“Here in Myanmar, when someone thinks of a souvenir, it’s an owl, ABC shirt, I love Myanmar, I love Bagan, which is so cliche—nothing against them—but I wanted a souvenir that can be used,” says Jay Thet, founder of Vestige, a vintage luxury brand based in Myanmar that launched in 2013.
He was inspired by Muji, a Japanese retail company. “It’s not in your face. It’s not in your kimonos, Hello Kitty, but everyone can tell it’s Japanese.”
Vestige products incorporate the rich culture and history of Myanmar and modern, contemporary designs. Products range from clothing, handbags and stationery to home goods.
The idea sprang when Jay Thet met Michael Wong, lead designer of Vestige from Canada who is now based in Southeast Asia.
“I was so inspired by the idea of creating a unique signature line where I can truly take culture, art and crafts into an international stage. I felt like the world has to experience what Myanmar has to offer,” says Michael.
Having worked with many international brands such as Starbucks, California Fitness, CA Republik, a growing brand in Vietnam, Michael is well versed with what it means to have a presence in Southeast Asia.
“Vestige may seem like a souvenir line at first sight, but all items have been carefully designed and artisans crafted to reflect the culture of Myanmar through patterns, textures, colors and designs,” he says, adding that he and his team traveled to historical sites in Myanmar and brought back inspirations to apply to the designs.
One such design is the tote bag imprinted with a Chinthe, a lion-like creature protecting the entrances of pagodas and temples in Myanmar. The bag won the prestigious Good Design Award by Japan Institute for Design Promo on in 2014.
The award recognizes designs that “enrich life or society” and works “for the development of future society.”
The tote bag was also inspired by Michael’s time in France, where every household possesses a tote made of straw, leather or weave. Vestige is French, meaning a trace or remnant of something that is disappearing or no longer exists.
“When a country like Myanmar is experiencing growth, anything classic will eventually be replaced with the modern. Thanakha will eventually disappear and be replaced with cheap, imported makeup, and the young and progressive will want new things rather than to preserve the current, unique culture,” Michael says.
The brand also gives back to its community. The Yangon Women’s Center receives $1 for each mini tote bags sold. Profits from the Chinthe products is donated back to Shwedagon Pagoda.
“As Myanmar accepted the 2015 award for Most Charitable Country, our lifestyle brand follows suit by supporting local artisans and linking the sale of our products to various local charities,” says Nida Taylor, executive director of Vestige, who as a Burmese-American feels that she represents the essence of what Vestige is all about.
“I know Myanmar heritage and I also bring a touch of modernity,” she says. “Vestige represents the new Myanmar.”
What makes Vestige stand out from the crowd is that it’s a value-added brand, Nida elaborates: “Vestige is a unique lifestyle brand and one of the few Myanmar companies with both local and international recognition. We’ve created a platform to harness and grow talent which combines Myanmar culture with modern inspiration.”
Vestige thanakha and tea are manufactured by locals and branded by bottling and packaging them in a contemporary style to a ract modern-day customers. “Locals don’t know how to sell to modern-day consumers so we make it into a brand. Products look that much better, quality is much higher,” says Jay Thet.
Vestige products aim to preserve the culture while appealing to the modern consumers. One such collection is a recent launch of M, a varsity sportswear collection geared towards local customers. “It did very well and some designs such as the M crewneck got sold out on the day of the launch,” says Nida.
In addition to local artists, the team also consists of a group of international designers from Canada, France, US and Vietnam.
Charlotte Barjou is one such designer from France. Recently married, she and her husband have been living in Myanmar for the last three years. Just last month, she collaborated with Vestige to create a women’s collection inspired by one of Vestige’s popular products, the coconut bowl.
“I chose some of the patterns and colors from inside the coconut bowl and used them on the dress,” she explains.
Charlotte also finds it rewarding to mentor local seamstresses to tailor her designs. “I teach them all the techniques that I learned from the best designers and professional seamstresses in France.”
It’s all about giving consumers what they want,” Jay Thet explains, like Vestige’s two most popular products, Vestige briefcase and the coconut bowl.
“You can get souvenirs at Scott’s Market, but you can’t use them because it’s not practical, durable or usable. Comparably, our products are better value for the price.”
Vestige is also conscious about producing their products in an eco-friendly way. The notebooks are made from recycled paper and the cover of their backbacks is made of recycled potato sackbags.
Since its inception, Vestige has been receiving wide acclaim in Yangon and abroad and recently collaborated with Japanese designer Shunsuke Ikai to launch a luxury stationery brand called LINE.
Vestige is also making a mark in the restaurant business with its new venue at Myanmar Plaza. The Vestige Souvenir & Restaurant serves authentic local dishes with precision to quality at an affordable price.
“Vestige wants to deliver authentic, yet healthy, modern food that’s aesthetically pleasing,” says Jay Thet.
Vestige has plans to expand to other countries in the future and already planning to export their tea to Japan.
“We’re aware that to reach a certain level in others countries, you need the quality, and we have it,” says Jay Thet.
“We’re looking for the wow factor, beyond anyone’s expectations.”
Vestige currently has seven locations in Yangon and two in Naypitaw.
Originally published in Balance Magazine (in print only) on July 2016 for Vestige Souvenir