Mogok Pauk Pauk is telling a story about one of her heroes – her father, a man who dealt her beatings as a child.
“One time he beat me and later I saw him crying,” she says, burying her face into her hands, as he did at the time. “Tears dropped from his eyes. He was lying on the bed. I was beside him. He thought I was asleep.”
Pauk Pauk was aged 13 then, a creative boy growing up in the gem-laden valley of Mogok in Mandalay Region. Hues of rubies and maternal love brought joy into her life. School bullies sucked it out. Her father surrendered his anger when the tears dried: his young son liked dressing dolls; indeed, his young son was gay, but he vowed from then on to support Pauk Pauk’s endeavors.
Over three decades later, Pauk Pauk is arguably Myanmar’s most successful fashion designer ever. She has studied fashion in Milan and has three clothing lines. Her couture has leapt from the catwalk to the streets, where passersby hail her as a reality TV star (she judged The Model Academy and Style Secret).
Devotees would say she is to the acheik longyi what Armani is to androgyny or Yves Saint Laurent is to women’s trousers. Those two are also her heroes. She is a champion; some may even say an icon. But she is somewhat disillusioned.
What is Fashion?
“Still now, people don’t understand what fashion is,” she sighs. “Even fashion designers don’t understand what is a fashion design.”
The 44-year-old artist has just finished a photo shoot. She is wearing a beige two-piece, the top split between halterneck and collared jacket. Her brunette bob dances above the deep brown of her irides as she delivers answers with thoughtful silence and soft conviction.
“They don’t know about the colors, how to mix and match, how to wear in the evening. If I say this they will be very angry, but I have to tell the truth. We need real fashion designers and fashion professionals in our country.”
Classes teach sewing, cutting, drawing, she says, but there are no real fashion schools, no one teaching where “fashion is born from.”
In the case of Pauk Pauk fashion was born from adversity. When she was in high school her father lost money in the gem trade for five years straight. Dealing raw stones is a risky business, with one askew shave plummeting the price of a polished stone. Hopes of sending Pauk Pauk to study abroad were abandoned, and her mother, a hair stylist, kept the family afloat.
But after rainfall in Mogok, raw rubies sometimes emerge from the earth, blood-red accessories for Pauk Pauk to glue onto paper. Treasure can be uncovered in stormy weather, and during the financial woes Pauk Pauk uncovered a talent for make-up artistry and linguistics.
By the age of 15, she was sharing a house with her and two other families, and quickly gaining a name as a gifted make-up artist. In the afternoon she would sort stones in her auntie’s house, a routine broken two years later when a well-known movie stylist in Yangon replied to her letter, agreeing to take her on.
She remembers sabotaging her matriculation exams to clear the path to the movie industry in Myanmar’s metropolis, where at 17 she was beginning to live as a woman and develop a philosophy that could counter any hate for the LGBT community.
“If you are wise and think positively, people will accept you,” she says. “It’s like a mirror: smile and they will smile at you.” Some places where LGBT people will never be accepted must naturally be avoided, she says, but LGBT or not, the undercurrent is “respect others and others will respect you. You love people, people love you.”
In the early 90s Yangon make-up artists would also design the costumes and even read scripts with the actors. Pauk Pauk nurtured the experience, her passion only bolstered by a practical need to support her family – particularly a younger brother and sister. “Since I was 18 I took responsibility for everything in my family,” she says.
Power cut, darkness envelopes the room. She carries on, unperturbed. “Until now I haven’t asked for one kyat from my family.”
Mogok to Milan
Wedding season, Mandalay, 1996. Local Chinese brides scour the city for gowns. Pauk Pauk – now known by many as a mysterious force behind the movies – opens with her Taiwanese cousin the first modern bridal studio in Myanmar. Chinese brides wear three to five dresses per wedding. With a hefty Chinese community, Mandalay makes sense.
Pauk Pauk’s Mandarin skills and minor celebrity helped the business become a success. But it was a success she would leave in the hands of trusted staff in order to follow the call of Milan, the global capital of fashion and design.
Jumping through endless hoops, she eventually secured a Schengen visa and began a one-year sabbatical in northern Italy over which time she completed a two-year fashion qualification.
When she arrived in Milan all the taxis were on strike, so she lugged her suitcase down and up the metro before slumping on a bench in front of a beautiful store of cafes, home ware and fashion. Her eyes wandered to the store’s sign: Armani.
“Oh, you are famous in Myanmar,” she recalls thinking. “Compared to this businessman, this entrepreneur, this artist, you are nothing.” Her eyes now fixate on a patch in the ceiling. “The first thing impression: you are nothing.”
Studying hard, sleeping four to five hours per day, she fluttered between euphoria and dread at the exposure to international fashion houses along the Monte Napoleone. Could she ever reach those heights?
“Everything,” declares Pauk Pauk, talking about her inspirations. She lists objects strewn around the room: paintings; plates; flowers etc. The sabbatical was inspiring, and gave her fresh eyes on Myanmar culture. She visited her hometown and witnessed workers widening the road, unveiling a rainbow of colors in the stone that she represented in a wavy achiek, an ancient pattern supposedly based on the undulating Ayeyarwady River.
One of her most revered designs was a wedding dress with petals inspired by a blooming white rose. Her work is coveted by socialites, who she would makeover Cinderella-style in a matter of minutes, earning her the nickname Fairy Godmother (FGM is the name of one of her brands).
Fashion designers are widely more respected now than in the last decade, the industry has improved, says the artist, but “in a miserable way.”
“There are many so-called fashion designers in Myanmar but it’s very rare to find a real fashion designer.”
Nobody seems to know the true definition of fashion design. When asked for it, she takes a few stabs: fashion and design are separate but both are needed. No. Fashion is…she breaks into Myanmar language, saying it means arranging, changes over time, comes from the heart, but with tech. None of these explanations satisfied her.
The following day Myanmore receives this message: “Fashion is like a sign of trendy ones such as clothes, accessories or style in a specific time. It’s also like a combination of art and profession that can be varied according to time, place and condition. I also realized that fashion is some kind of decorating.”
After admitting she will be glad to see the back of reality TV and reenter the “sweet hell” of the studio, the interview comes to an end. Budding designers, she finishes, should enter the industry because of their love for the work and not for the fame.
Dictaphone off. Suddenly she reveals she is unhappy because of the fame. People are focusing on her celebrity and she feels her work is fading.
“I love women. I respect women. I love to dress women. I want to make them beautiful – especially in Myanmar,” she says.
The father of Pauk Pauk died seven years ago; her mother died last year. But the strength and guidance of her parents continues to drive her on to her next mission: to make her style affordable to the masses.