Few people have seen the inner workings of love as much as Celest Thoi, a Malaysian-based wedding dress designer who has been in the business since 2004. For many, one's wedding day is the most meaningful day of a couple's life.
It's a day that will go down in their memory as the moment they made a promise to stay committed to each other," 'til death do us part."
For Thoi, who has had an insider's look into countless weddings over the past 16 years, it's an honour to have the privilege of being a part of someone's big day. After all, the dress is one of the most important aspects of weddings, and brides will stop at nothing to have that perfect gown everyone will remember.
"That's the part that actually keeps me going in this business," explains Thoi as we chat in her boutique in Les Suites, The Gardens Mall. "Even though it's a very stressful business, as there's no room for error. Everyone wants absolute perfection on their important day.
So when I see the love and the connection that they have with each other, that really spurs me on, especially when they send me their videos and photos to say thank you, for making them beautiful on their momentous occasion... that sometimes makes me want to tear, because it's so heartwarming."
The mother of two girls, 12 and 14 years of age, began her business in New Zealand but has been running it in Malaysia for the past 10 years.
From elegant, chic and outstanding big billowy statement gowns to low-key bridal pieces, Thoi has made them all. She has also built a stellar reputation as the designer who dresses the elite, high society and celebrities, making some good friends along the way.
"When you fit them, if they custom make a dress, you see them throughout the process, from the very beginning to the end of their preparation, so sometimes you spend a whole year with them before their big day," says Thoi. "Some of them are actually my personal friends now. You tend to make small talk, ask them about their wedding, how they met their other half, how they envision their big day."
Years later, Thoi has run into some of her former clients, pushing their babies along in their prams with their families, and she feels honoured to have had the privilege of being a part of their lives.
Having been married to her husband James Tee for 16 years, she knows all too well how love and relationships evolve over time. "I can say there's a lot of laughter, tears, and sweat. To sustain your marriage is not easy. There are many factors... not just the two of you. There's kids and all the surrounding people that you have to manage," she opines.
On whether she and her husband still feel giddy in love or are "lovey dovey", the straight-talking lass shares that they are more "business as usual" but always prioritise time together. "If we have time, we do go for quick getaways, and that's when we try to be more 'lovey dovey'," she says, laughing.
"We try to set a date night, once or twice a month. Our schedule is very hectic, it's always a rush, we need to sometimes allocate time together, because it's important. "We go for dinners or movies, but I prefer dinners because then we get to talk." Once in a while, they make it a point to go away together on each others' birthdays, for at least three days.
"When we were in New Zealand, we didn't have help, and the support system for a family is very important. We moved back here when the kids were three and one, and I'm very lucky that my mother in-law helps me with the kids when I'm running the business."
After all these years, what does Thoi feel is important in a marriage, to keep oneself happy and to keep that spark alive? "For us women, we need to maintain ourselves," she says.
"I think that's important, more so for ourselves, for our own self-esteem to feel good and look good. You need to do things for yourself, and of course if your husband sees that you're taking care of yourself and you look good I think he will feel proud of you as well."
On what makes her marriage work, between their busy work lives, raising the kids and their social lives, Thoi thinks it is a lot of patience and compromise.
"Communication is very important, and also understanding. Because it's difficult when one is so adamant about certain issues... sometimes you have to agree to disagree," says Thoi, adding that she would advise young couples to enjoy their couplehood for a few years.
"It's important to enjoy each other before the kids come along, because then it's a whole different ball game. I guess, especially for couples who got married within two to three years of courting or a relationship, I think it's important to have that couplehood time first."
One of her clients, Kelly Ng, is doing just that with her husband Surin Gnanalingam.
The newlyweds tied the knot in October of last year after dating for around two years, and are taking their time easing into marriage and enjoying each other's company. In the presence of this couple, it's hard to ignore the obvious pure bliss they feel from being in each other's company, gazing at each other with joyous smiles on their faces.
This wasn't always the case, however, as 36-year-old Kelly recalls, joking that Surin, 41, was grumpy when they first met.
"I used to work in a wellness centre and he used to go there for treatments so that's how we met," she explains.
Surin grins, sharing he had the impression it was immediate sparks between them,"I thought so, not sure about her," he says in jest.
Kelly laughs playfully and continues,"He was grumpy when I first met him, not friendly at all. When I asked a question he just answered 'yes or no'."
Soon however, they began to talk more and eventually began to date, with Surin popping the question at the end of 2018, a year or so into their relationship.
"I took her to Langkawi for her birthday. We had a beach barbeque," recalls Surin, a filmmaker who now focuses more on scriptwriting. "There was nothing unusual about it because Surin loves the beach, then he popped the question which caught me by surprise," continues Kelly.
Less than a year later, they tied the knot. Life always has challenges and Kelly and Surin too have weathered their fair share of storms. Through thick and thin, their deep friendship has seen them through the darkest times, and it helps that they both possess a playful nature.
"We are very fun-loving, and we tease each other a lot, but what I want to say about Surin is that he is a very supportive man. No matter what I do, he's always there for me," says Kelly.
To Surin, Kelly is his pillar of strength, and they wouldn't be in this stage of their relationship without open communication. "We've definitely learned to communicate, to be as upfront and honest as possible," says Surin.
"He's not just my husband, he's my best friend, someone I can talk to. Anything that I'm not happy about, he wants to talk about it... we are the first people we call," shares Kelly.
Since getting married, they haven't slowed down on the romance, as Surin regularly buys flowers for Kelly and they go on date nights often. "We have a dinner date every month, we don't want to miss that out.
We just want the sparks to continue," says Kelly, who is the youngest of three sisters. "We both love travelling and we are keen to start travelling a lot more starting this year," she shares, adding,"We have a family vacation coming up with all six of our nephews, who are really fun to have around."
The couple keep things interesting by constantly poking fun at each other, talking about anything and everything under the sun, and discussing current affairs and what's on the news. "One thing that my husband showed me is that he really has a heart of gold. Surin does a lot of charity work and he is someone who can't see someone else in pain.
"When I met Surin, I was pretty hot-tempered. He taught me to calm down and to look at things from a different perspective," shares Kelly.
For Surin, he feels that it is important in a relationship to get to know each other before rushing into marriage.
Kelly adds,"I think when it's love, you will know when you are with the right person. Surin takes me into account in every single thing that he does, he respects me a lot, he listens to me, he really makes me feel what love really means."
At the moment, both Kelly and Surin are focusing on a yet unnamed project together, which will be revealed in time. For now, the couple are happy to sit back and enjoy each other's company.
From the mouths of a long-time married mother and a newlywed couple, there's one piece of advice they have in common for a lasting union: Communication is key, and getting to know each other well before taking any big leap is essential in any relationship.