Long road to success

People often react in one of two ways when faced with obstacles preventing them from realising a dream - either they give up and move on to another goal or they fight for it all the more.

Celebrated Thai-American fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul, 41, did the latter. He held onto his design ambition even when it did not seem likely to take off.

In town for Singapore Fashion Week to present his fall/winter 2015 line - a romantic collection with mixed textures, earthy tones and layering - last Saturday, the New York-based designer reveals that it was a circuitous route getting to where he is today.

Transplanted to Omaha, Nebraska, at the age of 11 when his mother re-married, he traded bustling Bangkok for a more rural setting.

Excelling in business in high school, he took up a scholarship to study business at Boston University, despite his creative inclinations.

Stints in production and merchandising departments at J.Crew preceded his four-year stint as writer and editor at Harper's Bazaar magazine. Taking design classes at Parsons The New School for Design at night, he sought out in-house design work at fashion brands but was turned down because of his lack of experience.

He launched the Thakoon fashion label in 2004, in part to realise a long-held design dream and in part because no one else would give him the opportunity.

"If you don't get what you want, create what you want," says Panichgul during the interview with Urban.

And created he has. The designer has made a name for himself in the fashion world with his feminine, modern and wearable aesthetic and skilful use of prints and colour.

In 2006, he was the runner-up of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)/Vogue Fashion Fund, getting support from Vogue editor and industry titan Anna Wintour. He also appeared in the 2009 R.J. Cutler-directed Vogue documentary The September Issue, getting the famously frosty editor's stamp of approval.

On a larger cultural stage, the Thakoon brand achieved new levels of fame when United States First Lady Michelle Obama - a fan who has worn many of his pieces - wore a Thakoon dress at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the night her husband Barack Obama was announced as the Democratic presidential nominee.

It was a moment to remember for Panichgul, whose brand was not yet five years old at the time.

During a talk at Lasalle College of the Arts earlier last week, he candidly admits that "it really freaked me out" to see Mrs Obama in his red, abstract print dress.

Being in the United States has definitely given his clothes an American element, he adds. "There's a nonchalant attitude that a lot of Americans have - an idea that you're confident enough not to care."

It infuses his work as a designer with a more open, carefree quality compared to how it might have evolved in the hierarchical, more respectful Thai culture, he says. But Asian influences also pervade the Thakoon brand.

"The sense of colours that I use, the bohemian quality in the clothes - I think that has a lot to do with the locale and the tropics," says the bachelor, reflecting on his Thai-American heritage.

"Especially in the beginning, there was a sense of refinement, of propriety, but twisted up with American daringness. It's a mix of the two."

Starting out as a more mature designer in his 30s, though the only outwardly visible signs of his age are the flecks of grey in his closely cropped hair, may have also contributed in part to his steady climb.

The Thakoon brand celebrated its 10th anniversary last November, trading its "emerging" monicker for a well-deserved "established" one.

The new phase brings with it new milestones for the label, which introduced a line of bags for the first time with its spring/summer 2015 collection. The leather bags come in quiet, classic silhouettes with unexpected detailing, such as a braided zipper pull on a duffel.

"To grow into other categories, you have to have a good foundation of your immediate category. We sell clothes," he says, on why it took 10 years to debut carryalls.

"A lot of brands sell accessories and they just have clothes on the runway. That's the difference - we sell a lot of clothes actually and that's something I'm very proud of as a fashion designer."

Setting up standalone stores is another goal, probably first in New York and then beyond. "I'm trying to grow the label into a lifestyle brand."

On the regional front, he says the show in Singapore last week was a nice homecoming as it was the first time he did a "proper fashion show in the area".

The US is still his biggest market and while he is well-known in Thailand - he has worked with the Thai government and royal family in giving talks and seminars - his brand does not have a big presence there.

"Thais don't buy much ready-to-wear in general. I think it's more of a luxury accessories-based city. But I think it's changing and I'm seeing more interest in ready-to-wear," he adds.

In Asia, South Korea is a big market for the brand. The fashionable country loves the Thakoon aesthetic, he says, and the brand has taken off there. He is also creative director at Japanese pearl brand Tasaki, a post he has held since 2009.

"It was such a random ask, but I felt like it was a blank slate I could turn into something," he says of the brand, whose chief executive had come from a background with luxury conglomerate LVMH and wanted to inject Tasaki with a more fashion-forward flavour.

"I had never done jewellery, but I was up for the challenge. To work with precious stones is kind of amazing."

One of his biggest strengths, aside from his eye for fashion, may be his commercial awareness. Far from being a fashion snob who turns his nose up at mass labels, he has embraced the chance to collaborate.

As part of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund programme in 2006, he collaborated on a white shirt collection with casualwear brand Gap.

In 2009, he created a line for mass retailer Target's Go International collection, which has tied up with brands such as Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler.

Last month, it was announced that Panichgul would collaborate with fast fashion retailer Kohl's on a travel-themed, London-inspired collection, out this fall.

"It's a good way to understand mass market consumption, which I find very interesting," he says. "It's one thing to do luxury goods and reach a certain audience, but it's another thing when a wider pool of people can buy what you're doing. It's a sociological interest for me as well."

The cheaper price point - he is highly aware that $400 for a T-shirt is a luxury purchase - helps him reach new and younger audiences, who may one day become shoppers of the main line.

As he goes forward, he says he will continue to make wearability a big priority.

"As a fashion designer, I have to make clothes for people to wear. Not everyone has a six-foot frame. It's just that simple," he says. "There are designers who do more artistic things, but for me, this is what works."


This article was first published on May 22, 2015.
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