Thursday, March 14, 2013

Fashion forward: the changing face of Myanmar style


Thursday, 14 March 2013 17:01 Rosie Gogan-Keogh

Traditional clothing and cosmetics are still worn in Myanmar in a way that counterpart styles have long since disappeared from Western clothing rails and are fast becoming a distant memory in other Asian countries. But, a short drive through the country's biggest city shows that modernity is striking the people here in every fashion.

Pop culture is on the rise in Myanmar. With the growing ease of internet access, Myanmar people are being exposed to more international tastes and trends. Just a year ago, it was rare to see people wearing jeans or skirts above the knee; now there are places like Junction Square, one of Yangon's newest and largest shopping centers, that could be anywhere in Asia. K-Pop abounds: from the music piped from the stores, to the short sequined dresses and graphic print t-shirts on display at the local boutiques. On the mall’s second level, traditional styles seem secreted away, and rolls of vibrantly colorful fabrics are piled in shops waiting to be tailored into longyi.

Subcultures are emerging too: Myanmar's second annual international graffiti exhibition was held in February this year. In a disused warehouse and surrounding lot, Yangon youths blended in with their fellow Southeast Asian artists in skater shoes, baggy jean shorts and asymmetrical haircuts. Their hip hop-playing friends looked on at their live graffiti demonstration in equally trendy garb.

For many of the country's ethnic groups, modifications can begun to be seen in colors and materials to their traditional clothes but dress simply represents a large part of their identity that they are not prepared to give up.

Shortly after sanctions were lifted by the U.S. in 2012, representatives from global brands such as Gap, Hugo Boss and Marks and Spencer were reported to have visited the Southeast Asian nation to scope out opportunities to bring made-in-Myanmar products back west. And this is not an entirely one-way exchange, international fashion brands are also opening their eyes to Myanmar people as customers and not just producers.

Franchise-chain Bossini recently launched here, while Spanish chain Mango announced recession-defying growth last year, part of their success due to exploring emerging markets, such as Pakistan and Myanmar. The fashion retail giant opened its first stores in Yangon in August 2012 and fellow Spanish brand Zara are rumored to be following suit.

fashion"Mango, which is a pioneer in the fashion industry has seen it was a good opportunity to enter," said Cristina Salvaldo Espot, the company's spokesperson for the region. "Mango’s objective is to adapt to the demands of each market at any time without forgetting the company’s concept.”

Brands like Mango have to adapt their collections for various regions, of course “The designers reinterpret the trends and adapt them to the lifestyle and dress sense of customers all over the world in order to dress the urban and modern woman of each country we operate in and meet her daily needs,” says Salvaldo.

But even with modifications like this, what effect will the influx of westernization have on this country's traditions? "The impact for international fashion brands would be access to another market eager for fashionable items," says Hazel Clark, a professor in the MA Fashion Studies Program and Research Chair of Fashion at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. "For Myanmar itself, it could result in a devaluation of local craft skills and traditions - at least in the local market, where presumably there is a desire to look more 'modern' and fashionable.”

The challenge will be to preserve and honor traditional silks, which may, in the process of the development of the country, mean aiming more at the export market and consumers outside of the country, says Clark.

For now, the international vision of Myanmar’s style remains succinct. Aung San Suu Kyi may be the country's icon of democracy—with her subtle, traditional dress sense, always with a flower in her hair, she is The —poster— Lady of Myanmar. When questioned by reporters, she refuses to comment on her attire; she simply says that she wears whatever is most convenient.

However she chooses her clothes, she represents a timeless elegance and an idyllic vision of this country; one which makes her a vivid symbol for both Myanmar's past and future and many say her fashion icon status has inspired a younger generation of Myanmar women to re-embrace their national dress.
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