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