Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.
Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.
My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.
How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman?
At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.
For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.
For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.
I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.
How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?
Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.
My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.
What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?
Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.
We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.
How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?
There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.
At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.
I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.
What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?
Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.
Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.
I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.
How does the tourist industry affect your business?
The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.
I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.
We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.
Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?
Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.
I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.
Is the organisation supportive of you?
Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.
What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?
My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).
Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)