Deep in the bowels of Zen Department store located in Bangkok’s Pathum Wan district, a 60 strong group of international buyers and press were dining at Ying Yang Asian Gastro Bar. It was a small plates affair and for good reason, as our host Allan Namchaisiri (the President of Zen) told us. A petite man, wearing a printed Balmain T-shirt and black trousers he announced, “well, we all like to keep an eye on our weight don’t we?” His diamond earring twinkling under the halogen light bulbs, we nodded agreeably as he shared his grand plans for the newly opened restaurant and adjoining ZENSE Gourmet Deck & Lounge. When Preston Schroeder – Retail Director for One&Only resorts – asked to see the wine list in his South African lilt, the response was succinct: “We have two wines sir. White or red?”
Sat at large black communal tables decorated with ceramic vessels and small green plants, we ate tofu popcorn. Throughout dinner, various guests wafted past en route to the dimly lit toilet behind a secret door. None of the diners were more effervescent than Jason Campbell the founder of JCREPORT, who regaled tales of his current living situation in Beijing. The “energy” there was off for him and he would be moving back to the US soonest. He wore rings on every finger and gesticulated gracefully throughout his tale, rolling his vowels like velvet frosting. I sat next to the delightful Japanese journalist Yu Masui who would scratch my bare ankle with his studded Louboutin slipper every time he unfurled his willowy legs.
During pudding of fish shaped tofu jelly, the conversation turned to the week’s schedule of events; a mixture of fashion shows, cultural trips and long lunches designed to show us the best of Thai fashion. I reminded my corner of the table that that there would be an imposed dress code for religious reasons during our visit to the Grand Palace in two days time. No shorts or bare arms. Masui rolled his eyes, stroking his Swarovski crystal Mawi necklace. Fashion crowds don’t do well with dress codes.
The following morning a fleet of vans drove for one hour across a sprawling motorway network into the suburbs of Bangkok. It was the first day of the Bangkok International Fashion and Leather Fair (BIF&BIL). There I met Siriorn Teankaprasith, the creative director behind the contemporary men’s and womenswear label Painkiller, who received guests to her stand wearing a long shirtdress and black thick-rimmed glasses. Her collection of mostly menswear had a distinctly European feel to it; the designer lived in Paris for eight years.
Spring/summer 13 included well-cut trousers, short-sleeved shirts and softer tailored jackets. “Each of my collections is inspired by a book,” Teankaprasith declared, “I wanted to look at the Jungle Book and imagine what it would look like if Mowgli drew all of his friends on his own body.” Prints in the collection seen on cotton trousers, shoes and neat nylon bags were of foxes; eerie peek-a-boo eyes peering through the darkness and jungle leaves. Teankaprasith created the label during her last year of menswear study at ESMOD. After graduation, her two older brothers - one an architect and the other an Illustrator - joined the design team.
The designer Ek Thongprasert who studied in Antwerp at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts is still based there but shows his collection as part of Elle Fashion Week. Internationally he is perhaps better known for his jewellery collaboration with the designer Noon Passama S; their silicone-beaded necklaces are sold in Opening Ceremony in New York and Liberty in London. The ready-to-wear collection Thongprasert showed here was confident, if a little derivative. The photographs of buildings digitally printed onto trousers and silk dresses looked tired. If Thailand’s designers want to appeal on an international level alongside New York, London, Milan and Paris then the references they’re using need to be harder to decipher. The architectural graphic prints of Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto have inspired copyists everywhere. Another collection saw prints noticeably informed by Holly Fulton’s art deco daubings, this time sprawled over button down shirts, diluted onto shift dresses and on cigarette pants.
With countless fashion weeks across the globe vying for international attention (whilst Bangkok Fashion Week was in full swing, India, Iceland and Brazil also held their own) designers working in the corners of the world ought to use this distance to their advantage. They must embrace the opportunity to create fashion that is fresh and unfamiliar to global onlookers. Fashion needs newness.
