By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
for Asia Times
With all the brouhaha recently over Jacques Chirac's discovery of Asia (politicians, as usual, stumbling along a few steps behind the business community) the entire French fashion world has been consumed with frenzied talk of Myanmar.
Well ... maybe not consumed, exactly. And "frenzied" is a strong word. Myanmar may be a country of extraordinary beauty, but it's not exactly a place that springs to mind when the subject of haute couture comes up.
The national dress for both men and women is a sort of long skirt called a longyi, worn with a shirt and obligatory sandals. Colors tend toward the drab (brown is a popular choice), and most women wear a yellowish makeup called thanaka that has yet to take the Riviera by storm.
In fact, three decades of isolation and a disastrous "Burmese Path to Socialism" not only seriously damaged the economy -- it also didn't do much for the country's fashion sense.
But the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military body that rules Myanmar, has been opening the country to more foreign investment and trade, and encouraging contacts with the outside world. And to that laudable end, they invited French fashion designer Pierre Cardin to come to the country for a couple of days to show off some clothes, shake a few important hands and -- who knows? -- maybe cut a deal.
So one clear morning in Yangon, two of Cardin's assistants, Edouard Saint Blice (dapper in a cream linen suit) and Maryse Gaspard (scary in pointed dark glasses and 4-inch black heels) found themselves in the dining room of the city's elegant Nawarat Hotel. Armed with cell phones and videocameras, they were there to scout models for Cardin's official show two days later, and to review the latest Myanmar fashions in a show arranged by the Ministry of Trade.
It was, more or less, what you'd expect a fashion show in a military regime to be like. One by one, the models would march out, squint into the lights and frown, while an expressionless announcer blared things like, "This is Model Number Seven, and she's looking very fashionable in a two-layered jacket, which is very fashionable at this time." And the poor girl would come charging down the runway, make sort of a where-do-I-go-now turn, frown some more, and march back again.
Cardin's assistants took in the event with Gallic aplomb, even when the announcer noted that one of the models was sporting "off-the-wall casual wear." And they were kind to the girls, some of whom were clearly encountering high heels for the first time and were having a hard time making it down the runway without toppling over. To everyone's great relief, Saint Blice and Gaspard finally had the models kick off their heels and pad up and down in bare feet -- smiling for the first time all morning.
So two days later all was in readiness, and le tout Yangon turned out to see Cardin himself and his creations. The French ambassador was there with full entourage, as well as a few anxious-looking European women, several dozen elderly male government officials (sharply dressed in white shirts and brown longyis) and a handful of Myanmar VIPs -- including Daw Khin Sandar Win, the daughter of the general who ruled the country from 1962 to 1988.
But it was an odd event, not quite fashion show, not quite press conference, in which Cardin and an advisor to the Ministry of Trade sat on stage while local reporters asked troubling questions like, "Do you think Myanmar fashion accentuates the female figure?" and "Would you like to sell longyis in France?"
Cardin fended off the questions and tooted the Cardin horn a bit, noting that he was the first fashion designer to come to Myanmar, and was grateful to be invited by the Ministry of Trade, and had traveled widely in Asia since first coming here more than three decades before, and so on and so forth.
But no one was paying much attention, because on the stage behind him, a miracle was unfolding. The plodding, dour models from a couple of days before emerged suddenly and amazingly like spectacular butterflies, dressed in fantastic swirls of yellow silk, curving blue sweeps of organza, assymetrical linen tunics worn with shocking-pink leather gloves, sharp little Parisian suits with multiple epaulets flying upward like wings, hooped wedding dresses trailing acres of lace, little hats tilted at odd angles -- it was an amazing display of female plumage, and the models were radiant, swooping delightedly around the stage as the flashbulbs popped.
At least, they looked delighted. Asked after the show how she felt about the clothes, one model smiled demurely and said, "Thank you." Did these clothes make her feel more beautiful, more graceful, more elegant? "Thank you." When an interpreter was called in, he translated the questions, listened, and replied: "She says she doesn't know. Thank you."
"Fashion is a wonderful thing for improving communication between people," Cardin said in an interview after the conference. "You can have this free exchange of ideas, of creativity, between people without thinking about nationality or religion or any of those things. And this is so important, especially where there are such different views. So I hope that someday we may have a shop here -- why not?"
Perhaps. But this was merely a goodwill visit by the French designer, and officials from the government seemed a little skeptical that the streets of Yangon would be teeming with Cardin-clad women any time soon.
"Well," said a doubtful official with the Ministry of Trade, "we're very interested in promoting the fashion industry. But when our people see these clothes, I think they'll prefer traditional dress."
Perhaps that's because fashion, by definition, implies change, and Myanmar has been isolated and unchanging for a very, very long time. Even something as simple as an unusual dress can arouse concern. Toward the end of the press conference, one stern young reporter stood with his arms folded across his chest and asked Cardin, "Do you not agree that the mode of dress reflects the moral habits of a people?"
Cardin blinked and thought for a moment (this is not the sort of question they ask in Paris, after all), and said that perhaps it reflected something entirely different.
"Fashion," he said, looking quietly at the models, "is about dreams. And what is life without dreaming?"
(Asia Times, April 29, 1996)