Meet our Friday Muse Phway Su Aye, CEO and creative director of luxury fragrance brand Gabar

18 April 2024
By Fashion Quarterly

From navigating tech start-ups in New York to founding a business in isolation, learn more about how this week's Friday Muse is showcasing Myanmar on the world stage, placing her Southeast Asian heritage at the epicentre of luxury fragrance.

Phway Su Aye, CEO and creative director of Gabar. Supplied.

In Matthew McConaughey’s best-selling memoir Greenlights, he speaks to the magic that arises when you combine innate ability with ‘giddy-up’. Quite often we have one, and simply have to work on the other to achieve a level of success. It’s rare to see intelligence, grit, beauty and unwavering kindness cumulate in one person, but as you continue to read this week’s Muse interview, you’ll soon discover that Phway Su Aye, co-founder of Gabar, is living proof that you can be, and possess, all of those qualities while remaining completely down to earth. Phway grew up in the provincial New Zealand town of Palmerston North before taking her innate abilities (and her giddy-up) to New York where she would be pushed –  professionally and personally – coming out the other side with fragrance brand that she has bore her heart and soul into. Below, Phway speaks candidly with Fashion Quarterly about her career, the significance of female mentorship, and how break downs can lead to breakthroughs. 

In coversation with Phway Su Aye, Gabar CEO and creative director

Please tell us a bit about you, your background, education and your career to date.

My name is Phway Su Aye, co-founder of mind and body scent brand Gabar. I was born in Myanmar, grew up in the beautiful Aotearoa, then spent my first working years in the States, before calling London home. I always say my early career was a series of experiments that got me closer and closer to where I needed to be. I first tried my hand at the New York corporate world, but really did not enjoy it, before going to work at Sotheby’s art auction house, where I got my first taste at a creative business (I was assisting the CEO). Instead of heading to business school at the time, a female mentor urged me to “go build other people’s things”, so I did just this – went to join a tech startup, before helping build a hemp and wellbeing brand, then finally having the guts, resources and skills to start Gabar – my complete heart and soul!

When did you launch Gabar and what was the process like?

I launched Gabar with my co-founder Susan Wai Hnin in October of 2021 – we’d been working at it since early 2020 when the pandemic was unfolding. The process was exhilarating, messy, challenging but hyper growth-producing! We started the brand in such a scary and turbulent time, with us two tossed across the world (I was in New York and she was in Myanmar) and naturally isolated from everyone else. I think the isolation ultimately helped us in the end – to tune out all the noise and build exactly what we wanted, without distraction. This period was also really mentally and spiritually challenging for me. I was holed up for almost two months in New York, completely alone, having missed the window to go back and quarantine with my family overseas, and as a result, navigating severe anxiety and panic attacks. I’d always been deeply invested in holistic health and exploring different healing modalities, but in that time, left to my own devices, I had to figure out how to help myself. Gabar became a bit of a vessel and reflection of this period of extreme inward-looking and personal development, and helped keep me (and Susan as well) sane and tethered. The birth of Gabar was tied to a lot of our own growing up in that sense.

Gabar. Supplied.

What are you seeking to do differently with Gabar?

For Susan and I both, we’d always wanted to bring our heritage story to the world stage while also building a brand for a next generation of fragrance, beauty and fashion consumers. We both have incredibly vibrant creative interests, and Gabar serves as a conduit of sorts and also something through which we can talk about these older, for lack of a better word – spiritual – values that are deeply embedded in our Southeast Asian heritage, while showcasing them in super fresh and contemporary ways. With Gabar, we’re a scent and beauty brand at heart, but we’re also seeking to be more than that – to be a movement and community that’s attracting a certain vanguard of people, while also sharing forward values that we so deeply believe in.

Is there a story behind the brand name?

Gabar means “world” in Burmese (the language of Myanmar). It reflects this idea of globalism and a coming together of different people and ideas, and this overarching effort of chipping away at an old world value system to make way for a new one.

How has growing up in New Zealand influenced your work with Gabar?

I owe so much of my childhood to New Zealand, and no doubt so much of Kiwi culture and aesthetics have played a huge role in the Gabar story. I’ve always had a huge entrepreneurial spirit. I grew up in Palmerston North and my very first “official” business was me going to local op-shops and vintage stores, finding hidden gems, then doing photoshoots with my sister to then sell on TradeMe (unsure if people are still using the platform!). In high school, I also started a reclaimed bag business with my friend (my mother volunteered with Burmese refugees at the time and would bring back discarded but beautiful fabric scraps from their group projects), and also dabbled in a bunch of other quirky ideas. New Zealand was an amazing place to grow up in because the overall environment was so supportive and peaceful, that it helped kids be kids, experiment, be silly and have fun. All these creative and experimental impulses run through Gabar today.

