Made in Myan­mar

De­sign­ers put eth­i­cal twist on lo­cal fash­ion

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CULTURE & LIFESTYLE - Caro­line Henshaw

With Myan­mar emerg­ing as a man­u­fac­tur­ing hub for mass-pro­duced clothes, a crop of young de­sign­ers are us­ing home-grown fash­ion to pre­serve the coun­try’s sar­to­rial her­itage and re­shape the sweat­shop model.

In­side her bou­tique in down­town Yan­gon, Py­one Thet Thet Kyaw crafts her own de­signs us­ing tra­di­tional pat­terns and fabrics, many from eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups, to make A-line skirts, dresses and tops.On an­other she adds the high-col­lared neck­line of the in­ngyi -- a tight top usu­ally worn by Myan­mar women along with a fit­ted, sarong-like skirt -- to a flirty pleated dress.

“We Burmese re­ally care about our own eth­nic and tra­di­tional clothes,” she told AFP in the shop, over the whir of sew­ing machines.

“When you mod­ernise the tra­di­tional pat­terned clothes you have to be care­ful they’re not too flashy -- or too mod­ern.”

Myan­mar is fiercely proud of its tra­di­tional garb, which was largely pro­tected from the in­flux of ho­moge­nous Western fash­ion now ubiq­ui­tous across South­east Asia by the former mil­i­tary junta.

For 50 years they shut the coun­try off to for­eign in­flu­ences and tightly con­trolled what was worn in all of­fi­cial me­dia. De­signer Ma Pont said she was not al­lowed to show even a flash of shoul­der or armpit when she used to make clothes for mil­i­tary-con­trolled TV chan­nels in the 1990s. “We were not re­ally free,” she said. Fash­ion was par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cally charged in that era, when many women would se­cretly ask their tai­lors for de­signs that im­i­tated the dis­tinc­tive style of op­po­si­tion leader Aung San Suu Kyi.Lo­cal me­dia re­ported the pur­ple out­fit she wore the day she was re­leased from al­most two decades of house ar­rest soon be­came a pop­u­lar sight on Yan­gon’s streets.

Chang­ing tastes

To­day the democ­racy icon, who last year be­came the de facto leader of Myan­mar’s first civil­ian gov­ern­ment in gen­er­a­tions, is still widely ad­mired for the ele­gant Burmese out­fits she wears at pub­lic ap­pear­ances.But while many still pre­fer tra­di­tional clothes, es­pe­cially the sarong-like longyi worn by both men and women, fash­ions are start­ing to change.

Shop­ping malls aimed at Yan­gon’s grow­ing mid­dle class are sprout­ing up around the city, while on its fringes fac­to­ries are churn­ing out clothes for in­ter­na­tional brands drawn to its pool of young, cheap labour. It is a flip-side of the in­dus­try which bou­tique de­signer Py­one Thet Thet Kyaw has seen first-hand. As a teenager she spent months toil­ing in gar­ment fac­to­ries on the out­skirts of the com­mer­cial cap­i­tal -- a job that earned her 2,000 kyat a week (now worth $1.46).The ex­pe­ri­ence made her de­ter­mined to open her own bou­tique and train young women in the art of clothes-mak­ing to make sure they never suf­fer the same fate.

“I started to see things, like how you could only spend 10 min­utes for your lunch or you could not go to the toi­let when­ever you wanted be­cause it would dis­rupt their pro­duc­tion line,” she said.

“If fast fash­ion and un­eth­i­cal fash­ion con­tin­ues, then we’re the ones to be suf­fer­ing.”

Fash­ion slaves

Im­pov­er­ished but emerg­ing Myan­mar is swiftly be­com­ing a new hub for mas­sive gar­ment fac­to­ries mak­ing cheap clothes as quickly as pos­si­ble for fash­ion giants like H&M and Pri­mark.Ex­ports more than dou­bled to $1.65 bil­lion last fi­nan­cial year, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, and are ex­pected to surge af­ter the US ended sanc­tions in Oc­to­ber.

But while the sec­tor is help­ing to drive rapid eco­nomic growth, crit­ics say few ben­e­fits are trick­ling down to work­ers who earn some of the low­est wages in Asia and have lit­tle le­gal pro­tec­tions.

A re­cent re­port by multi­na­tional watch­dog SOMO warned of “sig­nif­i­cant risks of labour rights vi­o­la­tions be­ing com­mit­ted in Myan­mar’s gar­ment in­dus­try that need to be ad­dressed as a mat­ter of ur­gency”.

Other lo­cal de­sign­ers, like Mo Hom, are work­ing to save Myan­mar’s cen­turies-old tra­di­tional fab­ric in­dus­try from the in­flux of cheap im­ported clothes from Thai­land and China. Her bou­tique in Yan­gon is filled with colour­ful de­signs in cot­ton and silks sourced from Chin and Shan states, where they can take months to weave by hand us­ing tra­di­tional wooden looms.

Many are dyed with nat­u­ral sub­stances like green tea and straw­ber­ries to give sub­tle colours, which she mixes with tra­di­tional eth­nic pat­terns and sil­hou­ettes.

“Lo­cal mills are ac­tu­ally dy­ing be­cause there is no mar­ket de­mand any more,” said Mo Hom, who trained and worked as a de­signer in New York be­fore mov­ing back to Myan­mar in 2012. “A lot of the mills are ac­tu­ally clos­ing down.”

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