For Aung San Suu Kyi, Zarni's clothing makes a statement
Unlike some prominent female world figures, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi isn't considered a fashion plate. Her characteristic traditional Burmese attire draws admiration, but it seems to change little, suggesting that she must devote little time to her wardrobe.Someone does, though, and a compatriot at that.
Zarni Htoo Htoo - a former political refugee now based in Japan who uses just "Zarni" in his career as a model and clothing designer - is the closest thing Suu Kyi has to a personal stylist.
But "The Lady" is not his client, the 28-year-old Zarni told The Nation during a visit to Bangkok last week. He just makes clothes for her as an expression of his admiration and respect.
"My uncle knew someone in the NLD," Zarni said, referring to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, "and he got me a chance to design clothes for Suu Kyi. I didn't even get to measure her. I just made the clothes and sent them to her!"
Among the Zarni creations she's worn on celebrated occasions was the purple outfit that turned heads at the Noble Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo a year ago.
He's now completing a kimono for her to wear on a visit to Japan in April, putting some Burmese soul into it with a floral motif mingling roses with cherry blossoms. The Japanese media have been watching the process at Zarni's boutique on Tokyo's bustling Shibuya Road, with NHK broadcasting a documentary.
The work has given Zarni the chance to refresh his knowledge of Burmese textiles, and Myanmar's reforms have allowed him back into the country after two decades "in exile". By now fluent in Japanese as well as thoroughly modern in every way, he nevertheless well remembers his childhood and the simple beauty of Burmese culture.
"For Suu Kyi's traditional costumes I handpicked Mandalay silk. Mandalay is our old capital and its culture is very rich," he said.
Zarni's grandmother taught him how important it was for a Burmese woman to wear a flower in her hair. "It shows that you have beautiful fresh flowers in your garden - an artificial flower is just not acceptable. A woman always has a flower in her hair for parties or important meetings."
His admiration for Suu Kyi extends to her decision to "promote" traditional clothing, including ethnic attire, on the global stage. "When she wears something, she doesn't just wear it for herself, but also to hold out hope for the Burmese people and refugees," Zarni said.
Suu Kyi's blouses (anyi), colourful sarongs (longyi), the flowers in her hair and her simple sandals, represent the best features of Burmese culture to preserve as Myanmar opens up to the world, he said. "Western culture will arrive with development, but I hope the Burmese national costume stays the same."