It’s 6.30pm on a rainless August night at Bangkok’s ‘posh night market’, Suan Lum Night Bazaar, where we’ve come in a last ditch attempt to buy something that warrants, “Bought this in Bangkok. Really cool Thai designer.” Past the fish massage stand, where two red-faced tourists slip off their knockoff Birkenstocks and plunge their swollen toes into a tank crammed with orange Nemos that will nibble away their dead skin, we see it. A white batwing sleeve, flapping above a floor fan.
Steps from the ensuite-size booth sandwiched between two deserted aisles we place bets – knockoff Comme des Garcons. Does Reality Studio sell in Thailand? The pale latte wrappy-drapey thing, gotta be Margiela. Why didn’t anybody tell us about this place, instead of sending us off to the putrid polyester-filled Chatuchak?
Within seconds we’ve relieved te racks of half their stock. “Who designs this stuff?” we ask a figure slumped, head down in the corner, struggling not to drop a forehead-high pile of clothes.
“Yes,” says the tiny Thai shop keeper, rising from his wooden seat to pull a metre-wide curtain along an overhead rail.
The shopman-slash-designer, who has more than a touch of Akira Isogawa about him – deep creases from years of embarrassed smiles, round glasses about two seasons too early, and head-to-toe black cotton – looks at the racks carrying avant-garde designs with perfect drapes, folds and tucks in pure cotton and silk, and shrugs.
“Just small business.”
Indeed, the God Bless You stand is Peerapun Tranerattapit’s only retail point of sale, and it’s no stroll in Lumphini park. Survival demands his presence at a tiny booth in an airless shed from 6 to 12 seven nights a week, to catch the fashion-forward wheat in the fake Tiffany bracelet-hunting chaff. Even then, each sale is a battle between he and haggle-happy westerners who refuse to pay prices that top out at AUD36 for an exquisitely-made cotton/silk dress that would have the Met Gala crowd choking on their Beluga. A Garcons-esque pure cotton jersey cocoon top is AUD16.
Peerapun’s is just one of many stories of unsung fashion greatness in this city, where marble super malls neighbour slums drowning in uncollected waste, and test-driven luxury cars overtake tuk tuks.
While the Thai Government is backing a number of programs to put local fashion on the world map, and link-heavy websites such as Thaicatwalk.com and Thailandfashion.net showcase a few savvy labels with Bunka pedigrees and baht to spare, the official channels neglect many designers whose creativity more than matches their agency-represented counterparts.
Peerapun’s heartly laugh at the suggestion of a website reflects the prevailing attitude to what is essential for any modern marketing, and begins to explain the failure of many fashion designers to rise to the level of world-famous Thai labels Sretsis, Senada, Fly Now and Kloset. Even the card we collect from a young man with perfect English at t-shirts and accessories label Green Dragon House leads to a defunct MySpace account.
When Gi launches her new collection next month, it will not be in a tide of blinding flashes in Siam Paragon, but heralded with a sign in her 2m x 3m ‘1606 Shop’ booth at the end of an out-of-the-way aisle abutting a darkened alley.
“And I will get a website!” the petite 20-something designer exclaims, reaching for a pen to write our email address in her Tesco notebook.
Wholesale is where it’s at for designers without a ‘name’. The sheer volume of marketplaces in Bangkok – most suburbs have their own retail tent cities measuring acres – ensures steady demand for product. A suite of labels including Brio, Mama Don’t Cry and Mama Say Zeed turns up in stands everywhere from Sukhumvit Road to Silom. But this promiscuity presents its own problems. While it can generate a decent income, it also guarantees that a designer will never join the likes of Sretsis on the world stage. The intellectual property is valueless.
Gi is genuinely shocked that we return, as we promised, to buy a pure cotton shirt with perfectly-executed pleating and ’winged’ sleeves seen in the European ss10 collections. And that we agree to pay 500 baht (AUD17.50), when wholesale customers would take 20 pieces at the price. We hope she puts it towards web hosting, and that one day we’ll be the proud owners of ‘vintage 1606’. (Bought it in Bangkok. Really cool Thai designer.)
Other ’labels’ worth seeking out in Thailand’s unofficial fashion landscape
Brio – oversized chambray shirts with batwing sleeves and on-trend dye techniques
Every Perfect – oversized jersey with interesting button details (sensing a trend?)
Green Dragon House – unique t-shirt designs & accessories
Now Or Never – hip asymmetric jewellery & accessories, and t-shirts, all limited edition
Four Fiftyseven Co – hints at Balmain, margiela, and other designers du jour
Mama Say Zeed – oversized jersey & pale denim pieces, at suan lum bazaar & soi 4, siam square
Mama Don’t Cry – a frill here, a shoulder detail there, all on-trend
December No 5 – more oversized, Japanese-influenced styles
Art Self (www.art-self.com) – hand-painted & died tanks, tank dresses & tees in pure cotton
Exhibit – ‘upmarket’ brand with well-made sack dresses, drapy things & shirts, in a proper branded tore on Soi 4, Siam Square