Gabar co-founders Phway Su Aye and Susan Wai Hnin are not outliers when it comes to creating a brand during a pandemic that fundamentally changed the way we work, live and operate. In fact, much like other brands who were born as the world fluctuated in and out of national lockdowns, travel restrictions and political upset, Su Aye and Wai Hnin used the time to incubate their idea – creating a brand that wrapped up their South East Asian heritage and homeland Mynamar with Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and living slowly.
Now, two years later, the founders sit down with Stylist to parse through their journey from friends on opposite sides of the world to being at the helm of a trading fragrance brand and what it means to reinvest in Myanmar.
Tell us a little about Gabar’s journey so far.
Phway Su Aye: “We’ve been working on Gabar for almost two years now – it was a pandemic-born business. We started in March 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting and it gave us the time to really build the foundations of the brand.
“I was in New York and Susan was in Myanmar but we’ve been friends for a long time. I was transitioning out of an old role, really wanting to build something from the ground up and Susan was in Myanmar doing a similar thing.
“Gabar really came from two key threads: wanting to bring our heritage and South East Asian history to the world stage, especially in a category that doesn’t have as many South-East Asian viewpoints, and building a brand that really touched on these ideas of the internal pursuit of mindful and conscious living and translated those ideas in a fresh and approachable way.
“Then, after a series of fortuitous events, fragrance kind of fell in our lap, in all these wonderful ways.”
And how does Myanmar influence the fragrances?
Susan Wai Hnin: “When I moved back to Myanmar in mid-2019, I noticed a new kind of energy in Yangon. There was a new scene of young people who were way more rebellious and outspoken, who were more connected with the rest of the world and in tune with themselves – and I noticed that they cared less about what other people thought of them.
“Then, in early 2021 the military coup happened and it changed a lot of things. It was an incredibly turbulent, stressful, chaotic time for all of us and it helped confirm what we were seeing in the youth championing change and using technology in new creative and effective ways.
“The three fragrances are inspired by three specific locations in Myanmar. The first fragrance, Float, was inspired by Inle Lake – which is the largest lake in the northern Shan State of Myanmar.
“Ground was inspired by a place called Bagan, which is an arid, ancient capital city with lots of beautiful temples. Then, Swim was inspired by Hpa-An, which is a luscious rainforest region in the country. The three fragrances represent three present states of mind for us. A lot of our brand is centred around the idea of helping people be in the present moment – to calm down, to ground them, to help them be inspired and, of course, being slow.
“I noticed during the pandemic that I gravitated towards scents that were natural, calming, uplifting and made me feel good. I think that’s a really important thing for fragrance – whether it’s putting on perfume at the beginning of my day or lighting a candle before bed – these are feel-good moments and a little treat to ourselves.”
Reinvesting in Myanmar is integral to the brand – how does Gabar do this?
Phway Su Aye: “The bigger ethos of the brand is about nurturing the next generation of creatives and change-makers going out there to make an impact in the world. We were really fortunate to find a charity in the UK called Prospect Burma that does a lot of work providing scholarships and higher educational opportunities for young people in Myanmar – specifically from rural regions and places away from the urban centre.
“When we think about giving back to Myanmar and things that will actually impact the country over the long term, we have faith that as soon as things open up again and people come back, it’ll be a new generation taking over and hopefully voting something better. This is why education felt like a really important category to pick.”
Explore the Gabar fragrance collection
Main image: Gabar