While the Spring/Summer 2013 season rolled out as per normal at Paris Fashion Week (though with arguably more scandal than usual), a niche group of buyers, press and socialites flocked to Bangkok, Thailand to witness the very first Asian Couture Week.
Over four evenings, seven designers from Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Japan and France gathered to show off their best and latest creations, in an event seeded from a desire to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s 80th anniversary and her dedication to promoting local Thai silk (the handwoven, luxurious fabric with its unique lustre is one of the country’s greatest exports). ACW’s execution fell onto the hands of Frank Cintamani, the Indonesian-Chinese entrepreneur behind Fidé Multimedia who has devoted the last three years to building fashion events around Asia, promising it to be an event of ample ambition.
‘Most people can’t name more than five Asian designers in fashion, so we’re here to fix that problem,’ Cintamani declares. Last year, the International Chairman of ACW flew eight grand couturiers from Paris to Singapore under the tutelage of Didier Grumbach, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture’s president, in an unprecedented affair to celebrate and instill a tangible couture culture in the East. Providing a support system for independent talents who would otherwise find Asia a difficult, sterile place for experimenting with artistic ideas has been his long-term aim.
Showing diverse high fashion against the city of Bangkok with its rough and ready lights and buzzing markets suggested an interesting juxtaposition. But it was a grander affair, as the ballrooms of luxury department store Siam Paragon, organising partners of ACW, were transformed into an abstract set of the Thai King’s Grand Palace for the catwalk, and a whimsical garden cocktail bar to keep the stylish set merry.
A special presentation, held in honour of the Queen and attended by her daughter Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn, revealed mini collections that the seven labels – Lie Sang Bong, Christophe Josse, Frederick Lee, Yumi Katsura, Flynow, Theatre and Nagara – created using just royal Thai silk. The initiative saw different visions harmonised by the fabric, and served as a reminder of the Queen's status as a symbol of modern, cosmopolitan Thailand. Ever the stylish lady, she used to commission designers like Pierre Balmain to create gowns from Thai silk, and with that oiling her country’s industry.
Gasps and an explosion of applause followed Japanese couturier Yumi Katsura’s designs that night. Each gown came with a twist, her way of modernising formalwear: a baby doll pouf dress concealed an evening gown within, while another gown with a dramatic obi sash and origami rose details converted into a party frock with one swift move. While at risk of sounding like a good gimmick, the clothes made a fun show and reflected the 81-year-old’s flair for finding youth in tradition.
If fashion is a mirror of society’s obsessions and desires, ACW reflected global ambitions and tastes. What we saw that week ranged from Singaporean Frederick Lee’s exotic plumed fantasies dripping with Rajasthan-inspired jewels to Frenchman Christophe Josse’s sophisticated, romantic gazelles. We travelled from Thai brand Theatre’s androgynous, austere priest and choir dresses to Korean Lie Sang Bong’s playful abstractions of butterflies and the houndstooth pattern.
ACW revealed many creative souls exist around the region, but as a collective, was it strong enough to usher in a new movement? The core question still lingers: what different attitudes can Asian designers searching for an identity in global couture and fashion offer? The couture clash – in mentality and aesthetic – seen in Bangkok offers some ideas, but would require time and dedication to harvest.
Sirichai Daharanond, the self-taught designer behind the 27-year-old label Theatre says via an interpreter: ‘The word couture is so particular, there wouldn’t be many customers who can afford or value the work that’s gone into a real couture piece in Thailand. And while world doesn’t have time for couture, it’s important to have and preserve the skills. The handcraft aspect for me, whether in couture or ready-to-wear, will always express the determination and passion of making clothes.’
Most central to Daharanond’s long success and cult-status in Thailand, however, is his ability to strike the difficult balance of creating beautiful, genderless garments. In his latest collection, which he calls ‘demi-couture’, the clothes transformed their wearers, whether man or woman, into stately beings. ‘My designs are not about whether it’s for boys or girls, people respond more to the fact that they want to wear it because they think it’s original or helps them express who they want to be,’ says Daharanond. One wonders if this aesthetic has deeper roots enmeshed in Bangkok’s progressive values pertaining to sexual and gender orientation – a new idea explored in couture if there was one.
This spirit of compassion carried through to Frederick Lee’s collection, despite its heavy Jaipur-inspired styling. ‘I wanted to reflect the global trend of tribal and ethnic clothes in this collection as a way of communicating an acceptance of diversity,’ says Lee. ‘Couture is the display of the most exquisite workmanship, a display of grace and a display of love.’
For Korean designer Lie Sang Bong, whose label is built on ready-to-wear, couture represents getting closer to the design ideal. His collection, inspired by the meeting of traditional East and West, involved mastering printing holograms of butterflies on acrylic sheets. Multi-dimensional shapes in the shoulder and bodice area reflected the work of a proficient pattern cutter. ‘It is the same meaning and value to me, whether I present my work to one or hundred people,’ explains Lie, who normally employs couture techniques when designing for clients like Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
At the end of the week, Bangkok’s leading stylist Art Araya, who worked on Theatre’s couture collection, observed: ‘Asian designers seem to like the dramatic side of craftsmanship and to show off something more than form and silhouette.’
ACW has aligned designers with a part of society that still desires couture pieces, but whether its contributions to the couture industry will have creative reverberations remains to be seen. It is always easy to find faults in new fashion endeavours. One concern is whether there is an actual gap to fill, or if the extravagant display is to facilitate more vanity projects for the rich. But the standing ovations and overall exuberance of the week made clear that the results evoked not only emotion and excitement in the audience, it also inspired regional pride in the arts, a necessary sentiment for progress.
Cintamani’s determination to push Asia’s progress past its plateau is not easy to dismiss. He professes not to be an expert in fashion, approaching his ventures ‘without the same passion a designer would have in creating a collection’. Instead, his fervour is that of a philanthropist with the cool of a businessman, explaining that his take on ACW is ‘to rely on the experts to keep on doing what they are doing, I’m merely providing a platform.’
‘I would love for ACW to travel from one Asian city to another, so it could be in Beijing or Manila next,’ he explains. ‘It is too slow for designers to individually grow brands in their home countries if not Paris, London or Milan, where the industry mainly gathers. Hopefully with a roving event like ours, the final objective is to allow them to crossover to an international platform.’
Indeed, when business and creativity come together successfully, the possibilities are limitless – especially if Cintamani’s strategy continues to unravel hidden talents and crafts around the region. In promoting an art form that encourages people to slow down however, he seems to sometimes forget to do the same. Before one thing can be digested, the energetic entrepreneur is onto his next project (Singapore Haute Couture Week and Womenswear Week in November).
‘ACW will raise awareness but it might only last a short period,’ says Araya, who spent the last twenty years watching the industry in Asia grow. ‘I think we need time to understand couture. It is not just entertainment before bedtime.’