Pioneering bridal gown designer and entrepreneur
It started as a hobby, then it became a small home-based enterprise, and by the 1970s Sylvia Kho was the doyenne of Singapore’s bridal business with four bridal boutiques across the island. She designed the most exquisite wedding gowns and made them with luxurious laces imported from France, Austria, and Switzerland.
Sylvia Wong Sien Moy was born in 1917 in Selangor, Malaysia, to Peranakan parents who owned rubber plantations. When she was five, she started learning sewing and beadwork from her mother. She turned out to have a natural talent for dressmaking and handicraft. By the age of nine, Sylvia could design, cut a pattern, and sew. She went to Methodist Girls’ School in Singapore, and her needlework was so good that her teacher often asked her to help her classmates. To earn some pocket money, she made Chinese-style frog buttons and sold them for two cents each.
After leaving school she trained as a nurse and then worked at the Singapore General Hospital. When World War II broke out, she initially continued her work as a nurse. She managed to get onto one of the last ships fleeing Singapore before the Japanese Occupation and spent the rest of the war in Semarang, Indonesia, where she married her fiancé, Kho Hock Chiao. While in Indonesia, she attended courses in European-style dressmaking at a school set up by a Eurasian dressmaker trained in Holland.
Returning to Singapore in 1946, Sylvia began designing and making dresses before focussing on wedding gowns. She also offered custom-made bridal headdresses and wedding bouquets to match the gowns. Initially working out of her home, she opened her first bridal boutique in Outram Park Shopping Complex in the 1960s. Her team included five tailors she had personally trained and 20 seamstresses who worked from home.
Determined to offer her clients the very best, she travelled extensively to Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States, attending courses in make-up, hairdressing and flower making and sourcing bridal veils and other supplies. In France, she was such a big buyer of lace that manufacturers went out of their way to court her, even sending limousines to meet her at the airport.
In the 1970s, Sylvia opened three more bridal boutiques – Tanglin Shopping Centre, Orchard Towers, and Katong Shopping Centre. At peak periods, she designed 40 to 50 wedding gowns a month, with prices ranging from $250 to $4,000, a fortune at that time. Sylvia exercised strict quality control over all aspects of the business. She always cut the wedding gowns herself and was usually present at fittings. She offered a complete bridal package, and started the trend of decorating wedding cars with bride-and-groom dolls.
Her clients were mostly well-heeled, and included royalty from neighbouring countries. But if she knew that a bride was in a tight financial situation she would lower the price. The entrepreneur in her saw a new market and she began to offer custom-tailored, high-end gowns in rental packages. This became an increasingly popular option for women.
In the late 1980s, as wedding fashion trends changed and couples wanted simpler weddings, Sylvia closed three of her boutiques. Her last boutique, at Orchard Towers, closed in 1993. Sylvia was 76 by then and ready for retirement. But her love for dressmaking continued and she still occasionally made wedding gowns for customers who sought her out. They were usually her former clients who wanted their daughters to marry in a Sylvia Kho gown. She kept cutting and sewing gowns right up till she was 90.
Sylvia was always involved in charity work for the Methodist church and fund-raising for various causes. One example was her donation in 2003 of more than 200 gowns to a fundraiser for St Luke’s Hospital where over $70,000 was raised.
In 2003, 15 of Sylvia’s most creative gowns, evocative of local trends in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, were selected by the Singapore Museum for its Singapore fashion history exhibition. The gowns are now part of the National Heritage Board’s National Collection. Sylvia died in 2013 aged 96.
"I ventured into the bridal business because when you dress couples up on their wedding day, you make them really happy and they never forget you. And I really love making others happy."
- A legend returns, Today, 15 January 2005, Page 28