Penh Lenh empowering women with artisan jobs in ethical fashion industry

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Rachel Dodson (right) founded Penh Lenh in 2013 and was joined by Srey Mao (left) from Kratie province. SUPPLIED

The shiny hoop earrings worn by model Binx Walton recently on the cover of Vogue Italia are more than just a fashion statement.

Handcrafted by female artisans working to feed their families, the accessories at Penh Lenh were created to provide opportunity and economic empowerment for local women who play an important role in building sustainable communities.

Based in the capital, Penh Lenh was founded by Rachel Dodson in 2013. She left her fast-paced job as a modeling agent in New York City to pursue a career in empowering women through ethical fashion.

“Before Penh Lenh, I was in New York. I just wasn’t fulfilled when I was in that industry. It was kind of dark and vain. At the same time I was sort of feeling like I was called to do something totally different. And I want to take all the skills that I had in business and fashion to help people.

“Cambodia was one of the countries in need and a country where there are many vulnerable young women. I came over here for three weeks to meet some young women and research the need for a programme like Penh Lenh and I just fell in love here. I went back and I quit my job. My bags were packed for good and I moved here a couple months later,” Dodson tells The Post.

Once in Phnom Penh, Dodson met Srey Mao and the two immediately became friends. Srey Mao was born and raised in Kratie. She moved to Phnom Penh when she was 16 years old to study cosmetology.

Before joining forces with Dodson to create Penh Lenh, Srey Mao was co-owner of a salon. Srey Mao always had a passion for the beauty and the fashion industry so when she was presented with the opportunity to start Penh Lenh, she jumped at it.

With a shared passion for empowering women, ethical fashion and hard work, it was not long before both of them had Penh Lenh up and running.

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Penh Lenh’s products are handcrafted by female artisans working to build new lives for themselves and their families. Photo supplied

Dodson says when she came here the first thing has to do was to humble herself and figure out what the girls’ needs were and she decided she wanted to build programmes that help women live sustainable lives.

“Most of the women I’m working with are coming from a background with low education levels and poverty, so their self-worth is really low. What they’ve been through really impacts them as a person, so that’s when the empowerment comes in,” she says.

The two saw a need to help marginalised woman pursue their life’s goals through quality education, vocational training and advanced career opportunities.

“As a programme we want to provide not only skills training or jobs, we want to figure out more classes like girl’s classes or English classes to help them develop in order to become self-sustaining women,” she says.

The jewelry brand has a classic yet trendy vibe from the rings to the earrings, necklaces and bracelets. They design bold, colourful, and unique pieces that continually surprise.

Each Penh Lenh product is handcrafted by female artisans working to build new lives for themselves and their families. Every time a customer purchases a Penh Lenh piece, they are not only getting a unique and high quality jewelry piece, but they are investing in the livelihood of the artisans as well.

They use high quality 14k gold-filled material along with semi-precious gemstones and freshwater pearls to create the jewels. Each piece represents the strength and beauty of the women creating them or wearing them.

Dodson says she gets her inspiration from a variety of places.

“Our inspiration comes from our friends, artists, and nature and sometimes we dream in jewelry. We are very intentional to look into trend forecasting and be aware of new styles and popular colours. We aim to be classic while also being on trend,” says Dodson.

Currently, the most popular design is their Walton Gemstone earrings. These are the earrings that were worn on the cover of Vogue Magazine by model Binx Walton.

The price of their jewelry ranges from $22-$249 and their customers are both local Cambodians and expats of all nationalities. The average customer is female between the ages of 25 to 49 years old with a very trendy and cool style, says Dodson.

An American self-taught jewelry maker and designer, Dodson says one of her best memories she has with a customer was when they “received an email from a couple who had fallen in love during a trip to Cambodia. They told us one of their favorite moments of the trip was visiting our shop and buying jewelry.

“They had recently gotten engaged and asked us to make some special jewelry for their wedding party. It was an absolute honor to have been part of their love story and then to be a small part of their wedding as well,” she says.

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Prices range from $22 to $249 and each piece is meant to represent the strength and beauty of the women creating them. Photo supplied

However, dealing with Covid-19 has certainly been a challenge for her and Srey Mao but they stay healthy and safe because the well-being of their staff and customers has been their number one priority. As a result, they have changed their business model and are now 100% online.

They decided to close their physical retail location for now and Dodson says she misses interacting with customers in the shop and receiving the immediate feedback. However, they are thankful for the community that they have built through social media and the support from customers there.

They have expanded their social media reach on Tiktok and Instagram and grown their online sales and Dodson says the plan is to continue to grow the business and sales via online avenues so that they can hire more staff and build the team.

There’s a saying in Cambodia that “men are gold, women are white silk”. This implies that men are strong and cannot be stained or lose value, while women are fragile and easily lose their value. It is a metaphor that often comes up in the context of virginity or sex before marriage.

“We are on a mission to correct this mentality and create a movement toward equality across the world with our ‘women are gold’ collection. We believe by prioritising women’s economic empowerment, we will see greater impact and build a community that is inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable,” Dodson says.

Penh Lenh is actively creating content on Tiktok to build brand awareness in Cambodia and they now have nearly 300,000 followers and two million likes.

“This year, we have also started a scholarship programme and are currently giving full scholarships to two young women to continue their education. We would like to grow this programme to support more education for young women who might otherwise not be able to pursue their education,” Dodson says.

You can find Penh Lenh online at or on Tiktok: @penhlenhdesigns.