Dream… The reason for living is having dreams, inspiration and to achieve them. I believe you also have your own set goals and dreams in life. This time, Mingalapar team want to tell you about the inspirational story of a young man who was born in Myanmar, brought up abroad and who finally became an internationally recognized fashion designer. Let’s see how Steven Oo achieves his dreams and goals through this interview.
Mingalapar: Could you kindly introduce yourself to our readers?
Steven Oo: My name is Steven Oo, a fashion designer. I was born in Yangon, Myanmar. My family immigrated to the United States back in 1999. I went to UC Berkeley to study business for my Bachelor's degree and afterwards, I studied design for my Master's degree at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. I graduated end of 2009 and began working in 2010. I specialized in designing knitwear. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I currently have my own design company, which helps many US company design sweater. Also, I just started a men-wear brand recently, and opened a shop in Yangon, called 00:55. Lastly, I am also acting as a designer director for a Chinese high-end women brand called PH5.
Mingalapar: Thank you very much for your complete introduction. Everyone has his/her own dream during childhood. What was your dream back then and did you already come close to achieving and reaching it?
Steven Oo: Our childhood dreams and our grow-up dreams are quite different. When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I really loved having pets. After I went to the United States, I wanted to fulfill my parents’ wishes and of course, they wanted me to be a doctor. So, all throughout high school, I wanted to be a doctor. Once I started college though, I realized that becoming a doctor was a very long path. I didn’t have that much patience to do something in which I was not really interested. I found something I love, which is fashion. So, when I started doing fashion, my goal became to be able to make a name for myself in the world, knowing that I came from a background where fashion was not fostered. Growing up in Myanmar, there was not much exposure to fashion especially to knitwear. Nobody wears sweaters in Myanmar. I wanted to make something almost impossible come true, and I feel like I am really close to my dreams. A lot of people in the knitwear industry know me, but I still feel like there is a long way to go. So, my dreams and goals, keep changing everyday. Once you reach one goal, you will search to attain another, because I think this is the only way for people to improve themselves and live a fulfilling life, and to continue having dreams and aspirations. I don’t just have one dream, it constantly changes.
Mingalapar : Could you share us your childhood life and how you become an internationally recognized fashion designer?
Steven Oo: When I was in Myanmar, my parents were business people. They had a wholesale business where they bought housewares from abroad and redistributed it within the country. So, I guessed I got my business background starting from my childhood. But I was never exposed to fashion. I just feel like it has always been something inside of me. But I did nothing when I was young that was related to fashion. That’s why I think people should see my case, as an example of “it’s never too late”. It’s never too late to start doing what you like doing. People asked me how I came up to where I am now, but I don’t have an answer to that. People have different ways for getting to the same place. There are many ways to get there but the most important thing is that if you’re doing something you really love, the product that you are going to create will be really beautiful. If your product is beautiful, people will automatically follow you and push you to make more. Basically, that’s how it happened. I never had to try too hard to look for jobs. The jobs always come to me. So, I really encourage everybody to just follow their dreams and really spend a lot of time and energy on what they are doing and become the best. You just need to focus on yourself. You don’t have to focus too much on other things. Things will all happen when you love what you’re doing and other people can see that you love what you are doing, and then your dreams will really materialize.
Mingalapar : Yes, as you said, you are a good role model for young people to achieve their dream and make them come true. What made you come back to Myanmar after living abroad for a long time? What was your feeling when coming back after all these years?
Steven Oo: I lived in Myanmar for almost 15 years. I went to United States when I was 15 and in the beginning, I didn’t have plans to come back. As I grew older, I realized that there was so much I could bring back to the country where I was born and I really wanted to share with people my experiences. Because of our economic and political situations, Myanmar was not able to trade with the US until last year when Mr. Obama came to Myanmar and then he lifted the embargo. Having been living in the US for so long and working in big companies there, I needed to see that in order for me to make a decision to come back; I didn’t want to do business only in Myanmar; I wanted to be sure that I could do business with Myanmar and the US, and the rest of the world at the same time. So, when he lifted the embargo, I made a decision to come right back.
It seems like I left my good job and my good life in the US and came back to Myanmar. But for me it was natural, I have always loved Asia. I lived in the U.S. for a long time, but in Asia, I really feel like home. Of course, I am from here. When I moved back to Myanmar, there were a lot of difficulties such as the bad Internet connection. Because I still have my business doing private design for many US companies, in order for me to keep my business going, I needed a good Internet connection to keep in touch with my clients. That’s why I am now based in Guangzhou. Since it is close to Myanmar, I can go back anytime when I need to and it’s also where most of the sweaters are designer-made, so, it’s a good place for me now. I have plans to move back to Myanmar eventually once the infrastructure is ready for international business.
