Her face can be seen on billboards, social network sites, television and the silver screen, while she also champions the Helping Kantha Bopha Hospitals campaign and the USAID-funded Cambodia Countering Trafficking-in-Persons (CTIP) project.
Known as ‘Krama Princess’, Mean Sonyta is a famous celebrity, the face of big brand products and a USAID CTIP goodwill ambassador. Despite her tightly packed schedule, her love of Cambodia’s national scarf the krama means she dedicates yet more time to preserving this iconic garment through her social enterprise.
“At first I just wanted to have my own project related to Khmer culture and identity. It all begin in late March around the Khmer New Year season. I thought of using krama to make hair bands, outfits and other stuff that basically most people can’t do without having to go to the tailor,” she said.
“I had never thought of turning krama fabric into fashion wear until I was strongly urged by my friends and fans to sell krama clothing.”
Speaking to The Post at her workshop filled with krama fabric, the 28-year-old celebrity described her motivation to start the endeavour is a lack of locally made goods and products in the Kingdom.
“I went to Angkor and other tourism destinations several times and what I saw made me embarrassed; souvenirs and other products on display that are imported from Thailand, Vietnam and China. The imported goods bear the Angkor Wat logo along with ‘Made in Cambodia’. I asked the seller whether they made them and they admitted they were imported,” Sonyta recalled.
“I want to ask everyone that if we don’t start with ourselves, who else is going to help us. Most people import products that are just made to look like local goods. This is the root causes of Cambodian people migrating abroad to work. If many people continue to sell imported products, our country has less jobs [in manufacturing].”
Witnessing the diminishing presence of the karma in modern Cambodian society, Sonyta and her mother began to search for a local community in the Kingdom still weaving the iconic garment.
“My mother and I went to many provinces in search of a krama weaving village. Wherever people dropped us a hint about where it was still being made, we headed there. Unfortunately, more often than not when we arrived the people in the villages had stopped weaving,” Sonyta said.
After months of searching they arrived in Phnom Srok district’s Paoy Snuol village in Banteay Meanchey province, where the pair were greeted with the sound of weaving.
“Paoy Snuol is the only village in Banteay Meanchey that still has women making krama. I am very proud that they’ve stayed strong and continued the weaving tradition. They did not give up their looms to work somewhere far away even though krama products are less popular in the market,” she said.
Seeing their struggle to sustain their livelihoods, the actress chose the village and named her group of 20 weavers the Slanh Community, who produce goods for her online store Slanh House.
After selling her produce online, Sonyta invested in a store she named it Slanh House (House of Love) in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I, first launching on her birthday in February 2017.
“I first started with online sales before I opened a shop in BKK1. The most important thing is I really want to revive the krama market as nowadays you see less and less people using it and so I decided to put the fabric into outfit for everyday use. I especially want to see people continue to value the legacy of hand-woven krama,” she said.
In her store, Cambodia’s national fabric has been made into everything from wallets to scarves, headscarves to socks, and even hammocks.
The store also sells karma-inspired daily wear and evening gowns. The price depends on the design and fabric, and though Sonyta said she can see why some people might find her products expensive, she said there is good reason for this.
“Some customers say the price is high without knowing the story behind the garment. It’s challenging to sell handmade krama. It takes two days to make one krama that will be sold to support their families. People ask me why it is so expensive compared to those in the local market and I say it depends on the quality, whether it’s handmade or cheaply manufactured,” she said.
Over the past three years working with Slanh Community, Sonyta said she has not told them to stop weaving even though her house is overloaded with krama stock piling up.
“I’ve created a small market for krama and continued with it for more than three years. If I don’t buy krama and return the income to the weaving community, the tradition will die. The weavers cannot survive; their cooking pot must be filled with rice and their children need money to go to school. We cannot force people to love what we do, but I would like to see people take care of their culture and their national treasures.”
Slanh House is located on Street 306 in BKK1, Phnom Penh. The shop can be contacted by telephone (071 950 8888).