Seeking Inspiration in Burma
On a train ride through Rangoon, the creative director of lifestyle brand Yangoods seeks inspiration for her next collection. By MERRITT GURLEY. Photographed by AUNG PYAE SOE.
Published on Apr 7, 2016
"I HAVE 1,000 IDEAS," gushes Delphine de Lorme as our train chugs out of the station. Yeah, I can tell. One minute she's snapping photos of a young man lugging baskets of bananas, the next she's hunched over a train seat trying to capture pics of the scratches in the plastic. Two boys, faces slathered in thanaka approach us and shyly say hello. De Lorme speaks to them in her broken Burmese and they giggle in reply. They wave and jump off at the next stop. De Lorme waves back. "This is my happy drug," she tells me.
Delphine de Lorme poses in front of one of her large artworks hanging in Le Planteur restaurant.
I see why she's so crazy about the train. The buzzing atmosphere matches the chaotic energy of this Parisian transplant who moved her family across Asia pursuing her passions. Everyone is working away at something. Women, backs bowed with age, sit in a row shaving the meat out of coconuts. An old man preens a thick bundle of flowers. A young woman with a betel-nut smile stacks giant donuts into a tidy tower. This is more than transportation; it's a moving marketplace.
In a way, so is de Lorme, who has tossed her weight behind producing TV shows in France, a line of handcrafted furniture in Cebu, and now her current baby, Yangoods, a brand of handbags, stationery and other souvenirs that takes classic Burmese iconography and updates the designs to a modern sensibility. It's an endeavor representative of the larger change I'm witnessing around me in Rangoon as it sprouts art galleries, pop-up Mexican restaurants, swanky speakeasies and other buzz-word businesses that signal a hipster scene. This is my first time in Burma's biggest city, and though I've enlisted the help of Backyard Travel and amiable guide Than to show me its templestudded, glitzy side, I'm seeing local life through de Lorme's eyes. "At least once a month I jump in the train and just ride it for inspiration," she tells me. "Here I feel like I'm in the real Burma. It is never what I expect, and that's the key to happiness. Always take the surprise."
One surprise is how she wound up in this business. De Lorme has been painting for the past 30 years and her pop-art background screams through the brightly colored prints that she calls "part restoration, part creation." She is the creative lead, but Yangoods is a collaboration of various players who work together to drum up and implement the product lines: Clara Baik, who made her fashion career in Shanghai; Rangoon-native Htin Htin, the editor of the local style magazine Moda; and Frenchman Jean Curci. The idea struck in October 2014, when Curci, Baik and de Lorme were at a dinner party. A mutual friend brought out a cache of old postcards from the 1960s and 70s and "it was love at first sight," Curci says. "We knew we were onto something big. There were many amazing designs that no one had ever seen."
Yangoods cofounder Htin Htin has a flare for fashion.
These designs evolved into their first collection, a vintage-inspired line of fashion accessories that launched in June 2015. De Lorme shows me a purse on which is printed a highly saturated picture of the last Shan royal family, dressed in traditional longyis, with a golden gramophone in the background, and a periwinkle-blue clutch with a picture of an ornately dressed Burmese lady holding a parasol and smoking a cigar. I see a few common motifs shine through in a style that's at once playful, reverent and luxurious. Old photos, modern silhouettes, rich colors, silky fabrics: the collection is super cool and holds up a mirror to the trendy subculture emerging in Rangoon. Some of the images were plucked right from the dinnerparty postcards and others were purchased from Pansodan Gallery, which has a robust archive of old photos. De Lorme also researched the work of 19th-century photographers Italian-British Felice Beato, who owned a studio in Mandalay in 1887, and German-born Philip Adolphe Klier; the two men were among the first to shoot portraits in Burma. It is uncanny how the photos are still so relevant now.
The vintage collection has been a hit with locals and tourists alike. One third of their customers are local and that's a big source of satisfaction for the founders. "We are very proud to see that our bags are being worn by modern young Burmese women," Curci says. "We want to spread a positive image of the country through design, fashion and memories." In the same way batik conjures Indonesia and white elephants are traditionally Thai, Yangoods hopes to bring a recognizably Burmese style to the international marketplace.
Burmese iconography and pop art collide on stylish handbags.
The heritage photos are just the beginning. De Lorme shows me a prototype for a possible new bag, a cream clutch with the Rangoon train station map printed in deep blue, each station name scrawled in the curlicue script, yet another tribute to her love of the old choo-choos. "There is endless inspiration here and very few people explore it," de Lorme says. "Every day I'm delighted by the things I see and experience just by walking down the street," Baik adds, and Htin Htin says she needs only duck into the lively Bogyoke Aung San Market to clear her head: "I like interacting with the merchants selling their goods. These daily activities seem unremarkable but can have a tremendous influence on us." I get a little dizzy listening to all of the influences behinds Yangoods, actually… The crumbling colonial houses downtown; graffiti sprayed above the railway tracks; the work of local painters like Wunna Aung; traditional tattoos; facial scarring, used to mark women who were considered too beautiful. I try to imagine how all of this will play out in the upcoming collections, but de Lorme assures me that pop art is a medium broad enough to umbrella any and every muse: "Pop has no boundaries."
Back on the slow train to Central Station, I find myself jumping a bit when she exclaims, "Look at that poster!" She's pointing out the window at an ad for who knows what, starring a brightly smiling Asian couple. The woman's lipstick is bubblegum pink and the billboard is framed in the bright yellow, blue and green of the train door. "It is perfect," she clicks away on her camera. "It is so pop and they don't even know it!"
Artist Wunna Aung in action at the Taw Win Centre mall.
That's the thing about Rangoon—the most magical moments are hidden in the seemingly mundane, and beauty is blooming in shadowed corners where it was least expected. "Rangoon is a beautiful bride about to get married," my guide, Than, says. "She's excited for the future but the future is unknown. She's at a turning point and she's hopeful." And there's an image I can picture splashed in neon across my next Yangoods handbag.
The two biggest shops are in Le Planteur and Bogyoke Market, with small stands scattered throughout hotels and restaurants across the city. They also have shops outside of Rangoon, in Mandalay, Inle Lake and Pa-An to name a few places, and the list is fast-expanding. In 2016, they launched flagship stores in Rangoon and Mandalay, and will offer product sales and international shipping on the Yangoods website. Within Burma, orders can already be placed online at shop.com.mm.
This beautifully restored French restaurant overlooking Inya Lake is the only spot in Rangoon with an Enomatic wine wall; diners buy a wine credit card that they swipe to access 32 different kinds of wine by the glass. De Lorme rehauled the interior last year creating an exclusive Yangoods collection for the space, from pillows to chandeliers to giant wall-hangings.
Also known as Aung San Market and Scott's Market, here you'll find rows of stands teetering under rainbowed stacks of longyis, golden bracelets, ruby rings, wooden carvings and all manner of bric-a-brac. It is a treasure trove of local food, art and culture. Bogyoke Aung San Road, Pabedan.
This gallery was launched in 2008 by Burmese artist Aung Soe Min and American Red Cross delegate Nance Cunningham as a space to celebrate Burma, old and new. It houses rotating exhibitions displaying the work of contemporary local artists and one of the biggest photo libraries in the country.
The two-day Art in Yangon tour includes stops at independent art galleries and a train ride on the Circular Railway.