Mingalapar: Internet connection is still limited for doing international business from Myanmar. We also hope that Internet connection will be better soon. So, you faced many difficulties when you came back to Myanmar. Could you tell us what kind of obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Steven Oo: I was really worried and I didn’t think that I would become anybody in Myanmar so quickly. When I first plan on coming back to Myanmar, I was just coming back to see what kind of opportunities there were for me, I didn’t have any solid plan at that time. But a friend of mine; his name is Yoko and he works at MODA magazine; asked me to bring a few of my garments to do a photo shoot. To be frank, I was very scared. My designs are a little bit crazy; the sweaters are very different from what the Myanmar audience is used to seeing in magazines. But, I brought my garments back and did the photo shoot, and the pictures came out very beautiful. Everything happened really fast from there. I felt very welcomed and very happy that the audience in Myanmar was so warm in welcoming me back and appreciating my work.
But one issue that I had was Internet speed, because I had to keep doing my work and another one was shipping. If I was going to base my design studio in Myanmar, I needed to ship my things to other countries. Shipping is so expensive to the US, and even to China it is still expensive. There was no way I could be based in Myanmar and shipping at these costs all the time. Those were the two biggest problems. But regarding the Myanmar audience and my work, I feel really lucky, because I was really worried at first. But everybody was so nice and I am truly thankful for that.
Mingalapar: As you mentioned before, you are specializing in knitwear. How did you get an interest in this specialized field? Is it something that you can develop in Myanmar?
Steven Oo: I never knew how to knit. When I started going to design school for my Master's degree, I was studying both fashion design and knitwear design and I was doing a double major. For some reason, I just love knitwear so much, because you are not only just creating the shape of the garments but also creating the fabrics. Everything starts from a simple string. From this string, you can make a full garment. To me, that's amazing. To be able to create something from the beginning to the end makes me feel so happy. I guess being a knitwear designer really fits my personality, because my personality is very controlling and I like to do everything by myself. Being a knitwear designer, you have to do everything from beginning to end. This is why I love being a knitwear designer and why I choose to do it.
Well, my men-wear brand 00:55 is not focused on sweaters, but I sell the sweaters most of the time in Myanmar. I feel like I almost started a trend for sweaters in Myanmar, when I came back and showed them. Now a lot of people want to buy them even though the weather is hot. For me, coming back to Myanmar I didn’t just want to be a sweater designer, I wanted to show Myanmar people what fashion is like all over the world. I wanted to make sure that Myanmar fashion could improve and that one day, we could have many designers coming out of Myanmar that would be world famous. I wanted to come back and do my part to share my experiences and my knowledge to everybody.
Mingalapar: Thanks to your passion and eagerness, you could go this far. I would like to know also your opinion about your country of origin, as a person born in Myanmar and brought up in abroad.
Steven Oo: I think the country has come a long way. I left Myanmar in 1999 and the first time I came back to visit was in 2010. Even during that time, 10 years, I didn’t see many changes. But this time when I came back, there were a lot of changes compared to the previous 10 years. It gave me a lot of hope and it showed me that the country is willing to change and is actually changing really fast. It just get me really excited to see that the place where I was born has now entered a new stage in its development. To have this chance, to be able to influence something in my country of birth; fashion being very new for Myanmar and still having a lot of improvement to be made. To be able to be a big influence, a big part of fashion in my home country is very exciting. This is why I came back. I think that there are only good things ahead for Myanmar. I really do believe it.
Mingalapar : As a fashion designer, how do you like Myanmar traditional wear? Are there any creation that could combine with Myanmar traditional clothing and your western ideas and experiences?
Steven Oo: I think traditional wear is important to every country. Internet makes the world a very small place and everywhere you go now, everything looks the same, you see the same shops, McDonald’s and KFCs everywhere. Nothing is unique anymore and nothing is special anymore. I truly believe that Myanmar should protect the traditional wear because it is beautiful, very modest at the same time and it is very elegant. But there are a lot of new fashion designs that are being made to change the traditional dress in new strange ways. Some of them just don’t look right. People who are trying to reinvent the traditional wear; they should not do in ways that are ruining the modesty. I think that’s the beauty, the beauty is the modesty. There are some designers that are changing the traditional wear to become hip, cool, young and sexy. I don’t think traditional wear is meant to be sexy. It’s just meant to be modest and elegant. That’s my opinion on traditional wear. For my garments, this is exactly why I haven’t made anything that looks like traditional wear because I feel like traditional wear should be kept as traditional and nothing should be changed. Traditional and modern are two separate ways. The designs that I’m creating are contemporary, modern and trendy. I do have appreciation for traditional wear but I don’t ever want to mix these two into a very strange way. But I am drawing inspiration from traditional art, which is called Kanot, the flower patterns. I think it is so beautiful and actually, I am doing a collection now and there is going to be a lot of these Kanot flowers on my sweaters.
