YANGON — It was a spectacular autumn day in New York City when Lotus Hom, a boutique in the city’s famed SoHo shopping district, closed its doors for the last time. It was a sad occasion, but mixed with the melancholy there was also an air of celebration, like the brilliant fall colors that marked the end of one season and the start of another.
“I was so sad that I had to leave my colleagues and partners who stood with me from the beginning, but at the same time, I was so excited and happy to think that I would soon be returning to my motherland,” recalls Mo Hom, the owner of Lotus Hom, of the day she closed her designer boutique in November 2012.
“My dream of bringing New York’s fashions to my country had come true, but I felt such a mixture of excitement, happiness and sadness at the time that I can hardly express it.”
An ethnic Shan who graduated from Mandalay University, Mo Hom had already had a successful career in Myanmar’s hotel industry, working in her early twenties as a marketing executive for the Sedona Hotel and Hotel Nikko, when she decided to pursue what she considered to be her true calling: fashion design.
At first, her family tried to discourage her from following her ambition. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, urged her to do something more “professional.” Both parents wanted her to continue her studies, telling her that she should learn both English and Chinese as a way of getting ahead in the world. They said that when she was 25, she could make her own choices, but until then, she had to listen to them.
That day finally came in 2003, when she was living and working in Yangon.
“On my 25th birthday, I phoned my parents and told them I had decided to go to New York to study design. They were very surprised, and at first they tried to convince me to go to Australia, because they thought the US wasn’t safe after the 9/11 terror attacks. But in the end, I won, and joined the Katherine Gibbs School to study fashion design and merchandising.”
Mo Hom stayed at the school just long enough—one semester—to learn the basics of design and marketing, then switched to the New York School of Design to earn a diploma in textile design.
After gaining experience at a couple of New York’s leading fashion-design companies, Mo Hom took another great leap, opening her own boutique on Mott Street in Lower Manhattan’s SoHo district.
Her company, Lotus Hom LLC, is a partial translation of her name, which means “fragrant lotus” in her native Shan language. Taking traditional Myanmar culture as her inspiration, she designs high-quality fashion that is simple, chic and sexy—but not too revealing.
“You don’t need to show everything to be sexy and attractive. I think most people share my fashion philosophy, because my customers say they are really satisfied with Lotus Hom products,” says Mo Hom.
With a wardrobe full of high-end fashion made from the finest silk, brocade, cotton, linen, knit and lambskin leather from Italy, China and Korea, Lotus Hom quickly established itself as a well-known brand among Manhattan residents.
“My customers used to comment that our products were simple and unique, never out of date. Everything was produced in New York and labeled ‘Made in New York,’ so that may be another reason we were so popular.”
But even as her business was thriving, Mo Hom felt that something was missing from the glamorous life she was leading.
“I was like, what am I doing here at all these parties and fashion shows? I realized that I wasn’t happy because I missed my home. I thought it would be good if I could work from my country.”
When the political climate started to change in Myanmar after 2011 and the country opened up to foreign investors, Mo Hom saw her chance to realize another dream: creating a proudly “Made in Myanmar” brand that she could market worldwide.
That was when she decided it was time to close her New York boutique, turn her business into an online store, and bring her vision back to Myanmar.
Creating opportunities for people in her homeland was a big part of what drew her back, she says.
“It’s sad that we have to buy almost everything from foreign countries. Our country and our people have so much potential. Why can’t we ship Made in Myanmar products worldwide?” she asks from her new design studio in Yangon, a world away from Lower Manhattan.
Located in a quiet five-story building in a busy part of Myanmar’s commercial capital, the small but tidy studio opened in early 2013. Surrounded by colorful fabrics and raw materials from Korea, Thailand, China and Myanmar, Nan Mo Hom spends much of her time these days sketching, guiding and training her young employees.
A year after setting up shop in Yangon, she now has a new fashion line, Mon Précieux, aimed at the Myanmar market. Reasonably priced at between US$10 and $30, her designs have attracted the attention of retailers from around the country, including Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Pyin Oo Lwin and Monywa. Buyers visit her showroom to see samples and place orders, which are then sent to garment factories in North Okkalapa Township to be filled. The finished products are sold either with the Mon Précieux label or under the brand names of her customers’ boutiques.
It has taken 13 months of hard work to get this far, but Mo Hom says that her efforts—driven by her desire to empower young women in her beloved country and to better understand the demands of the market—have been amply rewarded with a thriving business.
Mo Hom’s label has already distinguished itself in a market dominated by inexpensive but low-quality fashion from China. “At first, people thought Mon Précieux was no different from the stuff from China, but later they fell in love with the perfect fitting, simple yet elegant, unique and attractive style of Mon Précieux,” says Nan Moon Noon, the owner of a boutique in Taunggyi.
For an ambitious person like Mo Hom, succeeding in business or any other field has nothing to do with luck. The key, she says, is to enrich your life through creativity and by sharing what you’ve learned with others.
“I would like to teach young people here the things I learned in New York,” she says. “Our country is rich with various kinds of raw materials and our people are talented. We need to upgrade our skills and we need better technology. If we work together with persistent effort, our country will surely be able to rise from poverty to prosperity.”
As a mentee of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that seeks to foster leadership skills in women, Mo Hom can appreciate the value of others’ experience. And as a female entrepreneur who has succeeded in a very competitive industry, she also believes in the strength of women.
“People think that women are weak, but really, they are smart, intelligent, caring and sharing people. If you teach a woman something, you are teaching her entire family. And by developing families, you are developing whole communities,” she says.
But as much as she appreciates women’s “soft power,” she also knows that sometimes you have to be tough just to survive. This was a lesson she learned from her father, who taught her Shan martial arts—a skill that later led to training in kickboxing during her days in New York.
“A woman living alone in New York has to know how to protect herself, and I loved kickboxing. Women don’t have to be soft all the time,” says Mo Hom, who is cooperating with Akhaya, one of Myanmar’s leading women’s organizations, to teach martial arts to young women.
As much as she has to offer her countrywomen, however, Mo Hom believes that the key to success is already within their reach.
“We just have to follow our hearts. You have to choose the work that makes you happy, that interests you most. But you also need to think of those around you—how you can best serve your community. If you do this, and do your best, your work will be your greatest happiness.”
This article first appeared in the April 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.