Fashion & Design

From Mogok to Milan: A Fashion Odyssey

By Vincenzo Floramo 24 July 2013

With her gently insinuating smile, enhanced by her clear, deep brown eyes, Pauk Pauk tells a story that speaks of passions, hopes, choices and dreams—the story of her life.

It all started in Mogok, Myanmar’s famous city of rubies in Mandalay Region. When she was just five years old, Pauk Pauk followed her mother into the family hairdressing business. It was then that she began playing with cosmetics and hairstyles.

Despite having been born a boy, Pauk Pauk loved to wear feminine clothes from an early age. She also enjoyed using makeup and preferred spending her time with girls, earning her the scorn of boys.

At 16, she dropped out of school and dedicated herself to her work full-time. By this time, her gender identity had taken definite shape, as did her reputation as a makeup artist. Her talents were in great demand among the brides and traditional dancers of Mogok and Mandalay.

But the gifted teen had bigger ambitions, and soon she set her sights on Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. There, she had a chance to reveal her talents—and faced some of the toughest years of her life.

“In Yangon, I had to share a room with other people. Sexual harassment was the norm, and I was often forced to change accommodation for fear of being raped,” she says.

Still, her career took off, and her skills grew as she divided her time between Yangon, where she worked as an assistant to a mentor in the film and television industry, and Mogok, where she was still much sought after during the wedding season.

Eventually, however, she decided she had to cut her ties to her earlier life in Mogok and set out on a new path. At the age of 23, after several years of working as a makeup artist in a modeling agency, she felt she was ready take another big step.

“It was mostly my desire to experiment, to try my hand in the unfamiliar field of design, that pushed me more than anything else,” she recalls.

This was also when she started her first love affair, an experience that left an indelible impression on her. But her relationship with a rock singer ended badly when she discovered that he was cheating on her.

“I know it might seem hard to believe, but I’ve always felt like a woman, a Myanmar woman who has never sought easy sex, but rather a relationship of love,” she says.

After a few romantic adventures, true love arrived when an actor from Yangon came into her life. Years later, she is still deeply attached to him.

Paradoxically, that love further fueled her dreams and prompted her to focus more and more on her work. In 2006, at the age of 35, she was ready to take her next great leap, this time beyond Myanmar’s borders.

After facing many difficulties obtaining a visa, Pauk Pauk booked a flight to Milan to attend design classes at the Burgo Fashion and Design Institute.

As a girl born and raised in Myanmar, life in Italy was like being in a completely different world.

“The early days were really tough,” she says. “I had to search for accommodation, the studies had already started full time, and I had to deal with the language barrier in a strange land.”

But as always, she somehow landed on her feet. She made new friends and they helped bolster the resolve of the stubborn girl from Mogok, who vowed never to throw in the towel.

In many ways, life in a foreign land was an education in itself. What seemed commonplace to many Italians had the power to open her eyes to endless possibilities.

“It will seem trivial to you, but for me, just going around downtown, looking at the different styles represented in the windows of the big fashion brands’ shops, was a constant source of inspiration.”

Back in Myanmar, her Italian journey would yield unexpected returns.

In Mandalay, news of her return spread via word of mouth and local media soon started to take an interest in her and her designs. Demand began to grow, and with it, work—almost more than she could handle.

“During that period, I spent the week in Mandalay and weekends in Yangon,” she says, describing how she kept up with the constant stream of orders from customers.

All the time and effort she has invested in her work have rewarded her more than she could have imagined: Today, she is one of the most famous fashion designers in Myanmar, and she has also begun to make a splash on the international scene.

But her ambitions are not limited to her own career: she also has great hopes of putting Myanmar on the world’s fashion map. Through a scholarship program she has established for promising new designers, she aims to help others just setting out on a journey like her own.

And yet, even with so much already achieved, she still has another great dream yet to fulfill: “To create a Myanmar village where the art is able to represent our own artistic values and traditions.”