Style. Not everyone has it. But the designer duo Michel&Amazonka, the hottest – and most progressive – design team in Mongolia at the moment, they do.
And it shows in their collections. Between their updates on traditional deels (the robe-like garments still worn by Mongolians) to their embroidered bomber jackets, where they got their start, the sisters behind the brand are grabbing the attention of Ulaanbaatar’s most fashionable crowd for the risks that they take, and that’s what’s to love about them.
So, I sat down with the girls, Michel, Amazonka and sister-CEO Munkhjargal Choigaalaa (who helped interpret) and asked them about Mongolian fashion, the steps they’re taking towards becoming more sustainable (a concept that isn’t big in Mongolia, yet), finding inspiration locally, what it’s like to balance business and family, and more.
Breanna Wilson: Do you find that Mongolian women and men have a strong sense of individual style?
Michel&Amazonka: We think that Mongolians like to be very fashionable. They are more trend oriented, so that’s why we wanted to make our collections more stylish by having more varieties them.
BW: How has the fashion and design scene changed over the years in Ulaanbaatar and across Mongolia?
M&A: We think that it evolved a lot in the recent years. It’s been over 20 years since the Democratic revolution, and we think that our fashion industry was far behind the world fashion industry prior to that. So, one of the goals that Michel&Amazonka set out to do is to catch up and to be on the same level with the world’s fashion trends.
In terms of designs, we are working on doing the same level of design that the global fashion brands do because we need to close the gap between the global designers and local designers, but we’re still far behind.
BW: Are there trends that you’re excited about for this upcoming season and trends that you’re happy are gone?
M&A: We wouldn’t say that there are trends that we do not like because each trend has their own followers. When you meet and talk to a person, when you look inside that person’s inner world, you better understand their preferences and their views.
Each designer has their own preferences as an individual person, and it’s expressed in their designs. But for us, we like trends like underground ethnic scenes and stuff like that. So, we decided to mix all these elements and trends into Michel&Amazonka. When you see our designs, you can see European clothes with hand sewn ethnic embroideries or embellishments.
BW: Who’s doing the hand sewing and where are you getting the materials from? Are they all locally sourced?
M&A: We have cashmere factories here but not fabric, so all the fabric comes from abroad. So, in the future, we’re planning to make our designs simpler, more minimalistic, not like other major brands who use a lot of embroidery and patches on their designs. We want to improve the fabric that we use in our designs.
BW: How will you improve the fabric?
M&A: We want to introduce cashmere products into the line and want to collaborate with factories that make prints on the fabric. So, we’ll design the textile images and then we’ll use our own fabric instead of readily available fabrics in the market.
We are also happy about the current eco trend, as we want to have more eco products in our collections.
Our company was the first company to produce mass eco-friendly bags. Western countries now prefer tote bags or non-plastic bags in their daily lives. We want to promote that in Mongolia by introducing more and more eco bags into our collection.
BW: If you had to pick a piece out of the collection that you like the most, what would it be?
M&A: This one, the green one with the monk on the back.
The guy on the back is from a folk tale. He’s a monk who went abroad, to Tibet – or somewhere like that – to learn new stuff, but he fails. But on the way back home, he learns more than he could have learned in Tibet.
BW: Do you hand sew all of this? How long do you think it took to create this jacket?
M&A: Yes, we do, and it took about a week.
BW: And this is the only one of its kind?
M&A: Yes, the only one. And we quickly had a customer who asked to buy it.
BW: Since you only make one or a few pieces, can someone come in and buy a piece right off the rack and walk out with it on? Or do you hold the collection and then release it all at once?
M&A: We hold the collection and release it at once. But there are customers that have been with us for a very long time and they call us and say, I want this one, I want that one, and we hold it for them.
BW: That’s the hard part when you do one-off pieces in a small collection.
M&A: It’s hard to make many pieces of the same design because our market is very small. So, we are hoping to make and establish a new smaller brand in the future that is like Mango or Zara, where we make one design into many copies and different sizes. But the price would be less because it’s not a customized item. We want to reach more customers while still preserving this custom service. So hopefully next year we’ll have that.
BW: And will you have a standalone shop like you do for Michel&Amazonka for that brand?
M&A: Yes, we’ll have a different store, but the people will know that we are behind that new brand.
BW: That’s exciting. So, that’s the big project for next year then?
M&A: Yes, it is. The prices for the new shop will be very reasonable prices but they will still be nice designs and quality products.
