Unlocking Memories with Gabar by Phway Su Aye & Susan Wai Hnin

April Ru Wan

Certain whiffs of scents can unlock precious memories tucked in the back of our minds for years. Gabar, a London-based fragrance brand founded by a pair of best friends, does the opposite. Instead of allowing scents to remind them of a particular era, they create scents that purposely evoke their shared memories of the past. Phway Su Aye and Susan Wai Hnin co-founded the brand in 2020, just as the pandemic was brewing. Not only did the duo face challenges against COVID-19, but they were also heartbroken with the political state of their homeland, Myanmar, at the time. Phway, the creative director, shares that during that time, the founders were both working vigorously to campaign and raise funds for the oppressed and “it was both terrifying and heart-wrenching but also so invigorating and inspiring.” The first release of Gabar fragrances was a love letter to Myanmar, with three scents: Float, Ground, and Swim, inspired by the country’s Inle Lake, the capital of Bagan and the jungles of Hpa-An. With the recent release of Lull (Ludlow) and Rise (Nolita), Phway and Susan bring us back to their life in the big city of Manhattan. Where they went through the growing pains of their 20s and tried their best to figure things out. Scroll through our interview below to learn more about Phway’s journey as a creative director in London and which fragrance she picked for her wedding day.

  • April Wan: Both you and your co-founder Susan had careers in finance before branching out and launching Gabar. Could you share with us the lead up to this decision? Was there a specific moment?
    Phway Su Aye:
    Sure thing. Both Susan and I started off in finance as our first ever jobs, but it was sort of a world we got pulled into vs. something we both consciously wanted to do! I studied art history in college but had always loved beauty, fashion and business. My first ever internship was doing PR for Stella McCartney. Susan studied economics and she, too, had always been obsessed with the world of beauty (she was the friend everyone turned to for any and every skincare advice!). I was definitely curious about the corporate world, but after about a year in, I felt my creative interests were too stifled, and so I looked for another path. I left my role and started shadowing a friend at his new gallery in Lower East Side, New York, then found a first job at Sotheby’s assisting the CEO (a very Devil Wears Prada kind of role!) and the rest flowed from there. I’d always had a huge entrepreneurial streak, and was always starting things all through my childhood and teens. My first ever “businesses” were a vintage fashion business and one where I was making and selling bags out of reclaimed fabrics, in high school. After Sotheby’s, instead of going to business school, a female mentor at the time encouraged me to go join startups and try my luck at building things even if not yet my own, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing — I joined a technology startup, then worked on a first wellbeing-related business which very quickly led to linking up again with Susan and finding the inspiration and passion to start Gabar. Gabar is literally an amalgamation of so many creative interests for us, bridging the worlds of scent, beauty, art, wellbeing & the digital, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.
AW: You’re the co-founder and creative director of Gabar, the brand is infused with elements from your home, Myanmar. It feels like a love letter to home, how did you develop the brand’s ethos based on your roots?
PA: Ah, you phrased this so well! It definitely is a love letter to Myanmar in so many ways, and we love that our heritage still runs through our brand, even with its new developments and internationalisation. When we started Gabar, we both knew that we wanted it to reference our roots in a deeper way. Given all that was happening back home in Myanmar, politically, we felt it important to not only reference the country and shed light on the current tragic situation there, but also share another side of the country with the world also — its beauty, diversity and the inherent warmth and peacefulness of the people. Our brand launched just after a military coup had taken place in early 2021. In response, Susan and I were both caught in a flurry of activity earlier that year — so many Myanmar youth from across the world gathered both online and offline to help with the resistance, raising funds, organising petitions and protests, all in the face of persecution of either us or our loved ones — it was both terrifying and heart wrenching but also so invigorating and inspiring. That energy of youth and activism was also a huge part of the initial launch of our brand, and we like to think it’s still an undercurrent for us — this fight for a better world, taking inspiration from the people of Myanmar and their own resilience.
AW: Gabar also launched face and body oils, a personal favourite of mine! It has a blend of Lotus flower extracts which symbolises beauty through struggle as the flower grows from the bottom of a muddy lake, landing beautifully on the surface of the water. What made the team want to expand outside of fragrance and into skincare?
