Charlie and my best friend/niece, Lizzie; the artist Rob Ryan; the sunlight at 5PM because it’s so hopeful and delicious, I feel like I can taste it; Sister Carita Kent’s silkscreens; food in Copenhagen, Denmark; TopShop; the documentary film “War Photographer”; black nailpolish and red lipstick; authors that knock me out with the poetry of their language (I just recently finished “Written on the Body” by Jeanette Winterston and “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner — so, so different yet equal in their power); photos of my Mom from the 40s and 50s; memories of my twin sister, Ann Curtis Kiester, who died on 17 July, 1982; tattoos; empty beaches in warm climates; cheeseburgers and french fries, cigarettes and diet coke; the band J Tillman; connecting with people on a very true and deep level; discovering, exploring, talking, sharing, laughing my ass off, crying, feeling.
Check out Part 2 of my interview with Elizabeth, posted January 6, 2010, to see what’s new with Wanderlust!
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