You’re currently stocked in London’s heritage luxury department store Liberty’s and have an online Metaverse shopping experience. What have you gleaned from the changing retail landscape?

We’ve been so proud to be stocked at Liberty London and call them our main London home! That said, we’ve also been excited about new ways of doing retail and engaging with our vibrant set of customers, and the Metaverse experience (and other technology-led experiences) have allowed us to experiment and do just this. There will always be a place for traditional retail, and with a category like fragrance, you have to have physical locations for customers to access your scents. However, we’ve been so surprised by how expansive and interesting online experiences can be, and how many of the things we are craving in real life can be explored in different ways online. For the next generation at least, the retail landscape is changing such that people are looking for more – whether that be social activity, community, connection, or other layers of creative experience. I get most interested in how the online and offline can complement each other in creating more immersive brand worlds and pulling customers through a more well-rounded experience, than something that’s purely commerce and transactional.

Phway Su Aye, CEO and creative director of Gabar. Supplied.

Phway on all things fragrance

What are some things we’re not talking about or considering when it comes to choosing our fragrance but should be?

At Gabar, we see fragrance as primarily an expression of creativity and self, but there can also be a huge mood-shifting component. When people ask how they should pick a fragrance, I always say it’s completely a question of their personal taste and it’s actually so gratifying to go down a journey of figuring out what scents and scent profiles actually grip or move them. Aside from the brand and packaging, and whether or not others have said good things, it’s more exciting I think for people to consider how the fragrance actually makes them feel – firstly, does it make them feel good? Are they accessing a new side to their personality? Does the scent make a statement or help convey a story about them? I love to consider fragrance as an endeavor in personality access or extension.

In your opinion, what are the hallmarks of a quality fragrance?

Overall mood and ethos, complexity, sillage/longevity and whether it makes someone feel something new.

Which scents are you gravitating to at the moment?

Anything cozy, cashmeric, milky, creamy or skin-like. Gabar very recently launched its new Urban collection of fragrances – 04 (NOLITA) Rise and 05 (LUDLOW) Lull, an ode to morning and evening rituals in a city – and they are a perfect blend of soothing, skin-like, cozy and expansive. I’ve been wearing them both religiously, layered and not, and feel like I’m consistently wrapped up in a warm hug, while also feeling expanded and inspired.

Phway Su Aye, CEO and creative director of Gabar. Supplied.

Phway on business advice and what's next...

Who or what inspires you creatively?

Nature. Long walks. Doing soul-filling activities and just having a good laugh. I find myself creatively at my best when I’ve really filled my own cup (especially with things well outside of work).

What advice do you have for our readers who want to pursue a career in fragrance or launch their own business?

I know it’s so cliche to say “go for it” (and I also understand just going for it can be such a huge privilege), but I really do think if you have a big hunch or desire about starting something of your own, as cheesy as it sounds, the world will figure out ways to help you down that path if you take a step forward, even if it’s just a small step! I always say to new entrepreneurs that if taking the full leap is too difficult, then to start doing small bits at a time, and letting that path form for you. If you’re in a day job but are dreaming about starting your own fashion brand for instance, start by designing things on the side, creating a mini social media presence, and just starting to live out how that brand would be. It also helps to assume that founder persona so to speak, and start doing the things you would do as that new persona, even if just for small parts of your day. The more you bravely turn towards your dreams, I really think that the right people and plans present themselves. It’s not easy at all (it took me SO many years to take the leap), but doing so in small steps with intentionality can help.

What’s next for you? Personally and professionally?

It’s a big year for me personally and professionally! First of all, I’m very excitingly getting married this Summer in Portugal so I’m focused on wedding shenanigans while launching new Gabar babies – we have two new collections (five perfumes) launching this year, while we start to head into the EU and other places globally (very hopefully in New Zealand soon!). I’m so excited for the world of Gabar to continue expanding and for us to start reaching new corners of the globe.

Gabar 05 (LUDLOW) Lull Eau De Parfum.
Gabar 04 (NOLITA) Rise Eau De Parfum.

Quickfire questions:

Describe who the Gabar customer is in three words: creative, conscious, aesthetic-loving.
The first fragrance I wore (and loved)… Chloe’s Love.
Three items I would take to a desert island… a torch, a good book, and a Gabar perfume (may as well smell good while waiting it out on the island!)
The best book I’ve read recently… Chess Story by Stefan Zweig – it was short, gripping and well-told.
The best style advice I’ve ever received… Literally wear anything you want, especially if it rubs others the wrong way. Then at least you know you’re making a statement.
My style icon is… Nana Osaki (anime), anything Sandy Liang right now, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Iris Law, The Olsen Twins & Kiko Mizuhara! I tend to have super all over the place style loves.
This season I’m saving on… Ubers/Bolts!
The most cherished item in my home is… my passed down vintage Cartier watch.
My guilty pleasure is… Asian sweets and snacks.


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