When Japanese businesswoman Wakana Nukui speaks, her voice wavers lowly and sonorously like the deep C string of an old cello. She didn’t earn this voice by downing whisky and cigarettes, but by training in kendo, a modern Japanese martial art based on ancient samurai culture. To deliver the hardest blow to an opponent, a fighter performs every movement with a menacing battle cry.
This certainly can wear out the vocal chords – something very much to Wakana’s advantage, imparting her with a rich, velvety voice. And so it is only fitting that the merchandise the entrepreneur sells at her Wakana shop at Aeon Mall is mostly made of velvet and satin – and that her personal story is reminiscent of that of a travelling samurai in search of adventure and abiding by a strict set and principles.
Since June, Wakana’s velvet pouches, hand bags and purses – all with original and diverse designs – have been for sale at her store on the ground floor of Phnom Penh’s newest shopping paradise.
The claim to fame of these trendy accessories – which are made “to look pretty everyday when you go out”, according to Wakana – is not that they are made in Japan. Rather, they are designed right here in Cambodia by less fortunate and marginalised women who would not have been able to even conceive of a career in design if it wasn’t for the DREAM GIRLS program that Wakana started under the auspices of her company, Blooming Life International Co Ltd, and many prominent supporters.
A samurai-like quest
Before Wakana could open her namesake shop and sell DREAM GIRLS-designed velvet goods, she first had to go on a wandering, unplanned journey – like that of the aforementioned samurai, except without the sword.
Wakana began travelling widely throughout Southeast Asia in 2002, chasing the dream of a breakthrough opportunity in business, knowing that “something new” would reveal itself to her. The journey took her through Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as to Cambodia’s ancient temples, where her idea first came to her in 2009.
“Angkor Wat fascinated me so much with its beautiful art and stone carvings,” Wakana recalls. Her experience as a web designer in Japan made her even more impressed by the genius of the shapes and patterns that cover Cambodia’s national symbol. Wakana said she hadn’t seen anything like it elsewhere in Asia.
After Cambodians kept telling her that the ancient temple represented their “spirit and soul”, Wakana remembered something from her time studying for an international studies degree in Washington.
“I went to a nightclub with a friend and we danced all night,” Wakana says. The fierce rhythmic dancing skills of her friend amazed her and she wondered why she had never seen her out before. The friend later revealed that this was her first night out at a club and that she had never danced before. When Wakana sceptically inquired how this was possible, the friend answered: “I guess the rhythm is in my blood.”
This led Wakana to believe that “Cambodians must have a native skill for design” – and that such a talent must be nurtured.
Everyone has goals
War suppressed the arts in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate them entirely, along with almost every Cambodian who was involved with them. Unfortunately, art is still a rarely taught subject in the Kingdom’s schools.
Yet, with the determination that let Wakana find business inspiration in the temples of Angkor, she also found a way to let Cambodian design talent surface on a large scale – through her awareness of the lack of opportunities for Cambodian women.
“Visiting Cambodia, I saw that women have to carry out jobs that are physically very challenging. A career in design would be so much more suitable.”
When she visited a school that taught Japanese to socially disadvantaged girls in their late teens, she asked one of them what her dream was. The reaction surprised her. “The girl was so surprised that somebody cared about her dreams that she started crying.”
Girls with dreams
With her strong belief in the Kingdom’s women and their inherent design talent, Wakana held a design contest called DREAM GIRLS in 2009 to finally prove both these things.
Though feedback about the contest’s call for entries was encouraging, the ambitious host recalls believing that she had failed. “One week before the deadline, we had received almost no entries. But one or two days after deadline we had 200 applications with 281 different designs.”
The dedication to find a better life through design and art of so many girls was the breakthrough. Wakana decided to hold the Dream Girls contest annually.
The number of applicants rose the next year. Every year now, 70 finalists get the chance to shape their raw talents through workshops before the 20 most gifted young women are rewarded with scholarships for a renowned Japanese design school in Phnom Penh. The ultimate winner also receives $1,000 prize money.
This year Wakana moved permanently from Japan to Cambodia, founded a local branch of her design company, Blooming Life, and opened her shop.
As Wakana sits in an Aeon Mall coffee shop telling her story with her deep and warm voice, it is clear that her quest has really just begun – the business she always dreamed of is finally ready to bloom. Apart from the licences that Wakana has to give for the use of the countless designs the Dream Girls have already created, there are satin pouches to be sold, and Wakana is sure that the local market has great potential, just like the Thai market.
Even with so many business issues to take care of, Wakana never forgets the reason she is doing it all: to help young women. She is now trying to move production to Cambodia. A first attempt earlier this year didn’t work out, but why would this stop someone who leads a life focused on goals and coloured with patient dedication? It wouldn’t.
“Of course we will try again.”