Su Wai Yee (also known as Hillary) is the CEO and founder of Cici Fashion, which opened in Myaynigone township in March. She talks to Jessica Mudditt about her drive to create something new in the local fashion industry.
Why did you decide to open a clothing store?
I returned from studying in Pennsylvania in January last year and initially I wasn’t sure what to do, so I helped out with the retail side of my parents’ garments business. I’d been an avid shopper in the United States [laughs] and even though I lived in the suburbs, it was so easy for me to purchase clothes online. But when I was back in Yangon, I found it hard to find clothes that I actually liked. So I thought maybe I could do something of my own, as I already have background knowledge of the industry.
A few months later I started a six-month incubation project with Project Hub. I was one of nine businesswomen who took part. We were provided with skills to start own businesses, as well as brainstorming lots of ideas and getting some practical training on the financial side of things. The goal of the project was to be able to turn an idea into a business plan that was at the stage of being ready to show potential investors.
Did you study fashion design in the United States?
No, I actually did a double major of Economics and Chinese. But fashion is an industry I’ve always been familiar with because my parents operate a garment factory. Since I was young they’ve been manufacturing and exporting garments from Myanmar.
It’s clothing for the modern Myanmar woman; women who are young and starting to earn their own money. It can be quite hard to find clothes that are functional enough to wear to work, as opposed to having something tailored for a special event, which is very easy to do. In terms of Myanmar’s ready-to-wear clothes, there are two categories: traditional or Western. The Myanmar woman needs both. Sometimes it’s appropriate to dress traditionally, while at other times we want a professional or smart casual look. What Cici does is offer ready-to-wear clothes, with some outfits that fuse the traditional with Western, such as a Western style top with a matching longyi. An outfit at Cici’s costs 30,000Ks on average.
Why did you choose the name Cici’s?
I get asked that question a lot. When I was brainstorming the qualities I wanted my range to possess, the things I thought of were chic, comfortable, creating a look that makes a woman feel confident, and a company that always places the customer at the centre of what we do: that’s a lot of values that start with the letter C! I wanted a feminine name that is easy to pronounce – and Cici sounds French and elegant.
I haven’t tried doing that – it’s just a start-up business and we don’t have enough of a budget to promote the store other than through social media. But being made in Myanmar is something I hope to distinguish in the future. I think it’s also pretty obvious when our customers come into the store that Cici is a local clothing range because there are a lot of styles that fuse Myanmar and Western looks.
There are actually quite a lot of local brands, but they’re not targeting young urban crowds per se – they are mostly distributing to other regions in Myanmar, such as Mandalay. There are a lot of local brands at Yuzana Plaza, but that’s mostly a wholesale distribution centre. Local brands tend to be more successful in other regions of Myanmar – I don’t think there are enough brands that meet the standards of a young professional businesswoman. The colours used are often a bit bright and gawdy and the trimming and cutting isn’t always as it should be.
Do you have plans to expand Cici to other parts of Myanmar?
I am still considering the best way to do that. However the aim is to establish a strong presence in Yangon before we even think of expanding outside the city. At the moment we have just the one store in Yangon, but we’re hoping to open a second soon. We haven’t decided on a location yet – as you know, rent is really high in Yangon and it’s one of our biggest costs.
I just turned 22 but the good thing about me is that I don’t have that much of a problem in terms of getting overloaded with stress – I don’t have sleepless nights! But of course there are things that do stress me – raising capital is a challenge that I have to overcome because it’s not like I can just get a loan from the bank in Myanmar.
What’s your main frustration on a day-to-day basis?
We’re in the process of setting up an office behind the store but we can’t get an internet connection for it. We applied quite a while ago but we are told that we can’t have a connection because all the lines have run out. We have to wait – but I don’t know for how long. So I have to go to my parent’s office to send emails and do paperwork.
What are your favourite international fashion labels?
When I was younger I used to really like H&M, but nowadays I prefer labels such as J. Crew and Banana Republic. Most of my clothes from abroad are from Uniqlo – I think their clothes are very relevant and functional. Even the most basic things can be worn very creatively – that’s why styling is important. I also want to educate local people about different ways of dressing up and purchasing clothes. I want to show them that simplicity can be unique if you add a touch of style.
I feel really happy and excited when I see people wearing Cici outfits – it’s about making that little change in other women’s lives. And making clothes that make women feel good about themselves. It’s still early days, but I’m very thankful to be receiving support and attention from the community. I totally encourage young people to follow their dreams: the most important thing is just to do it. Even though it can be hard when it comes to things like rent, you just persevere and hope that your business will really kick off.
Cici’s is located on Shin Saw Pu Road, next to Myaynigone City Mart.
For more information, visit ciciclothingmm.com or Cici’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CiciMyanmar