Each Cambodian province bears rich cultures, traditions, peoples and landmarks that are uniquely theirs. But we sometimes overlook these specific symbols of identity, always opting for the bigger and wider picture. While this isn’t at all bad, it hinders us from seeing the real and distinct splendor of each place. Thoeun Socheat has set out on a mission to introduce the 24 provinces and one city of Cambodia to the people through a very relatable medium – fashion. The 22-year-old Kandal native has squeezed in designing 25 traditional dresses in his busy schedule as an architecture student of the Royal University of Fine Arts. He shares the concepts of his designs with Agnes Alpuerto and Say Tola.
Good Times2: How and why have you thought of designing traditional dresses for each city and province? Did you do some research for the designs?
Socheat: I have always been passionate about drawing and sketching since I was young. But I only drew flowers, houses and trees that time. And I also am very fond of fashion shows. I always watch Chanel fashion events on YouTube. So, I thought of trying to design clothes that are both fashionable and sensible. That’s how I came up with the idea to make a total of 25 designs of traditional dresses for women in Cambodia. I want to show that each province has its unique styles, traditions and landmarks. I tried to combine all the important aspects of a certain province into the dress so it would really represent that place.
I started doing the research on the different provinces in February. I looked for landmarks, histories, temples, animals and folktales that are unique to the provinces. I tasked myself to combine contemporary and traditional styles.
I drew the designs during the Khmer New Year holidays because that was the only free time I had. I spent about 15 days to finish all 25 sketches. But it took me five months to really complete them all – colours, styles, headdresses, accessories.
Good Times2: Can you take us to the process of designing the dresses?
Socheat: When I started drawing the dresses, I kept thinking about the materials to be used, the kind of cloth, the length of the dresses, everything. I also included necklaces and bracelets and scarves. Even the hairstyles are included in the designs. Because I am an avid fan of fashion shows, I also kept imagining how the models or the women who will wear the dresses walk. I already imagined the movements of the dresses when the models walk. So I based the styles and the forms of the dresses on how I imagined them.
I also took very careful consideration on the styles of the natives of the provinces. The dresses were designed to represent them, so I didn’t really want to put too much on the dresses, just enough to show what that province is all about.
It was hard at first because I really did not think that I could do it. I was quite unsure. To make a good dress, you need commitment and strong skills. Some of my designs need special fabric and embroidery. I know it’s not going to be easy to turn them into real dresses, but I think it’s not impossible.
Good Times2: How did you combine all the aspects of a certain place into one beautiful design?
Socheat: So after I did all the research, I checked all the information. I closely studied the temples, the landmarks and everything in that province. I also found animals and birds that only exist in a certain place. So I used all these information to conceptualise how the overall look of the dress would be.
Battambang, for example, is filled with farms. I opted to design a dress that is similar to what farmers in Battambang wear. The colours I used were yellow and green, the colours of the farm and the rice grains.
For Mondulkiri, I got my inspiration from the P’hnong tribe. The tribesmen wear horizontal designs so I also did the same thing. The dress is filled with green and orange colours to represent the tribe and the green environment of the province.
For Phnom Penh, I combined the colours and structures of the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, Wat Phnom and the Chaktomuk bird. I designed a gold dress – same colour with the Royal Palace. The headdress is a representation of the Wat Phnom. While the colour and texture of the cloth on the waist part were taken from the look of the Independence Monument.
I was also very fond of the peacock in Pursat, so I made a design out of it. The headdress represents the feathers of the peacock. The upper part of the dress also resemble the texture of the bird. There’s also a yellow free-flowing fabric attached on the waist, which resemble the flower that’s very common in Pursat.
Same goes with all the other provinces. I took out details of what I found in those places and designed them into dresses. It’s really a symbol of these provinces because everything in that design is patterned according to the place.
Good Times2: Is fashion design part of the architecture programme you’re currently taking?
Socheat: No, it’s not related to my major. But I am really fond of designing. I first wanted to study fashion but my parents did not allow me to pursue it. So, I chose to study architecture, which is also something I am deeply passionate about.
That’s why it took me months to complete my designs because I also had to focus on my studies. I am now in my third year at the Royal University of Fine Arts. I got assignments and projects to do as well. I had to divide my time, without sacrificing any of my responsibilities.
Good Times2: What do you plan to do with the designs? Will you be sewing them by yourself?
Socheat: I am not really sure if I have the skills to make these designs into tangible, real dresses. I know a little about embroidery, though. But if somebody or some organisation would be interested to help me make these designs into a reality, I would gladly offer these and help in the process of choosing the materials and sewing. It’s really my dream to see these designs being worn by Khmer women from the provinces of Cambodia. I want to give them something that’s unique, something that would become their identity.
Even the thought of staging a fashion show where all these designs will be presented already feels so amazing.
I am currently preparing these designs and creating a good presentation for the Ministry of Culture. I want to propose my works and see if they can help me endorse these to the different provinces. If they would allow me, I can meet with the provincial governors and tell them about these concepts and eventually coordinate with them for the realisation of these designs.
You see, I’m not just really making these drawings for myself. I want to give all the provinces in the country and the people in those provinces something they can call ‘theirs’. I am not really sure if other people have thought of the same thing. But I personally want to uplift the culture, the traditions, the landmarks and the tourist sites in every place and combine them all into a beautiful dress.
I actually uploaded five of these designs on Facebook months ago, and the responses were truly overwhelming. Many people asked me to create one for their own province. That’s how I got really motivated to continue doing the designs, even if I’m not really sure how this will end up. I just know that I want to do this. Now that I’m done with all the designs, I wish to see them come to life soon.