Tag Archives: shan textiles

A cut above the rest: Burmese fashion designer Mo Hom returns from Soho

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 27 September 2014

Mo Hom in her Yangon studio. Photo credit: Julian Ray
Mo Hom in her Yangon studio. Photo credit: Julian Ray

Fashion designer Mo Hom is the owner of Lotus Hom LLC, which is a partial translation of her name in her ethnic Shan language. Mo Hom returned to Myanmar in December 2012 after almost a decade of success as a fashion designer in New York. Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt spoke to Mo Hom about her passion for creating clothes that combine the modern with the traditional. 

What prompted you to both leave and then return to Myanmar?

I came back immediately after the elections of 2010. It was clear that the political situation was changing for the better, so I registered my local company right away. I then returned to New York to launch a Lotus Hom collection and closed my boutique in Soho in November 2012 [which remains an online business]. I had left Myanmar in 2004 to follow my dream of becoming a fashion designer, and New York seemed like the best place to allow me to achieve this. I did a semester at the Katherine Gibbs School,  studying fashion design and merchandising, but I didn’t feel it was right for me so I switched to the New York School of Design.

I graduated with a diploma in textile design in 2006 – but before that I’d already been offered an internship with a well known fashion label. My boss there later offered to sponsor me to learn design production and I was so grateful for that, for two reasons: I wasn’t keen on designing for the mass market and I wanted to learn the A to Z of production because for a long time I’d dreamed of running my own business. Soon enough, I had opened my own boutique in Lower Manhattan’s Soho area.

I’ve been running my company here in Yangon for 18 months now. The reason why I wanted to produce fashion here rather than in New York is because Myanmar doesn’t have enough clothing that’s made and sold locally. Clothes made in Myanmar are almost always exported – unless they’re rejects – but even then the sizes aren’t right for Myanmar people. Our market is flooded with poor quality clothes made in China.

Surely there are some local designers in Myanmar?  

Yes, there are – and they’re very talented – but their focus is on traditional dress rather than something with a Western feel. My idea was to design fashion that uses traditional, hand-operated looms, but is accessible to everyone. For example, I created a dress that was exhibited at the ASEAN Expo in China this year that features a hand weaving technique from Chin State that would normally be worn as a shawl with a traditional Shan shirt on top: it’s combined together as a gown. My approach is to train my staff in modern design using traditional materials.

Photo credit: Julian Ray
Photo credit: Julian Ray

One of the challenges Myanmar faces in exporting traditional textiles is the fact that the looms are operated by humans rather than machines, so imperfections frequently occur. How do you get around this to create clothes that meet international standards?

I order only a metre of any fabric – further along the way is where the damage occurs because that’s when the loom is restrung. But we can still cut the patterns and sew the material together seamlessly. I’ve heard that a number of famous Japanese designers visited Myanmar and also bought textiles by the metre.

Do you use other forms of traditional textiles techniques?

Myanmar people used to have a tradition of dyeing clothes using fruit. The practice vanished for economic reasons – the market demand simply wasn’t high enough to support the costs of the natural dye process. Any type of fruit can be used to dye textiles – everything from avocados to strawberries. The colours are really vibrant and last and last. Thailand’s industry continues to use fruits for textile dyeing, so myself and a friend from Inle Lake will go to Chiang Mai later this year to study the process. It will take a bit of time, but hopefully it will happen soon enough.

What are the challenges of running a business in Yangon as compared to New York?

The lack of human resources here is a problem. I run my company like a social business, but I provide full salaries to my 15 staff as well as taking them on trips to the beach – because some of my workers have never been to a beach before. I like to hire people fresh out of university or those who simply want to learn. One of my staff is a cultural dance performer at Kandawgi Palace Hotel. One day she came and met me and said, ‘I’m getting old and I want to learn hand-made skills so that I can survive in the long term.’ She works here from 9am to 5pm and then puts on her makeup and goes off to the hotel. She wouldn’t be doing all this unless she was really passionate about it. I also have two workers from Shan State who initially didn’t speak a word of Burmese. We teach them in Burmese and they have learnt many new skills, such as sewing buttons. I think running a business this way makes it more sustainable.

However I do find it difficult to find people who are genuinely willing to work. Some people do very little because the salary is fixed – this is the way things have been all their lives, but Myanmar’s job market is changing now. So I try to address this by informally mentoring my staff to become more confident in themselves so that are gradually able to develop themselves to a point where their standards of living improve. I sometimes teach them how to apply makeup, and give them purses and bags.

