The Cambodian designer making Barbie dolls in traditional costume

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Designer Cheab Sibora says each costume is inspired by the different cultures and identities across the Kingdom’s 25 provinces and cities. Photo supplied

A Cambodian IT student has turned his back on the world of computers and set his sights on something far more unusual and creative – designing traditional Khmer outfits for Barbie dolls.

Despite initially facing disapproval from his family, Cheab Sibora continued to design and produce intricate outfits for the dolls in traditional Khmer style.

“Although I did not receive much support at first, my friends and family have really got behind my project – making Khmer designed outfits for Barbie dolls,” he said.

Invented by Ruth Handler in 1959, Barbie is the most successful doll of all time, selling more than one billion of them since it was first launched.

Now Sibora hopes to add to that legacy by giving the dolls, for the first time, a traditional Khmer twist.

He says each costume is inspired by the different cultures and identities across the Kingdom’s 25 provinces and cities, with the outfits proving popular among the Cambodian diaspora and foreigners as well.

“Most people who bought them are Khmer people in Cambodia, but I’ve also had many foreigners. I’ve not opened a formal design studio for the business yet as I’m currently responding to a backlog of preorders from clients,” he says.

The 26-year-old is a self-taught artist and spends two to three days finishing one doll, which sells for $30-$50 each.

“Each doll needs a lot of work and attention to design the embroidery. The fabric needs to be sewn with small beads and sequins one-by-one to create the traditional Khmer designs,” he said.

Among the designs is Reachny Ney Krong Kuch (Empress of Pearl Capital), representing Phnom Penh. As part of this design, the Barbie is dressed in a sparkling silver costume adorned with embroidery and pearls from head to toe.

For Pailin Province, famous for its traditional peacock dance, the Moyurana costume is made from bird feathers that compliment the blue pattern silk skirt, all finished with a golden peacock head.

Another outfit representing the ancient capital in Siem Reap, named Neang Tep Apsara, incorporates the Apsara sculptures and carvings of the city’s iconic temples.

Sibora’s passion for fashion and design began in 2011 when he was a high school student where he drew inspiration from traditional Khmer art, paintings and history books. In 2013, he began his current project.

“Although I did not study art skill, I liked watching fashion shows, browsing catalogues and reading arts book. I was so interested that I decided to try them out even though it was the exact opposite of my studies in IT.”

The young designer said he was inspired by a book written by well-known arts scholar Pich Tum Kravil named Khmer Dance.

Tum Kravil’s book explored ancient Khmer scripts discovered at Lor Ley Temple dating from the 9th century, describing scenes of a woman dressing up and dancing for holy spirits. This inspired him to bring this ancient beauty into the modern era through the medium of Barbie.

While his classmates encouraged and praised his work, his family initially proved less enthusiastic.

“As my family is very poor, they were concerned that I would not be able to make any money from this and asked me to stop. But because I love what I’m doing, every day and night I would continue in secret without them knowing,” he said.

With years spent designing and producing these costumes, Sibora’s aspiration is to take his work to the public through a formal exhibition to promote Khmer heritage and culture.

“I’ve received an offer to display my work. I hope to make younger generations interested in Khmer identity, and help preserve our beautiful tradition and culture passed down by our ancestors,” he said.

Sibora publicises his designs through Facebook. For more information, visit his Facebook pages Bora Apsara or Banjureth Art Page.