BW: How did you get your inspiration to sew and design?
M&A: Our mom used to do a lot of nice embroidery. She liked the handcraft kind of things. We inherited her interest in making things more decorative.
Our mother’s father, our grandfather who was a monk, also inspired us. The stuff that he used wear were very decorative. And on the other hand, our mom, she used to embroider a lot of stuff like pillowcases, even the throw on the bed. They were all handmade and embroidered. So, these two people inspired and influenced us more than anyone else.
BW: What’s your design process like?
M&A: We research first. But while researching, we listen to music, which helps with inspiration.
BW: Is the research done locally or do you travel abroad?
M&A: We don’t travel abroad but instead we get inspiration from the surrounding environment.
Right now, you can find a lot of ideas here in Mongolia, from the tradition and culture, because it’s not very known in the world. People often know it from historical figures like Genghis Khan, and from ancient history. But in current times, you can find a lot of ideas from people’s clothes, the way we do cultural things, ceremonies and stuff like that. When that inspiration reaches its peak, maybe we will travel abroad and go somewhere to find different inspirations and ideas.
So, for now we have enough. It’s hard to tell which designs will be liked by the customers or the public. Sometimes you expect one design to be a success, but it turns out not to be. And sometimes you instantly find a new design and you create it in a very short period of time and everybody loves it and wants you to create more. So, it’s hard to say that this collection or this design can be a success. It’s our customers who decide.
BW: It seems like you have a lot of repeat customers, don’t you?
M&A: There are customers who buy something from each collection. For instance, when we did 12 collections last year (one during each month of the year), we had customers who bought from all 12. This year, with fewer collections, we had customers asking us to do more so that they could buy more.
Last year we made a collection called Summertime, and two customers divided and bought everything from the collection.
BW: That’s a dream. But there must be hurdles to designing and creating collections like you do here and reasons why not everyone is doing it the way you guys are?
M&A: It’s a market capacity kind of thing. We make the designs, but we cannot produce a lot. Our economy also isn’t great so it’s expensive to source and produce.
And people’s choices, they are very different. With about 3 million people, you find very different people with very different tastes. Accommodating that is very hard. It’s easier to focus on custom designs for now.
We’re also working on establishing an online shop so we could ship our products abroad and make more than one piece from each design. But we still we need a lot of work in terms of sizes, because European sizes and Asian sizes are different.
BW: And you three are sisters, do you think that you find inspiration in each other?
M&A: Amazonka says we learn a lot from each other. She thinks a lot, and we sometimes need to wait for her to make a new design, but when it’s done, the design will amaze you. On the other hand, Michel is quicker, and she finds a lot of different designs in a very short period. So, their working style is different. When they come up with an idea, they discuss it, whether this design is okay or not.
BW: So, it’s a collaboration.
M&A: Yes, a collaboration. Michel is good with the silhouettes, and Amazonka is good with the designs on top of it – like the fonts, calligraphy, monograms and stuff like that.
BW: And do you find that it’s easy or hard to be women owning a business in Mongolia, creating your own non-traditional path?
M&A: It’s challenging, but when you’re doing the job that you really love, you overcome all the obstacles and do the job the way that you want to do it. So, it’s more like yes and no. Besides work, there are challenges like having a family and being responsible for their food and well being. So, these are the challenges that women face in Mongolia because in our culture, women are expected to take care of their families. We must juggle taking care of our families while also running our business.
We are married. We all have children. When we do our work, we sometimes have problems with our husbands because we are staying for long periods of time doing our work. But eventually, they understand what we are doing when they see what we’ve created.
BW: And your husbands fully support you?
M&A: They support us. When we began, they financially supported us, they gave us money from their savings. We paid them back.
BW: Last, and maybe the most important question – what do you want the world to know about Mongolian fashion?
M&A: The world already knows that we have cashmere, but we want the world to know that there are different designers who work with different fabrics other than cashmere.
There are many designers here in Mongolia who would perform well with the world designers, maybe as their assistants or working as a creative designer of a fashion house. But when there is inequality of opportunity, when you do not have a chance to perform in the world market, it’s hard. But if there is a chance to send the Mongolian designers abroad to learn from the masters firsthand, then we would probably do better than just working here. But we really don’t know.
We’ll keep doing what we want to do and maybe one day the world will notice. Our biggest dream is to enter the world market, and for our unique Mongolian designs to be recognized in different countries.