Cambodia's Nathalie Saphon Ridel

I encountered the beauty of Nathalie Saphon Ridel’s eye before I met her. On my first night in Siem Reap on a recent trip, I browsed the boutiques in the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and immediately fell in love with two of the shops that sold local designs. Khmer Attitude is a boutique bursting with vivid colors that features the silk scarves and bags of designer Eric Raisina and the striking, body-hugging fashions of Phnom Penh-based designer Romyda Keith, (both of whom we have featured in the Indagare Souk). The sister boutique next door, Galerie du Cambodge, was equally appealing but totally different. If Khmer Attitude specializes in fashion and accessories for making a bold, colorful, show-stopping statement, then Galerie du Cambodge focuses on a kind of lazy, low-key elegance that blends in. Loose fitting linen pants in neutral tones, simple leather flip-flops and tunics with subtle adornment are mixed with woven cotton scarfs, fabulous floppy sun hats and casual jewelry with an Asian accent. Everything is made by local artisans (except the Panama hats, which are imported), and the workshops use only eco-friendly materials and techniques. I loved the palette, the sensibility and the lifestyle that the shop evoked, so it was not surprising that I immediately also liked the woman behind these products when I met her the next day at Maison Polanka, the guesthouse/villa rental that used to be her home.

Nathalie was born in Cambodia to a French mother and Cambodian father. When she was nine years old, her school in Phnom Penh was hit by a bomb, and her mother decided it was time to take her, her siblings and cousins back to France. Her father stayed until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power. He was able to escape, but two of her uncles, who had been the heads of the navy and of commerce, were executed. “I always wanted to come back,” explains Ridel, who studied at Sciences Po in Paris and received her doctorate in Khmer civilization, thinking that she might be able to return in the diplomatic corps. Instead, she ended up as a buyer for Compagnie Francaise de l’Orient et de la Chine, a chic Indochine-influenced boutique. For them, she traveled throughout Asia sourcing high-end crafts.

She finally moved to Phnom Penh in 1992 where she met her husband, and other than two years when they moved to Shanghai, Cambodia has been her home since. Both she and her husband, Jean-Pierre Marital, spent years tracking down master craftspeople to help preserve traditional Khmer arts. Jean-Pierre helped establish the non-profit enterprise Artisans d’Angkor, which still thrives on the edge of Siem Reap, and she began working with artisans on her own designs and promoting local talents like Raisina and Keth in her boutiques. Nathalie also works with various local NGOs, including Osmose, where she is the director of the social environmental project on Tonle Sap. Her water hyacinth project provides income to 30 of the poorest families in Prek Toal village.

When Nathalie moved to China for a few years for her children’s education, she and her husband decided it would be better to rent out their garden-like retreat in the middle of Siem Reap rather than let it stand empty. Natalie worked with an architect to preserve the wooden stilt houses while adding bathrooms and updating conveniences. Maison Polanka, which now has a main suite and four guestrooms in a nearby house, offers the most private retreat in Siem Reap. It has its own pool, acres of lush tropical gardens and a staff that includes one of the town’s top chefs. The décor bears Nathalie’s distinct aesthetic: vintage Art Deco chairs mix with ‘60s modern and traditional rattan armoires and splashes of brightly colored lacquerware to create a funky Eurasian comfort zone. Nathalie or Jean-Pierre are generally onsite to welcome guests, and their staff is fabulous, some of whom comes from the Raffles. “I have always loved hotels and meeting people,” she says, and it shows in all of her enterprises. In this, she represents the strength, creativity and the inspiration of Cambodia.

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