Another thing that I am doing in traditional is fabric. Actually, this yarn is an example of what I am using and it is a very modern yarn. I brought back this yarn to Myanmar and I am mixing it with traditional silk and traditional lotus. I want to make a brand new fabric. I think this is the way for me to show my background and to interpret Myanmar tradition. I don’t want to change traditional wear to make it sexy. But I do want to create new fabrics and new technique that we can sell as Myanmar made fabrics internationally.
Mingalapar: I would love to know what’s your future plans in Myanmar and how would you contribute to Myanmar community.
Steven Oo: I want to eventually come back to Myanmar and set my design office there. Once the country is stable, such as the Internet, shipping and everything is smooth, I want to come back and open my design studio there and do all my international business based out of Myanmar. I also have ideas about opening a design school to really prepare Myanmar students, and give them the same standard of education as international design schools. Myanmar youth has a lot to catch up with the rest of the world. This is how I want to give back to community, by coming back and sharing my knowledge and experiences.
Mingalapar: You used to work with team in different countries. How about working with Myanmar team? Is there any difference with working in the U.S or in China?
Steven Oo: I haven’t worked in an office situation in Myanmar yet. I did work with many people in fashion industry such as editors, photographers and make-up artists. There is a bit of differences. I think famous people in Myanmar are a little bit difficult to work with. I don’t know why, but there seems to be some kind of attitudes. I hope that people can become even more professional to try to make the best end product. If we are going to do a photo-shoot, I should leave the photographer to do the pictures, make-up artists to do the make-up and we all need to trust each other that everybody is doing their jobs at their best. But in Myanmar, sometimes, one person is controlling everything even if they don’t have the background or the experience. That way of thinking is not good or conducive to make the best work. That sometimes is the biggest problem I have working in Myanmar. But I think everything will improve as the country becomes more exposed to working with teams from abroad.
Mingalapar: What is the achievement you are the most proud of?
Steven Oo: There are a few times when I can remember that are being really happy. The first one is my graduation show, which was in New York during fashion week and it was shown at the same time as all the big labels show. That was my biggest achievement since I started to work, being able to present my graduation collection to everybody in New York. The second one is being commissioned by SPINEXPO, which is the biggest trade show for yarns in the world. They commissioned me to design garments for them and they really featured me as a Burmese designer to the whole industry. It was held in both New York and Shanghai. That would be my second achievement that I feel the most proud of. The very last one is being able to work with so many magazines in Myanmar especially with MODA. I feel very proud because I just came back not even 1 year ago and I got so much done within 1 year.
Mingalapar: Lastly, what would you like to say to young Myanmar people and to our readers so that they can achieve their own dreams?
Steven Oo: I would say that passion is the key to success. When you are passionate about something, nothing can even make you feel tired. You can work all day and all night because you love doing whatever you are doing and you are passionate about it. But at the same time, I don’t want people to look at my life as the end result of becoming a fashion designer. Because there are many fashion designer who don’t have my life. I don’t want people to have the wrong idea, because fashion looking from outside is really beautiful, I am travelling all the time, I get to work with models, photographers and magazines. It looks great and amazing. Of course, everything looks amazing because we are trying to make it look amazing. Nobody gets to see the ugly side of fashion as the ugly side of fashion is always kept behind the scene. So, a lot of young people when they see fashion, all they see is beauty. You shouldn’t come into the fashion industry thinking that you will be having a beautiful life everyday with no stress and make a lot of money. That’s the wrong way of thinking. If you want to come into the fashion industry, it’s better if you love it so much that even if you cannot make a lot of money, you are still going to continue doing it and fight for it. It’s a life long lesson. You cannot become a successful designer by just going to school for four years. Even now, I still continue to learn everyday, new things about the industry and knitting. There’s always something new to learn. In that sense, fashion is really exciting, always changing and never get boring but it is really tiring. So, people coming into the fashion industry, they should be really cautious and think about whether they really love it or not. You cannot teach somebody to be a fashion designer. You have to have it inside of you. You have to know what is stylish, what is fashionable, those kinds of things cannot be taught.
So, number 1 is PASSION and number 2 is LOGIC. Be logical about all the decisions you are making because you have to live with them in the end. You can have passion but if you are illogical, and you just do whatever you wanted to do, you eventually will not be passionate anymore because you’re going to feel like nothing is working. So, you can be passionate about something but you also have to think carefully about what you are doing and how it is going to affect and change your life. Being logical is very important.
Interview made by the Mingalapar Team