'Fashion Power': Zarny, the Myanmar Refugee Turned Tokyo Designer

Zarny draws on his roots for his designs, which have been worn by politicians and royalty. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP
Zarny draws on his roots for his designs, which have been worn by politicians and royalty. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP
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'Fashion Power': Zarny, the Myanmar Refugee Turned Tokyo Designer

Zarny draws on his roots for his designs, which have been worn by politicians and royalty. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP
Zarny draws on his roots for his designs, which have been worn by politicians and royalty. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

Having fled Myanmar for Japan with his parents as a child, Shibuya Zarny began his fashion career as a model in Tokyo and went on to make clothes for royalty.
"Fashion is an art that has enabled me to survive," the designer, whose label recently held a 10-year anniversary show in Bangkok, told AFP.
The runway looks featured nods to Southeast Asian design, from leaf and eye motifs to jewelry worn under colorful jackets by shirtless male models.
Zarny's parents came to Japan as political refugees in 1993 when he was eight. As a teenager, dressing with style became a way for him to avoid being bullied.
His mother first taught him dressmaking, and before long Zarny, with his slim silhouette and intense stare, had been scouted as a model on a dance floor in the capital.
"At the time we had no Instagram," he recalled, so to see and be seen he would hang out at bars, arcades and novelty photo booths called purikura.
Zarny often went to Shibuya, the youthful district he later took as his first name.
"At that time Shibuya was really dangerous. There was a whole underground scene" with yakuza gangsters, he said.
As his career took flight, Zarny launched his eponymous label in 2011, a year before finally securing Japanese nationality.
The fledgling designer gifted 70 longyi -- a traditional garment that ties at the waist -- to Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
She wore a lilac one to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, a moment which Zarny said "changed my life".
'Brave heart'
Alongside his catwalk endeavors over the following years, Zarny acted as a mediator between Japan and Myanmar.
He even accompanied Japan's Princess Yoko of Mikasa -- dressed in a Zarny original -- on a visit there in 2019.
Now, with Suu Kyi detained since Myanmar's 2021 coup, he is raising funds for others escaping his native country.
When the junta seized power, Zarny received a stream of messages asking for help.
"So many refugees from Myanmar came to Thailand, at the border," said the 39-year-old.
He sprang into action, working with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and organizing events in Tokyo.
"Myanmar people lost their pride, they are sad. So I want to show my fashion power, to give them confidence and a brave heart."
Zarny's professional connections in Myanmar were scattered -- just one challenge he has faced in recent years.
The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to jet-set parties, decimating demand for his expensive clothes and eventually forcing him to abandon his showroom in Tokyo's high-end Omotesando district.
One of his top clients -- politician Shinzo Abe, for whom he made suits -- resigned as prime minister in 2020 and was shot dead two years later.
Starting over
But Zarny is no stranger to starting over and has branched out into interior design.
He also made a suit for the captain of the refugee Olympic team ahead of the upcoming Games in Paris, where he hopes to one day present a collection.
These days Zarny runs his studio from a compact apartment in northern Tokyo, where dozens of small paintings showing bucolic scenes of Myanmar adorn the walls.
"My grandfather, who was an art professor, made these watercolors for me when I was a child, because I was missing Myanmar," he said.
The recent show in Bangkok has generated demand from Thai customers, leading Zarny to reflect on his roots.
"I was always thinking: where am I from? Am I a Japanese designer, or something else?" he said.
"I realized finally 'I'm from Southeast Asia'," Zarny said, adding that he wants to focus on this "original" source of inspiration.



80-year-old LL Bean Staple Finds New Audience as Trendy Bag

Gracie Wiener poses with some of her tote bags in Washington Square Park in New York, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, (AP Photo/Pamela Smith)
Gracie Wiener poses with some of her tote bags in Washington Square Park in New York, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, (AP Photo/Pamela Smith)
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80-year-old LL Bean Staple Finds New Audience as Trendy Bag

Gracie Wiener poses with some of her tote bags in Washington Square Park in New York, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, (AP Photo/Pamela Smith)
Gracie Wiener poses with some of her tote bags in Washington Square Park in New York, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, (AP Photo/Pamela Smith)

L.L. Bean created it 80 years ago to haul heavy blocks of ice. Now it's a must-have summer fashion accessory, The Associated Press reported.

The simple, sturdy canvas bag called the Boat and Tote is having an extended moment 80 years after its introduction, thanks to a social media trend in which they're monogrammed with ironic or flashy phrases.

New Yorker Gracie Wiener helped get it started by ordering her humble bags from L.L. Bean monogrammed with “Psycho” and then “Prada,” the pricey Italian luxury brand, instead of just her name or initials, and posting about them on Instagram. Then others began showcasing their own unique bags on TikTok.

Soon, it wasn’t enough to have a bag monogrammed with “Schlepper,” “HOT MESS,” “slayyyy” or “cool mom.” Customers began testing the limits of the human censors in L.L. Bean’s monogram department, which bans profanity “or other objectionable words or phrases,” with more provocative wording like “Bite me,” “Dum Blonde” and “Ambitchous.”

Social media fueled the surge, just as it did for Stanley’s tumblers and Trader Joe’s $2.99 canvas bags, which were once selling on eBay for $200, said Beth Goldstein, an analyst at Circana, which tracks consumer spending and trends.
The tote’s revival came at a time when price-conscious consumers were forgoing expensive handbags, sales of which have weakened, and L.L. Bean’s bag fit the bill as a functional item that’s trendy precisely because it’s not trendy, she said. L.L. Bean's regular bags top out at about $55, though some fancier versions cost upward of $100.
“There’s a trend toward the utilitarian, the simple things and more accessible price points,” she said, and the customization added to the appeal: “Status items don’t have to be designer price points.”

L.L. Bean’s tote was first advertised in a catalog as Bean’s Ice Carrier in 1944 during World War II, when ice chests were common. Then they disappeared before being reintroduced in 1965 as the Boat and Tote.

These days, they’re still made in Maine and are still capable of hauling 500 pounds of ice, but they are far more likely to carry laptops, headphones, groceries, books, beach gear, travel essentials and other common items.

Those snarky, pop-oriented phrases transformed them into a sassy essential and helped them spread beyond Maine, Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and other New England enclaves to places like Los Angeles and New York City, where fashionistas like Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Jessica Parker are toting them — but not necessarily brandished with ironic phrases.

“It’s just one of those things that makes people smile and makes people laugh, and it’s unexpected,” said Wiener, who got it all started with her @ironicboatandtote Instagram page, which she started as a fun side hustle from her job as social media manager for Air Mail, a digital publication launched by former Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter.

The folks at L.L. Bean were both stunned and pleased by the continuing growth. For the past two years, the Boat and Tote has been L.L. Bean’s No. 1 contributor to luring in new customers, and sales grew 64% from fiscal years 2021 to 2023, spokesperson Amanda Hannah said.

The surge in popularity is reminiscent of L.L. Bean’s traditional hunting shoe, the iconic staple for trudging through rain and muck, which enjoyed its own moment a few years back, driven by college students.