Later that evening, we were led in single-file across a skywalk that hovered above a major road choked with hot pink taxis in the Siam Square shopping area of Bangkok. We were due to see Greyhound’s spring/summer 2013 show at The Scala, Bangkok's oldest single-screen movie hall erected the same year that James Bond disguised himself as Japanese in You Only Live Twice (1967). As various characters – the kind synonymous with all fashion weeks no matter where you are in the world – piled up outside the venue waiting for their photographs to be taken, Ian Wright, the fashion director of Drapers, ushered me inside in the hope of finding air conditioning. We found the hall to be crammed with branded stalls offering alcohol, doughnuts and ice-lollies and only two large industrial fans.
The collection presented at Scala was called ‘DISASRTER’ (an amalgam of disaster and art) and opened with a heavily printed long shift-dress. The red and pink print was created using a marbling technique. The show notes stated the inspiration behind the collection was the prophesy that the world was to end in 2012 and so the show presented both men’s and womenswear in a strict colour pallet of mostly grey, white and black. Models all had long fringes attached to their heads. The cropped front-box-pleated trousers felt like they had something new to say.
The discovery of a department store was really my highlight of the trip. After only a few hours of sleep, the following morning we were driven to Siam Center, which had re-opened with much fanfare (and two Gossip Girl stars) after extensive renovation in January. As we filed into an area lined with benches and press packs, an elegant woman draped in a Pleats Please by Issey Miyake tunic and jacket handed out her business card, welcoming us to “the Ideaopolis”. She was Mrs. Chadatip Chutrakul, CEO of Siam Piwat Co., Ltd. With a warm smile and international accent, she told us about her inspiration for the store as queues of school children waited to enter the nearby Madame Tussauds behind us.
Chutrakul’s main inspiration for Siam Center was New York’s SoHo district. “It is the only place in the world where all stores from global brands to restaurants blend with SoHo’s distinctive and unique atmosphere while maintaining the concepts, which make them special. I'm bringing some essence of SoHo into Siam Center,” she proudly revealed. Her father first built the shopping center in 1973 and today’s reincarnation aims to compete not only with the hundreds of surrounding malls bursting with luxury goods on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road, but with the rest of the world. Reborn as the shopping center that gathers new and innovative ideas, whilst clutching the edges of her purple jacket, Chutrakul addressed the future of globalisation. Her competition is fierce. "We're no longer a shopping mall. Retailing is not shopping. Retailing is all about experience. This is a place to offer trends,” she beams. “Siam Center - the ideas palace!" We applauded.
Drawn into the multitude of small shops selling clothes and accessories in their own distinctive way, the designers who owned the stores stood nervously inside them, waiting for us to ask them questions. The mix of brands on offer at Siam Center feels uniquely Thai, something Chutrakul has made sure of as 80% of the designers in the center are. I was taken by the label Animal House. It seemed to represent Bangkok’s fashionable youth and the cliques of young men I had seen walking on the hot streets wearing Ray Ban sunglasses, carrying fluro attaché cases. Animal House sells clothes that are young and restless with pop art references, presented in a lo-fi pop up shop setting. Characters are introduced every season and embroidered onto cotton shirts, jersey cardigans and boxer shorts; ‘Madame Red Bow’ – a grey walrus, reclining with a large red bow on her head – wouldn’t have looked out of place in any of the world’s most respected stores.
Lunch at Greyhound Café was brief. Ceaser salad and fried chicken appetizers preceded fried rice noodle with chicken and dried squid. Gelatinous coconut sago with water chestnut served with coconut sherbet followed before we were afforded some shopping time in the center.
The Asava show at Lumpini Hall was over two hours late. Whilst waiting in the heat, we dined on small plates of squid ink noodles with prawns, roast beef with mint sauce and strange sausages with cheese running through the middle (which Masui was quite taken by). Asava’s collection – ‘Vintage # Dots And Stripes’ – featured digital prints using a boat as a main theme, alongside tropical flowers inspired by Maui, as well as a cat print. Offering everything from pleated shorts worn with silk blouses and tailored jackets, to a silk column dress with pussy bow collar and cuffed sleeves in a butterfly pea blue (the same colour as the butterfly pea juice we had been offered for three days running) the clothes themselves okay, however the show needed editing. When it had finished we droopily piled back into the designated VIP area; a black-carpeted space, roped off with a good view of the park’s outdoor gym. There we sipped mineral water whilst watching old men with tanned leather skin hoist themselves up onto high bars.
