Over the last 20 years the Bangkok fashion design scene has outgrown its domestic market and found a comfortable and lucrative connection with international buyers. Time magazine first took note in a 2006 article entitled “Land of Styles,” proclaiming Bangkok had landed “on the style map.” Only two years earlier, Paris-based fashion critic Diane Pernet had attended Bangkok Fashion Week, saying afterwards that said she was struck by the amazing enthusiasm of Thai designers. “You don’t see anything like that in Paris or Milan,” Pernet told the press at the time.
Bangkok’s increasingly vibrant fashion scene can be traced to a convergence of two influential sequences of events. First came a purely artistic flow emanating from a handful of creative Thais who had studied design abroad in the 1980s and 1990s – financed by Bangkok families whose fortunes increased rapidly during Thailand’s boom years – and returned to Bangkok, where they set up their own small, independent fashion houses.
Rising incomes in this era, along with increased exposure to global trends, also helped create a critical mass of Bangkok consumers with a genuine interest in fashion and the means to indulge that interest.
The second and more powerful influence came via the “Asian flu” of 1997, a regional economic crisis that brought Thailand’s economy to its knees. The Thai baht halved in value overnight, and all of a sudden imported rags were beyond the reach of almost everyone earning a Thai salary. Even the Bangkok rich were forced to tighten their Gucci belts, as flea markets in Thonglor sold repossessed Mercedes autos for a pittance.
All of a sudden lots of rack space became available in Bangkok department stores, space that had to be hung with something other than imported clothes and accessories.
During the years that followed the crash, Bangkok fashion designers steadily came into their own. Greyhound led the way with its original Siam Center boutique, which was in the beginning little more than a side passion for advertising executive-turneddesigner Bhanu Inkawat. His designs favoured clean, contemporary lines and comfortable fabrics. Seeing the future clearly Bhanu closed his ad agency in 2003 to make Greyhound a full-time occupation. Today Greyhound’s style empire encompasses a dozen house designers, a chain of clothing stores in Bangkok with franchises in Taipei and Manila, and outlets in Paris, New York, Moscow, Tokyo and a number of other style capitals around the world. A second brand called Playhound offered more flamboyant colours and designs, appealing to more youthful buyers.
Kloset, a name now widely identified with contemporary Thai fashion both inside and outside of Thailand, opened in 2001. Founder Mollika Ruangkritya, who as a young girl made her own toys and dolls, emphasised the handmade element of her designs. She was among the first of a new generation who leaned on the main strengths of traditional Thai design and manufacturing. Over the last decade her unique creations of hand-stitched and embroidered fabrics adorned with lace and ribbon have become extremely popular among Bangkok celebs and high-society women.
Another Bangkok fashion house expanding rapidly overseas is Senada Theory, created by designer Chanita Preechawitayakul in 1992. Mixing vintage charm, ethnic chic and street funk, Senada Theory is doing extremely well among fashionistas in New York, London, Paris, Milan and Tokyo. Chanita has also become the darling of fashion bloggers abroad, dubbed “Designer to Watch” by The Social Code blog and “Designer I love” in Le Belle Laide blog.
Katy Perry, Leighton Meester, Rachel Bilson, Zooey Deschanel, Paris Hilton and Beyonce Knowles have had their fancies tickled by Sretsis, a 12-year-old label which embodies the collective spirit of its three founding sisters, Pim, Kly and Matina Sukhahuta. Inspired by classic romanticism, the tight-knit sisters at Sretsis (‘sisters’ spelt backwards) work with silk, chiffon, satin and large prints to create passion and feminity that work just as well at a private dinner as on the red carpet.
Sretsis’ flagship Gaysorn Plaza store is so popular that opening hours are often kept short to prevent stock from selling out. The sisters have recently opened a store in Tokyo and also have stockists in the USA, France, UAE, Kuwait, Singapore China and Australia.
Meanwhile Central Saint Martins grad Disaya Sorakraikitikul helms Disaya, another Bangkok fashion house that has earned international recognition, producing playful yet sophisticated ready-to-wear clothing and jewellery that is “flirty in design and luxurious in fabrication,” according to company branding. Today the label is found in more than 20 countries at such esteemed retailers as Henri Bendels, Le Bon Marche, Seibu, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Disaya’s celebrity client roster rivals that of Sretsis, with marquee names that include Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Osbourne, Agyness Deyn and Camilla Belle.