YANGON—Myanmar’s various ethnic groups all have their own traditional costumes, which make use of specific fabrics and draw on their unique cultural backgrounds. But one thing they have in common is that they’re all colorful and attractive in their own ways. One local entrepreneur is using those different traditional fabrics to create a vibrant range of handmade shoes and bags.
Under the brand name Myanmar’s Heart, local entrepreneur Ko Soe Moe Aung aims to promote his local handmade arts and crafts to the world as a kind of souvenir of the country.
He started the brand three years ago; prior to that he operated a souvenir shop at Bogyoke Market.
“I was working for the German Embassy and opened a small souvenir shop at Bogyoke Market. I collected good quality souvenir products from across the country and sold them; I didn’t have my own brand at that time,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said.
One day, a German friend visited his shop and advised him to make shoes using local fabrics, pointing out that most of the souvenirs available in Myanmar are decorative items, whereas foreigners want things they can wear.
“He was right. Most of our souvenirs are not useful in daily life, and are just for decoration. People need to change their shoes depending on what they are wearing; most women own at least five pairs,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said.
He took his friend’s advice and made plans to begin creating high-quality, locally made souvenirs that are useful in the daily lives of both locals and foreigners.
Next, he needed to decide whether to make shoes or slippers. His aim was to produce Myanmar’s Heart footwear that tourists would purchase as a souvenir or gift for when they returned from their visit to Myanmar.
“I chose shoes. There are already a lot of slippers made from fabric on the market, and my products are aimed at locals and foreigners. I’m always concerned about the availability of quality shoes,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said.
He started with flat shoes because they’re light, easy to wear and suitable for any occasion, but soon added sandals. Myanmar’s Heart now makes high-heeled shoes as well.
In the beginning, foreign women were his main customers for Myanmar’s Heart shoes; local people were not.
“The sad fact is that most local people don’t value their own country’s products and neglect them,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said of his early business struggles.
A few months later, though, locals started expressing an interest in the shoes; some bought the shoes to wear while traveling abroad.
“But I’m still not satisfied; I will do my best to create more demand among locals. I want them to see Myanmar’s Heart products as everyday wear,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said.
Myanmar’s Heart produces both handmade and machine-made shoes. Most of the flat shoes and sandals are handmade but all the shoes are made from different traditional fabrics, including those from Chin, Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Shan and elsewhere.
“I collect them from different sources across the country,” Ko Soe Moe Aung said. “The fabrics are not naturally died, but they use low-chemical dyes and are safe for the skin.”
Sometimes, customers order organic fabric; he has a source for that too.
“Natural dye fabrics are really expensive. So far I haven’t been able to make such shoes because the production cost is too high, but I am taking orders,” he said.
He says Myanmar’s Heart shoes are made entirely from local products except for the glue, which he orders from abroad.
“I have some clients from European countries; they checked the shoe quality and determined them to be safe; Myanmar’s Heart is available in Singapore too,” said Ko Soe Moe Aung, who designs the shoes himself. Myanmar’s Heart also designs handbags made from traditional fabric.
“I use sheets of longyi [the traditional cloth worn in Myanmar] for shoes, and use blankets to make the bags; some ethnic people see the use of traditional blankets to make shoes as disrespectful,” Ko Soe Moe Aung explained.
Nowadays, women are always looking for something new in fashion. So, he decided to produce bags to match the shoes.
Myanmar’s Heart shoes sell for 15,000-25,000 kyats, while the bags are priced at 10,000-20,000 kyats.
Ko Soe Moe Aung is also secretary of the Myanmar Arts and Crafts Association; the group’s ambition is to promote local products in local markets and establish a Souvenir Center in Myanmar.
“We want to create awareness of local arts and crafts among locals and foreigners and want to build a place where all locally made souvenirs are available,” he said.
Myanmar’s Heart shoes and bags are available at shopping centers and the Pyinsama Myanmar Arts and Crafts Showroom on Shwegonedine Road in Yangon’s Bahan Township.