Entering the same venue for Senada’s autumn/winter 2013 show ‘A Walk in the Forest,’ the mirrored catwalk and multi-coloured strip lighting had gone and been replaced with a scattering of dry leaves. A large piano sat in the middle of the space. Senada’s collection was inspired by the unrequited romance between the Thai silk legend, Jim Thompson and his muse Miss Amelia, set in the dark magical woods of Cameron Highlands. One of Thailand’s longest established labels; the show’s production was slick.
The day before I had met head designer Chanita Preechawittayakul’s sister at BIF&BIL who told me that Preechawittayakul actually gradated from science studies. The collection was elegant and embellishments such as tulle embroidery and snakeskin panels were seen on skirts as well as long oversized jacket suits. Pencil skirts had longer mesh nylon sewn onto the bottom and sportier fabrics were made into shorts. The main colours were black, white, grey and brown with some tropical dark green to contrast the signature black and green forest prints. Throughout the show, a man dressed as a wolf (complete with furry face and ears) played various melancholic songs on the piano, ending on a rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As the lights were thrown back on after the show, Xavier Latapie of Modem Editions rumbled, “…he looks like Chewbacca.”
On Friday, I was woken up by the telephone in my hotel room. It was 10am and I had almost missed the van that was taking us on our tour of the magnificent Grand Palace, which I had visited once before on a family holiday fifteen years ago. We all melted in the heat as the relentless sun’s rays beat down on a weary-eyed international crew. Jason Campbell walked around the whole temple wearing a pink scarf wrapped around his head gasping at the temple’s beauty. The rest of us mostly tried to ignore each other in the hope of preserving energy, some wielding iPads to take photos of the embellished walls as others mopped their foreheads with their designer sleeves. We peeked at the Emerald Buddha who is only 26 inches tall and carved from a single jade stone and sits at the top of a large shrine. Our tour guide explained that the Buddha is dressed differently corresponding with the summer, winter and rainy seasons. It was too hot for us to appreciate this news.
The gold coated pillars and broken teacup decorated rooftops winced at us as throngs of tourists pushed by barefoot. A traditional Thai lunch at Baa Kanitha restaurant could not have come sooner. There we ate fried chicken wrapped with pandanus leaf. Jeri Collett – fashion editor at Robb Report – was on the trip from Singapore along with her sister, the fashion director of Esquire Singapore (and Sartorialist regular) Janie Cai. They taught us how to eat Meang Kam, which loosely translates as ‘food wrapped in leaves to bite’. A green ceramic dish placed in front of us included fresh waxy chaphlu leaves and several small bowls filled with roasted coconut shavings, shallots, fresh chillies, ginger and lime with its peel. Wrapping up little parcels, we added roasted peanuts and dried shrimp before putting them into our mouths.
The last show we attended on our five-day tour was for Kloset. Established in 2001, the label “embraces the playfulness of Thai culture” so in this spirit, the show opened with a model pulling a large multi-coloured poodle down the catwalk. The crowd made the sort of appreciative noises heard when dogs appear at a Mulberry show. As the model edged towards us, the dog’s lead slipped off, leaving it free to roam the catwalk alone whilst the model carried on walking. Obviously distressed by the loud booming music that was throbbing from the floor, up through our feet and into the pit of our stomachs, no one came to the dog’s aid.
The collection of girlish whimsical clothes in pastel colours and light fabrics were worn with Perspex bow headbands. It was K-pop cool for sure but the show’s production lacked finesse. After four looks had made their catwalk appearance, the free roaming poodle then took to the side of the catwalk to release a large poo on the iridescent floor. The show still going on around him: the air was thick with gasps as the seated audience with the right view cheered this bizarre vision with phones in hand sending frantic Facebook posts and hash tagging Tweets. The poodle dashed backstage of his own accord after he had finished, terrified and humiliated.
Following this tableau, a second model came out clutching an exotic short hair cat, which had been dyed blue and a third was accessorised with a poodle puppy, this time clutched to her chest. Kloset’s collection was right for its market; the clothes were young and in sugary pastel colours with a cute ribbon print detail. They had a flirtatious flit to them. The show was, as you can imagine, not unlike the rest of our time in the city. Unforgettable.