Designer Nagara on what’s wrong, and right, about Thai fashion
First off, a confession. I’m 'Facebook friends' with Thai designer Nagara Sambandaraksa. But not in that chummy, comment-on-his-status kind of way.
You could say I’m a voyeur -- a nice word for stalker -- regularly peeking at all the wonderful pics he posts of parties, celebrities and high society. I marvel at the lovely things he eats for lunch and resolve to work out more when I see he’s already at the Royal Bangkok Polo Club playing tennis at 6am.
Nagara is adored by Thailand’s elites, having even designed for royalty, and his designs maintain a strong connection with his Thai roots as well as other regional influences. He does not mass produce his works, as they're all one-of-a-kind custom-made pieces.
To put it simply, the man is super cool.
Right now, Nagara is preparing the last minute fittings on his creations for his October 17th show as part of Bangkok’s Elle Fashion Week.
I recently met up with him to find out more about his brand and what fans of his work can expect at this year's show. (Above is a gallery of some of his latest pieces, which will be on the catwalk Saturday night.)
CNNGo: You’ve been at this since the early 1980s. In that period many designers have come and gone. But you’ve managed to continue reinventing your designs to keep ahead of the fashion scene. Your secret?
Nagara: It’s not that I don’t look at the fashion scene seriously, but I think there are other elements around we take for granted. You have to mix things up, look at what the younger generation is doing. Don’t just create things based on your client’s age. Look at trends and behavior.
CNNGo: Fashion Week is upon us. What’s the run-up to this event like for you?
Nagara: I make my own fabrics so I need more time than most designers to design the prints, then get the samples back and produce the creations. It’s double the work so I have to start many months before the actual event.
CNNGo: Is silk still your preferred fabric to work with?
Nagara: It’s the medium I've worked with since the beginning. Silk has changed. It’s not like the silk of the old days. There are plenty of mixed fibers to work with. Different textures.
CNNGo: You travel a lot. What are your favorite global cities for inspiration?
Nagara: I love the cities in China, Japan and India. I go there all the time. In Europe I prefer Florence and Paris. But you can be inspired everywhere. Just sitting with you I could be inspired by something.
CNNGo: What’s wrong with the Thai fashion scene today?
Nagara: The level of fashion knowledge of the Thai journalists. I have nothing against the journalists personally but you have to put the right man with the right job. If you want to do fashion, you have to at least have some knowledge about the subject.
If I know that you studied very well, I’m relieved when I talk to you. But if someone has no idea what they’re doing, it’s quite annoying.
Plus, the majority of Thai fashion consumers view fashion as superficial entertainment. Not a serious business. Thailand lacks a dynamic fashion culture scene to inspire the young designers, even myself. That’s why we travel a lot, and we get inspiration from the places that we go.
CNNGo: What’s right about the Thai fashion scene?
Nagara: Things are improving and I think the younger generation is working to turn the fashion scene around, including the levels of creativity and taste.
It’s getting easier -- not just in Thailand. We’re not a fashion city, so we still have to depend on good fashion journalists to spread the news of what’s happening in Thailand.
CNNGo: How has your career outlook changed since the early 1980s. Still feel the pressure to outdo yourself?
Nagara: I think the pressure is always there. It’s a privilege to have the pressure. I used to be very energetic when it came to promoting myself in the overseas market but in the end it doesn’t really work because of the system here. And the lack of investors. There isn’t enough money to put into the whole production process, ie. the factories and mass production.
You can’t just copy what’s in the magazines. You have to bring out what is best in Thailand, fabric wise. People ask, ‘do you design according to the seasons?’ If you’re from Bangkok, you have no seasons. It’s impossible. What are you going to do for the winter collection?
I prefer to stick to custom-made pieces. I have a lot of foreign customers, and I enjoy making them one-of-a-kind pieces.
CNNGo: You’ve designed for some very big names in Thailand, some of whom remain friends and loyal followers of your work. Do you feel added stress when designing for them?
Nagara: Not at all. They’re not just my clients, they’re friends and we’ve known each other for a long time so I know their characters. I enjoy designing for them.
I do still take new clients, but usually they’re based on the recommendations of a good friend. My clients are now moving from mothers to daughters.
CNNGo: Many describe your designs as “East meets West.” Do you dislike this comparison?
Nagara: Actually, I think that’s very true. That’s how I started out. I put a lot of oriental culture into my designs.
CNNGo:What frightens or excites you every day?
Nagara: I’ve come this far. I think nothing can excite or frighten me anymore. I’ve been through many ups and downs.