Ros Pheakdey still remembers the first gown she made – a sheer, black dress – a design she had happened to see scrolling through her Instagram feed in 2013. She made use of materials she had in her home, and with her mother’s old sewing machine, Ros Pheakdey began to sew the dress – not realizing it was the start of her career in fashion.
Twenty-four hours later, Ros Pheakdey was looking at a loose, draping silhouette, a sense of accomplishment washing over her. From the small bedroom with a sewing machine, Ros Pheakdey’s designs are now worn by Miss Universe Cambodia contestants and popular singer and songwriter Suon Socheata, known by her stage name Nikki Nikki.
“Being recognized by people in the entertainment industry, it’s a validation for me to keep going because Skyleros as a brand is being accepted and recognized,” she said.
The 25-year-old designer, who identifies as gender fluid, now prefers to go by Skyler, even naming her fashion brand Skyleros Fashion. While Ros Pheakdey has achieved a lot of success in a short period, including being an inspiration for the LGBT+ community, the Phnom Penh resident reminisces about her early days.
Having always had a penchant for appreciating fabrics, Ros Pheakdey started designing costumes for her high-school dance troupe in 2015 and kept practicing sewing, mending small pieces of clothing, but with not much formal training
She trained herself by watching D-I-Y videos on YouTube, devouring fashion magazines, like Vogue, for inspiration and designing essentials, like shirts and denim, to improve her skills.
“I have to say it is not a proper place to study [fashion] because we can just repeat, but nobody can tell if you do it right or wrong, you don’t have guidance,” Ros Pheakdey said.
With little exposure to the fashion world and despite hesitancy over her lack of formal training, Ros Pheakdey launched Skyleros Fashion in 2015 at the age of 19, using friends for fashion shoots featuring her designs.
“I just know I love designing clothes, it was always nothing serious. But when all of my clothes were sold, that’s when my career took off,” Ros Pheakdey said.
With the help of family and friends, Ros Pheakdey has become a solid fixture in Cambodia’s fashion scene, and joins other successful members of the fashion industry, such as Kong Sothea, a finalist at the Runway Ready Designer in 2017; Sok Nan, a household name for Khmer contemporary fashion; and Marya Na owner of the fashion brand PRIVE.
Pov Sithan, another up-and-coming designer, said Ros Pheakdey was setting an example for the design community by being true to her design aesthetic, despite not having any formal training.
Additionally, her popularity and personality, Pov Sithan said, was helping increase acceptance among the general public and, in turn, opening up avenues for the LGBT+ community looking to get into the fashion and entertainment sector.
“I know a lot of people who know about her and she was very well-known in the media and open about her sexuality,” Pov Sithan said. “So, I think that helped us in a way because she opened up acceptance in the public eye for most of us."
Ros Pheakdey said that her informal training frees her from traditional design concepts, but also affects her understanding of the mechanics of an outfit or even how to run a fashion business. Friends have been critical to understanding the financial aspects of running a business, she said.
“At school, you are taught structure, business strategies, and teachers give you a lot of direction; you don’t have to scramble by yourself,” Ros Pheakdey said, “It takes me more time to make a piece of clothing.”
While the early days were a struggle – online and offline sales pitches mixed with designing large offerings of designs – Ros Pheakdey now plays to her strengths, accepting individual orders from prospective customers, limited to performance costumes and evening gowns.
The popular designer acknowledges that there was probably more acceptance of members from the LGBT+ in the fashion industry, though not always consistently.
“People are not always so open; they still hide their identities to [entertainment executives] who just want safe and straight people or at least straight presenting. This is due to brand considerations, the audience, and image,” Ros Pheakdey said.
She hoped her example would show members of the LGBT+ community that they can always turn to entrepreneurship to create jobs for themselves, however, acknowledging that it was not always an easy path.
“I think society will eventually accept us,” Ros Pheakdey said. “I never think about this when I work with other people - if you want to judge me, judge my work, not my gender.”