Wandering a busy, gritty street in downtown Yangon, a stranger catches the eye of fashion designer Julia Expert. The stranger, a middle-aged woman, has neat streaks of thanaka on her cheeks, a comb lodged in a tight bun on her head, a tight bustier covering her torso, and a draped skirt in a pattern the designer has not seen before.
To another observer, the stranger’s outfit might seem unremarkable, but to Expert, whose strolls through her adopted city are powered by a thirst for inspiration, the outfit tells a story. The story contains neither facts nor structure, and it will never be fully told or written. Instead, the story and its characters come to life through Expert’s sartorial creations, which combine traditional Myanmar fabrics with modern designs that are infused with a spirit of fierceness and adventure.
“I create these characters in my head. This one is a bandit from Myanmar who travels until she leaves Yangon, arrives in Cuba, and makes a tour of the world, collecting tokens from every place along the way,” the designer told Coconuts during a recent visit to her home studio in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. The imaginary character, whom Expert described as a “superwoman” and a “pirate,” became the inspiration for one of the many pieces she has created under the banner of Jamunmai, the clothing brand she launched in Yangon earlier this year.
“This place is an El Dorado for stylists,” Expert said. “If I see a woman on the street who inspires me and I don’t do something with it, it really frustrates me.”
Before coming to Myanmar, Expert trained in fashion design in France and has worked as a stylist for TV programs and magazines. She entered the Myanmar fashion scene last year, when an NGO hired her to teach local women to sew and make clothing. But while planning a weekend trip to the beach, where Myanmar women typically swim fully clothed, she was unexpectedly forced to create something totally original.
“I was looking for a swimsuit here, and it was impossible. You can find some, but they’re not very nice, not very cute,” she said. “I decided to make my own for that weekend.”
Her friends saw the swimsuit she had designed for herself and asked if she could make more, so she decided to launch her own business to meet the demand. Today, Expert creates swimsuits, shorts, and dresses under the Jamunmai label, plus a line of lingerie called Cornelia. She employs many of the women she trained in her previous job, allowing them to work from home, paying them more than they would make working in a factory, and giving them additional training on the weekends.
“They usually work on a flat table, and the measurements are not precise. I taught them how to work on a doll,” she said. “We’ve created a bond, and we really communicate. I’m trying to have an impact.”
That effort was rewarded last week when Hla Day – a non-profit store that serves as a marketplace for poor or disabled Myanmar artisans – began carrying Jamunmai items.
Naturally, by trafficking in Myanmar culture and characterizing a formerly colonized population through the white gaze, the French entrepreneur invites certain critiques. Expert admits that the risk of committing the sin of cultural appropriation is frequently on her mind. However, she says that by living according to certain principles, she has been able to avoid causing offense.
She said: “I work with Burmese women, Burmese models, and Burmese fabric. The only thing that’s not Burmese is me. I want to pay homage rather than steal the spotlight.”
“There’s a thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I want people to know that [my materials] are from here,” she added. “Cultural appropriation would be not telling people what country or region they’re from.”
Moreover, while the patterns Expert works with are ancient and traditional, the ideas that guide her designs are modern and personal. For example, whereas the bras, blouses, and skirts that dominate the Myanmar market can be sweaty and constricting, Expert’s designs are intentionally light and flexible. Even though she’s not creating something from nothing, she’s still creating something that was not available – or affordable – in Myanmar before.
“I spend a long time finding the right designs that girls want,” she said. “I love girls who are trying to emancipate themselves from something.”