Mo Hom displays one of her signature fashion fusions. Photo credit: Julian Ray
Mo Hom displays one of her signature fashion fusions. Photo credit: Julian Ray

Do you have any frustrations in terms of local production?

I do have some. The garments industry is challenging. We’re short on sourcing trimmings so I have to buy items such as zippers – well everything really – from China or Thailand. It’s more expensive and I also believe Myanmar can do better. My hope is that with the millions of dollars of foreign investment coming into the likes of Thilawa SEZ, in future it will be possible to make something that is 110 percent made and sourced from Myanmar.

Many are saying that as Myanmar opens up to the outside world, women’s skirts are getting shorter. Do you agree?

I do. There are certainly less longyis around these days. When a country’s situation changes there are both positives and negative aspects, and while I think it’s great for women to have more options, I can’t say I like seeing some of the really short stuff on the streets. Myanmar is highly influenced by South Korean fashion and other neighbouring countries – as well as MTV and famous Myanmar people. I think it’s possible to look very professional in a longyi that might be shorter than the traditional ankle-length – say knee length – which is also perfect for meeting friends for drinks after work. I think the media has a role to play in promoting messages about what’s appropriate – as well as celebrities, because young people follow everything they do. And what’s appropriate in Myanmar can be different from elsewhere. None of my designs are really short, because on the whole it’s not practical for our lifestyle, which can involve hopping in and out of a pick-up truck for transport. Also, women wearing very short skirts on public transport are often targeted for harassment. The time and place has to be right. My preference is a style that’s classic but still fashionable; that’s international but not too revealing.

Please tell us about your second label, Mon Précieux.

A year after I set up my business in Myanmar, I launched Mon Précieux because I felt there was a need for a local label featuring international designs – I think I am the only one doing it. I use the technical skills I developed while working for two companies in New York for a total of six years. I was designing for a lot of famous brands, such as Walmart, Target and Macy’s and my idea is to offer something better for the local market. The price point is reasonable, with items starting at K10,000 and nothing over K35,000. I sell to retailers in Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Pyin Oo Lwin and Monywa. In Yangon I also sell my range to Ocean Super Centre – but it’s sold under their label rather than my own.

Mo Hom's Mon Précieux label. Photo credit: Julian Ray
Mo Hom’s Mon Précieux label. Photo credit: Julian Ray

What are your creative influences?

Mother nature and natural colours. I’ve just returned from Inle Lake, where I took a lot of photos. The trip has inspired me to start doing silk printing in future – it will be part of my fashion show at ts1 in October.

I’m also inspired by the human body itself – I enjoy designing clothes for the petite as well as larger sizes – plus children’s wear and menswear. And I love designing shoes! I use leather supplied by a man in my hometown of Pyin Oo Lwin – I think he’s the best leather-maker in the country.

Do you ever sketch a design and then hate it when you see it in the flesh, so to speak?

I do sometimes: that’s why I sketch and design at the last minute. I have a show tomorrow – so I will do the sketches overnight and put it all together in the morning. Otherwise I’ll change my mind! I can manage it, but sometimes I stay up until 3am. I measure the models a week before a show so I know their exact sizes and make clothes that will fit them perfectly. Together with my production team, we can finish around 800 pieces in four weeks. Business is going really well.

Click here to visit Mo Hom’s website

 

Myanmar producers of indigenous textiles eager to export but lack infrastructure

Published in Twist International, 2014

A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.
A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.

As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry. It currently relies largely on tourists for small-scale revenues.

But that could change. Myanmar is unique in the region, because its most renowned ‘silks’ are actually not made from silkworm threads, but from lotus buds. The tourist hot spot of Inle Lake in Shan State is currently the only location in Myanmar where lotus fibre is extracted and used to create textiles on any significant scale. Its soft texture is similar to a mixture of standard silk and linen.

According to Khine Jiu Jiu Lynn, sales manager at Khit Sunn Yinn, a lotus, standard silk and cotton weaving centre at Innpawkohn village, Inle Lake, Shan State, a product made from lotus bud is seven times more expensive than regular silk due to its many qualities, which include being naturally stain resistant, waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free.

“A single stick of lotus bud costs Burmese Kyat MMK4,000 (USD4.05) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around USD75 [retail],” she told Twist International.

While about 80% of scarf purchases are made by international tourists, Ms Lynn said the majority of lotus products are currently spun into robes for monks and sent to the cities of Yangon and Mandalay for commercial sale. Although lotus silk is rare and expensive, monks acquire the robes through donations in the Buddhist majority nation.

Myint Thein Htun, the owner of Khit Sunn Yinn, a fourth generation family-run business, said that he is keen to export his products and has the capacity with 120 skilled workers, but fears a lack of quality control could be a problem.

Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.
Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.

“We can’t export because our products because they’re hand-made. Customers want their textiles to be uniform, and we can’t guarantee that, particularly for the finishing and colours,” he said.

He pointed out small imperfections in scarves, explaining, “A weaver can only use their eyes to see whether a thread has broken. If we were using machines, the machine would automatically stop when a thread breaks. Also, hand-woven mistakes can’t be fixed. Likewise, because we hand-dye the colours, we can’t ensure the colours are uniform.”

Mr Htun added: “We could buy machines but this is a local industry and a lot of people would lose their jobs.”

For the time being, he said he is content to sell to tourists – visiting the beauty-spot Inle Lake in increasing numbers since political reforms began in 2011. His business gained international recognition by winning several awards at the ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion Design Contest ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion contest, staged in Bangkok in 2010. “No such awards exist in Myanmar,” he lamented.

Mr Htun added that a significant number of tourists refrain from purchasing indigenous silk products because, “They see scarves being sold on the streets of Thailand and Cambodia for an absolute fraction of the price that ours sell for – but what they don’t realise is that those products are made from polyester.”

An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.
An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.

U Kyaw Aye, general manager at Injynn Development Company, a Myanmar trading company selling garments, oil and gas and telecommunications and a former industry ministry technical planning officer said: “None of the traditional forms of textiles are mechanical,” so as regards bulk mass exports, “there’s not much to hope for because it’s so time-consuming and output is low. Unlike commercial textiles, Myanmar’s indigenous textiles are not made by the bale of 30 to 50 yards, but rather in short pieces.”

But he warned, if the industry were to mechanise, “the quality and texture wouldn’t be the same again.”

So the likelihood is that Myanmar fabrics will remain a scarce item, of potential use for luxury apparel brands and manufacturers. As yet that potential has yet to be realised, he said: “It’s unlike Thailand’s silk industry, which makes good money selling items such as neckties – Myanmar’s are more of a novelty item which a few tourists and businesspeople take out.”

Nevertheless, Mr Aye stressed the potential. Production costs in Myanmar are currently low compared to potential competitors in Thailand, India and China.

The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Furthermore, the diversity of products created in Myanmar is staggering: each of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups has its own unique patterns and traditions, and powerful customs associated with various textile products.

In Chin State culture, for example, it is customary for a bride to weave a large blanket with homespun cotton and silk, dyed with herbs and woven in a back-strapped loom, maybe containing herbs and leaves. When one partner dies, the blanket is cut in half and wrapped around the body. The other half is stored until the other spouse passes away – it is believed that the blanket serves to unite the spirits in the afterlife.

As for standard silk from silkworms, much of the silk is grown in Mandalay, with key weaving centres in Rakhine state, based in the ancient capital of Mrauk U. Thandar Win works at a silk and cotton shop in downtown’s Yangon’s bustling Bogyoke Market, selling local handicrafts, gems and artwork. She told Twist International: “Burmese silk isn’t as shiny as Thai silk and much of Thailand’s silk products are made with machines. It’s the same in China. The Burmese regard the quality of Chinese silk as inferior to ours, which is why we never sell it, even though it’s cheaper.”

As for traditional cotton weaving, there are also regional craft industry centres such as Kachin state, as well as in Rakhine state.

Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.
Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.

The patterns of indigenous textiles, whether made from cotton, raw silk, pure raw silk and lotus bud silk, differ greatly from one region to the next. Mandalay is famous for criss-crossed designs, which are washed and dyed before spinning to create a softer fabric. Meanwhile, Inle Lake manufacturers are well known for ‘ikat’ dyeing techniques used to pattern textiles that uses a resist-dyeing process similar to tie-dye textiles, which was initially developed in Indonesia.

As Mr Htun explained, “Before 1932, Myanmar artisans just made plain stripes. My great-grandfather went to Thailand to learn how to make ‘ikat’ – the Thais had previously learnt it from the Indonesians. And it spread from that moment on.”

Nyan Lynn Aung, director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar, (most often regarding garments), said he received his first inquiry about importing Myanmar’s indigenous silk products, from a buyer in New York, this month (February 2014).

A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s indigenous textiles definitely have potential. Of course, like anything, it depends how you sell it and how it’s set up, but much like free-trade coffee beans, buying ‘Made in Myanmar’ indigenous textiles could be seen as very trendy and ethical,” he told Twist International. Mr Aung suggested that repurposing traditional textiles into bags and belts could become a boom industry.

However he added that “investment – as well as at least some technology – is needed for the sector to properly develop.”