From winning two TV talent shows to being inspired by the lotus weavers of Inle Lake, Shartra’s rise from unknown dreamer to innovative fashion icon has been anything but conventional. As he prepares to open the Saturday night show for Myanmar’s International Fashion Week, he shares his experiences on the nature of fashion. Interview and translation by Min Ye Kyaw. Words by Issy D’Arcy Clark. Photography by Kan Su Ho.
Glinting golden angel wings stretching six-feet into the sky, a pair of panther-sleek grey velvet trousers, a sculptural and pearlescent wedding dress – anyone who has seen the clothes that come from the studio of Myanmar designer Shartra could be forgiven for thinking that the man behind them is every bit as dramatic and grandiose as his creations. But, though he is flamboyantly dressed in a black dinner jacket, festooned with emerald green sequins, in person Shartra is somewhat shy. When we meet on the banks of Inya Lake at the stunningly beautiful Seeds Restaurant & Lounge, he is gentle, softly spoken and eager to impress.
The setting for our meeting was a deliberate choice; Seeds is well known for having one of the best views in the city of the lotus flowers that cover the Inya Lake and these flowers have a particular significance for Shartra.
Back in 2015 Shartra was proclaimed the winner of the popular Myanmar TV show Style Secret, a fashion design competition show. While filming he had the chance to visit Inle Lake in Shan State and was amazed by the lotus weaving he saw there.
“I found out how they worked the lotus fabric with weaving tools and later I went back there to see more and speak with the weavers,” he explains. “Now they all know me.”
This interest in lotus weaving later grew into a passion for Shartra and he began thinking of ways he could bring the material into his modern designs.
“I started using lotus fabrics in my wedding dresses. I saw how even when the lotus stems were snapped, the fibres remained attached to each other,” he says. “This seemed like a good sign for a marriage and I wish for my customers to carry this good luck symbol on their wedding days.”
With the increase in synthetic and mass-produced fabrics flooding the Myanmar market, it’s an interesting juxtaposition to see such an avant-garde designer defending such an ancient tradition. But Shartra is serious in his commitment to preserving lotus weaving in Myanmar.
“It is important to keep that tradition alive since it is what the people of Inle Lake do for a living. We need to help them keep weaving by using local crafts and products in our daily style. I think they could improve if they keep going and creating new ideas. Also, it boosts the tourism of our country.”
The 7th Myanmar International Fashion Week will be taking place in Yangon from December 7th–9th and opening the Saturday show will be Shartra himself. To mark this special event, Shartra revealed that he will be adding a unique element to his designs: lotus fabric.
But this world of glamour and fame was not always in the cards for Shartra, who grew up in Kyauk Phyu, Rakhine State. After becoming interested in fashion through watching Korean TV shows, Shartra began experimenting with his own clothes and style but didn’t realise that fashion was a career he could pursue as a man. After leaving his hometown for Yangon and finding employment in other fields – which “didn’t go well!” – in 2011 Shartra began to notice that both abroad and in Myanmar male fashion designers were making waves, leading him to learn how to create dresses himself.
Only three months into his new career, Shartra’s big break came when was offered the chance to appear on the TV program Designer’s Design on Myawaddy TV channel, which was aired across the whole country. True to the form he would later exhibit in 2015 with Style Secret, he won the show. Shatra became a household name, and he has never looked back.
From fashion shows to photo shoots, beauty pageants to talent contests; the list of places where Shartra’s dazzling designs have appeared is endless. His victory in Style Secret helped to open more doors in the fashion industry and he began to make a name for himself as a coveted wedding dress designer too.
For the 2017 International Fashion Week, Shartra was recognised as one of the up-and-coming stars tipped for success. He chose to promote female empowerment in his show, and the crowning glory was the moment a model stepped down the runway wearing a golden dress, adorned with huge gold wings.
“I wanted to create an inspirational dress for my model,” he explains. “I made an ideal dress for a woman to encourage her to think of herself as a superhero with wings and to be proud of her beauty.”
In the year since, Shartra’s fame has grown and a cult following for his wild creations has developed. For this year’s International Fashion Week, Shartra reveals that he will be continuing his mission to empower women but will be focussing his designs on a wedding dress collection.
“I want my dresses to be gorgeous, elegant and precious so the person who wears them will, of course, feel special, making her more confident in herself.”
Creating such dresses, often on a tight time scale, can be a daunting task for even the most practiced and equipped designer and Shartra admits that the workload can take its toll.
“To make a perfect dress, it takes days and nights for us to draw the patterns and designs,” he explains. “Sometimes, we have to rush it due to the deadline of the event or show. But when people say they like my dresses and my creations, it gives me the strength and motivation to work.”
Despite the pressures of his job, Shartra is able to cope because he learnt from the best. Myanmar designer Mogok Pauk Pauk is widely revered as one of the greatest fashion designers in the country and her special relationship with Shartra has given the young designer a bedrock of knowledge and inspiration on which he has built his brand.
“Mogok Puak Pauk is my icon, we have a very good friendship. We hang out a lot and she taught me everything about being a designer. She’s like a mother to me, she is my guiding star, a friend and also a family.”
Being such a fabulous dresser himself it’s clear that Shartra has an interest in men’s fashion and he admits that he has plans to launch a ready-to-wear clothing line for men, amongst other ideas.
“I am still learning a lot of new things and I want to put more effort into fashion,” he explains. “I’m even considering making shoes and bags. As a fashion designer, we are meant to make people happy and proud on their special day. I like that, so I will keep trying to do more, going as far as I can go.”
At 6pm on December 8th Shartra’s first model will step out onto the brightly lit stage of the Myanmar International Fashion Week. Only one man knows for certain what she will be wearing, but hidden in the folds of the spectacular creation will be the threads of a lotus flower. Like Shartra himself, it has traveled a long way to be there.
The Myanmar International Fashion Week 2018, managed by John Lwin, runs from 7th-9th December at Hexagon Complex.