In a 2m x 2m shop on the first floor of Phnom Penh’s huge and crowded O’Russey Market, 27-year-old wedding dressmaker Sok Markly sits at her sewing machine day making gowns that sparkle and shimmer for Phnom Penh’s brides. Cambodia’s wedding season is well underway and she’s flat-out busy but – while continuing to put the finishing touches on a midnight blue Khmer-style dress – she agreed to have a chat about her trade with Khouth Sophak Chakrya and Will Jackson.
How did you become a wedding dressmaker?
After finishing high school in 2007 I studied dressmaking in order to earn money to support my family. When I finished in 2008 my mother gave me this clothes store on the first floor at O’Russey Market. I started to make some wedding dresses to sell and over time more and more of my customers came to order wedding clothes.
How much do you earn making wedding dresses?
Dressmaking won’t make my family rich but it can support our livelihood. I charge between $60 and $120 per wedding dress but if the customers have their own material I can make the dress for only $35. I don’t have plans to expand my business at the moment but in the future I would like to.
What are your working hours?
Every day I get up in the early morning to prepare breakfast for everyone in my family and then I go to the market at 7am to open my clothes store and start sewing or hemming the dresses for my customers. I have lunch at 12am at my store with my older sister and mother and then I continue to do my job until 5pm. Sometimes I hire some other seamstresses to help me when I accept too many orders from customers.
How long does it take you to make a wedding dress?
I can make one or two wedding dresses a week, depending on the style of dress that the customer has ordered. Dresses take longer when the customers come and look at the album and see four or five different styles and decide to mix them up. Some order me to mix the Western and Khmer traditional styles to create a new style. I order most of the cloth and beads from India, China, Thailand and Vietnam but the silks, which I prefer, are produced in Cambodia.
How are tastes in wedding dresses changing?
The new generation tends to order more Western and European style dresses which have more adornments, like rhinestones. Only the older generation prefers the traditional Khmer style, which is softer and more subtle. For me, the dressmaker’s role is not to have a preference for style. The client is the boss and they order us to do their wedding. So the best style is whatever the client wants.
How busy do you get during wedding season?
The wedding season in Cambodia begins once the observance of [Buddhist] Lent has been completed, or we can say from October to May. Before, people could not get married during the wet season because their weddings could be ruined by the rain but these days people in Phnom Penh have their weddings all year round. Wedding season is still the time that I am very busy though, especially in April.
When you get married, who will make your dress?
I don’t want to get married until I am 30 because I want to earn money to help my family. Before I marry, I will make a beautiful wedding dress for myself and my future husband and I will also make some dresses for my mother and sisters. But because I will need up to five dresses to wear during my wedding, I will have to hire the other dresses from someone else, along with the other wedding embellishments.