Our (TOUCH) scented oils are absolutely beautiful! Originally, when we started the brand, we weren’t yet sure whether we would proceed more into skincare and beauty (as Susan and I both had always been deeply passionate about the world of beauty at large), or stick within fragrance fully. Our scented oils were a way to explore an in-between, keeping scent at the centre but at the same time, exploring the world of natural skincare — the oils are all vegan and made with rare but simple botanicals, like Lotus and Orchid Floral Extract. We also loved the idea of seeing how we could apply our concepts of encouraging self-awareness and reflection but in a more bodily or physical way — scent can do this to some degree, but there’s something about touch and the skin and body that can really bring someone powerfully into the present. There’s also a huge element of self-love and gratitude giving that can go into a routine like applying oil — you’re literally feeling your own skin and super aware of this “thing” that’s holding us all together and our sort of only vehicle in this world. It reminds us to really take care of it. We’d love to continue exploring these ideas with other scent or beauty tools and rituals, focusing on these moments of peace and presence, whether you’re spritzing something or applying it on you. 
AW: Rituals are a huge part of both of your cultures in Myanmar. Can you share some daily or weekly beauty rituals that keep you feeling fresh for the summer heat?
PS: Rituals are a huge part of Myanmar culture! I know this one’s slightly over-talked about right now, but I have an almost daily ritual of jade rolling, but with an ice cold roller (I keep it in my fridge!). I’m someone that suffers a lot from inflammatory issues, and my face will regularly get puffy, especially when my body is stressed or I’m on the brink of getting sick. Massaging my face and getting the blood circulation going with my jade roller does wonders for puffiness as well as generally encouraging healing and skin cell renewal. As a weekly beauty ritual, I also love to take cold showers (or better yet go to the saunas and cold plunge). Again, it encourages blood circulation and reduces inflammation, while also giving a pretty fun dose of endorphins! When my girlfriends and I end up at the sauna and cold plunge there, too, we’re usually in fits of laughter for most of it. I’m a big believer in doing things that can encourage the body’s natural healing processes.
AW: The new launch of Gabar fragrances takes a leap away from the references of your childhoods and dips into the early adulthood when you both spent time in New York City. With fragrances Rise and Lull named after Nolita and Ludlow, it reflects the brands growth alongside both founder’s journeys. Can you share some memories and references to these new fragrances?
You’ve nailed this entirely. Our new fragrances, 04 (NOLITA) Rise and 05 (LUDLOW) Lull take inspiration from Susan’s and my time growing up in New York City, spending our 20s completely in the throes of what a big urban setting has to offer. Aside from the turbulence of 20s life — the emotional ups and the downs and all the messiness of growing up! — the fragrances capture, too, these big moments of stillness and reprieve in a city. When I think about Rise and Lull, I think about very early morning walks along the Hudson. I think about those early evenings sitting on the steps of my tiny stoop of my apartment in Nolita, with the whir of the city buzzing around me, or of lying on my rooftop on yoga mats with my roomie, watching the sun come down around us and the sun’s rays hitting the buildings in all these magical angles. Away from family, so many of us had to make family of our friendships, and carve out all of these spaces within this concrete jungle that felt like home for us, and the intention of Rise and Lull is to capture those moments completely. New York City pushed and pulled us but ultimately helped us grow up and into our 30s and for that, we’re forever grateful — for the messy bits and all!
AW: You recently got married, congratulations! Can you tell us about your morning ritual on the special day as well as which fragrance you chose?
PS: Thank you! I’m still on cloud nine. I was honestly so giddy and full of butterflies on the morning of the wedding that I completely forgot to eat or have any semblance of a morning ritual that would be calming or centering. It wasn’t until the flurry of the morning had passed and all my bridesmaids were ready, and I’d also put on my dress that I finally had a moment to myself. I do this a lot, but I literally took myself away from everyone and sat on the top of an outdoor staircase overlooking the grounds of the hotel we were getting married in — I tried to hug my knees for a long moment (wedding dress and all) and take absolutely everything in with all my senses, knowing how fast this entire day and evening was going to pass. For me, these rituals of sensing and presence are so, so important, especially in helping soak things in. For my special day, I wore 05 Lull (I’d worn 04 Rise for the day before). It’s a fragrance that’s so cozy, comforting and cocooning, it felt exactly like the kind of energy I wanted to envelop myself in for the big day — I remember spraying my entire wedding gown in the fragrance and getting whiffs of it all through the ceremony and the party after and feeling so lit up inside. I’m excited that this fragrance captured the memory of such a big moment for me — of me and my new husband, but also of all the love we felt from everyone around us. It was magic.
AW: What’s next for Gabar?
PS: More fragrances for sure! We have another collection of fragrances in the works — our Deities Collection — which is set to launch end of this year. The scents reference Southeast Asian mythological deities, and are all about the idea of accepting and channeling our baser energies for good. The scents are much more intense and powerful, and really add to our current collection in a unique way. On top of this, Gabar’s focused right now on new geographies, and starting to expand outwards, especially to the US and the EU. We’ve got some first exciting stockists out there with more announcements to be made soon, and are planning a bigger launch back in New York also in the Fall. For us, we get so excited about bringing more and more new audiences into the fold, and revealing more layers of our brand story. We can’t wait for the years to come!