Kikuo Morimoto, 59, is a passionate man who radiates an aura of serenity. He has almost single-handedly saved the silk-weaving industry of Cambodia, a tradition that was nearly lost during three decades of war and neglect.
Morimoto started as an apprentice kimono painter in Kyoto, and later opened his own studio. But then, as he began volunteering in refugee camps along the Thai border, he began studying traditional silk-weaving in villages in northern Thailand and began some pilot projects. He shut up shop in Japan in 1982 and has never looked back since.
Morimoto first went to Cambodia in 1994, and in 1995 he established the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles. Since then he has trained around 400 women to weave in the traditional style. When he first arrived, middlemen controlled distribution, and talented weavers were made to churn out inferior products to serve the market. This offended Morimoto’s sensibilities as a kimono-maker and self-described “silk fanatic.” Now he markets his high-quality products directly to tourists and commands both respect and high prices for truly exquisite fabrics.
As successful as he is, however, Morimoto modestly says that his fabrics are only 80 percent as good as antique Khmer silks — but there is no doubt that the feel and look of his weavings are in a class of their own.
But that’s not even the half of it, because Morimoto also established a village of 150 inhabitants in 2003, where farmers grow the mulberry trees for the leaves they feed to the silkworms they raise to produce their silky cocoons. Villagers also grow organic cotton and other plants they need for their organic dyes, supplemented by various barks and insect nests they gather.
So Morimoto has created a totally Khmer silk product produced by weavers using cocoons raised in a self-sustaining village powered by solar panels outside of Siem Reap, where he has a store close to the main market.
At present, Morimoto refuses to market his silk overseas, and relies instead on direct sales to maximize the return to the producers. He says that annual sales now average about $300,000 — a sum shared among the farmers and weavers. For his efforts he has won worldwide recognition, including the 11th Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2004. In his view, his customers are his donors, but some clients are also so moved by the project that they offer cash donations. In addition, some young Japanese have volunteered in his village initiative, where he is passing on a rich legacy not only to the weaving community, but to the customers and volunteers who hopefully will emulate his energy and dedication.