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04/08/2017

Designers put ethical twist on local fashion

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 said in the shop, over the whir of ­sewing machines.

"When you modernize 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.

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.

A report by multinational watchdog SOMO warned of "significant risks of labor 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 colorful 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 to give subtle colors, which she mixes with traditional ethnic patterns and silhouettes.

"Local mills are actually dying because there is no market demand anymore," 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."Read more at:short formal dresses | formal dress shops

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