Most of the 400 people in the audience of the fifth annual DREAM GIRLS Graphic Design Contest at the Himawari Hotel Phnom Penh last Saturday were unaware that they were about to witness a life changing moment. And neither did the girls understand how, in an instant, their lives could alter course.
When the announcer called out the names of the winners, some of the girls started crying. Walking to the stage their faces became nervous to be honoured in front of such a large crowd, but by the time they accepted the award they radiated with joy and pride.
Out of 327 Cambodian girls and young women between the ages of 13 to 27 who competed, 30 received awards by Japanese judges that included art professors and business leaders who had just flown in from Tokyo. Guest speakers included Yajima Makoto, the general manager of Aeon mall, and Hohoko Asami, a bestselling Japanese author.
Wakana Nukui, owner of Wakana Shop in Aeon Mall, and CEO of the design company Blooming Life, founded the DREAM GIRLS project in 2009. The inspiration for the event came from when she visited Angkor Wat, saw the beautiful artwork carved into stone, and came to believe that Cambodians have an inherent talent for design. Soon after she launched the DREAM GIRLS project to help Cambodian women start their graphic design careers. Every year, the annual competition has become increasingly successful.
“Especially [the Japanese] guests were amazed over the quality and originality of the submitted designs because most of these girls never attended art classes in school,” Wakana told Post Plus, adding that “the [designs] are original and different from anything we know in Japan.” Some of the designs displayed included arrangements of twines, flowers, and shapes intertwining in odd, somewhat intuitive, geometric precision with daring colour compositions. However, Wakana acknowledged that natural talent is useless without discipline.
“The contest [was] an opportunity for the girls to understand that they need to study, learn how to keep deadlines, and work within the limitations of a set task,” said Wakana. To gain these skills, Wakana threw the contestants of the design contest’s business division into the deep end, making them stand their ground in front of the Japanese clients who ordered particular designs for their products.
One such example is that the girls had to work on a design for a luxury soap called Khmer Rabbit with Yoichi Ogata, the founder and president of the company that had to be in line with the existing products requirements.
“Some girls may want to do some really funky design, but that doesn’t work if you have to submit to the tastes and styles a company already has,” Wakana explained.
Apart from Khmer Rabbit soap, F-Port Tokyo will use DREAM GIRLS designs, as well as Japanese apparel giant Flaxus Tokyo who both have a shop in Aeon mall.
Every year the winners receive price money, up to $1,000 – though in some cases price money is withheld.
Wakana explained why: “Some who won prizes for product design will have to revise their design until it is 100 per cent professional and ready for the market. Many young Cambodian people don’t have that valuable kind of learning experience.”
What the DREAM GIRLS project achieves is to turn a charity into real opportunity for Cambodian girls.
What they may not have understood in the moments they walked up onto the stage overwhelmed by emotion, was that they didn’t only receive recognition but the first payment in a career as graphic designers in form of prize money.
Or to say it in the words of Aeon GM Yajima: “You girls are ready to go into the world and take a job anywhere in the world! I am really looking forward to seeing your designs in Tokyo, Paris, and New York.”