Fashion Show In The Time Of Revolt

Troubled are current times in Bangkok and with their monarchy, but one fashion brand linked to the royal family has gone ahead to stage a runway presentation at the elite grand dame of a hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, ignoring the rumbling on the ground. But the protestors are not to be outshone

Discontent expressed in street protests has been rumbling throughout central Bangkok since July, like the whir of a troop of sewing machines. Participants of the marches and mass gathering initially made three demands: dissolve parliament, amend the constitution, and stop harassing critics of the government, as reported by The Bangkok Post. A month later, other demands were added to the list. Students of Thammasat University—the campus is near the Grand Palace—came up with more, including reforming the monarchy (highly contentious), and the abolition of what’s considered the world’s harshest lese majeste law against any criticism of the king and the royal family. Monarchy in Thailand is facing a crisis.

These are fraught times in Bangkok, to say the least. Protests are ongoing, people are determined, and the penchant for provocation seems unabated. The displeasure—some say vexation—with the king is out in the open, not cloaked in a vestige of polite ambiguity, or shielded at home. Yet, at a ballroom of a prestigious hotel last night, a member of the royal family, still cracking at fashion, staged a flashy runway show, attended by the city’s “elites”, the ones now despised by the protesting students, of whom, many, unconcerned with filtering, consider her “tone deaf”. Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya’s eponymous autumn/winter 2020/21 collection was indeed shut out, ensconced in an old-world, riverside rong ram, the Mandarin Oriental, touted as “Bangkok’s first hotel.”

Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya

“Bangkok is getting colder with SIRIVANNAVARI Autumn/Winter 2020-2021 Runway show”, the 15-year-old brand announced on social media. Were they predicting a winter of discontent? Or, will the brand’s show simply be a harbinger of dipping temperatures? No one knew. It is, however, obvious that, despite a collection daringly titled French Flair, the princess isn’t keeping to the Paris RTW calendar. One Thai fashion stylist suggested that she was offering a “see-now-buy-soon model”. It would be interesting to know how eager to own any of the show clothes the attendees were, seated dutifully in the Orentan hotel’s Royal Ballroom, the go-to wedding venue of the old rich and the old guard.

French Flair indeed left viewers with no doubt as to where the princess had cast her sight, or gleaned her ideas from. The first six looks would have immediately done Virgine Viard proud: all the tweed that those unwilling to pay the price a certain French house demands would find charming, and in the similar styling that would easily accord them with French flair, even if their provenance was next to the Chao Praya River. That mode Française would be the 33-year-old’s reference point is unsurprising as she had studied at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, and is known to spend considerable time in Paris. Coupled with her paternal grandmother’s association with French couture, particularly Pierre Balmain, it is not unexpected—even predictable—that she should pay homage to the capital of France and, as some say, capital of the fashion world.

The full-house fashion show of Sirivannavari at the Royal Ballroom, Mandarin Oriental

Whether Gallic smartness of style was achieved is perhaps immaterial. The princess, as a designer, was connect to France early in her career. Just two years after she founded Sirivannavari at the tender age of 18, she was “invited”—so went the official word—by Pierre Balmain to show in Paris. It is understandable why opinionated Thais were skeptical. The princess had not yet then graduated from Chulalongkorn university, where, according to The Nation, she studied fashion and textile. It wasn’t known why the house that made the clothes of her grandmother, (now) queen mother Sirikit, in the ’60s would request for a novice, not yet twenty one and not known with certainty as a talent, to show in Paris even when she had already scored two shows under her belt at Bangkok Fashion Week. Some media reports later suggested that she was “sponsored” by Balmain, at that time designed by Christophe Decarnin. Her supporters were, however, certain the royal family could afford to pay for her “international debut”, attended by family, friends, and embassy staff. That Paris collection (she would only show again the following year) was so important in the annals of Thai fashion that the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC) organised an exhibition, Presence of the Past: Love, Contradiction and Fashion, just a month after the staging in the City of Lights.

In the Paris of that September, 2007, Natasha Poly was on the cover of the city’s own Vogue, then 87 years strong. The Russian model wore a waisted leopard print Givenchy haute couture jacket with matching tights, no doubt the aesthetical preference of the magazine’s then-editor Carine Roitfeld. But that season would probably be best remembered for Valentino Garavani’s last collection for his house before Alessandro Facchinetti (of Gucci, after Tom Ford’s departure) took over. On a nippy evening of the 29th, at the Opera Garnier, Sirivannavari “opened” PFW not quite in tandem with what the rest of the city was feeling or would soon offer. The Bangkok Post described the collection as “a marriage of opposites” or “the clash between two fashion cultures—Thai and European”. Although such an approach was taken 47 years ago by the same house that sponsored her, the princess, too, explored the similar stylistic and technical contrasts between distinctly different fashion traditions, but her inexperience showed, and the clothes verged on costume. Did 21st-century Thailand still need to sell its fashion to the west as exotic?

Tweed at Sirivannavari autumn/winter 2020

That season in Paris, the princess was not the only Asian designer to debut in the city. There were two Indians: Manish Arora and Anamika Khanna, and one Japanese: Limi Feu. Mr Arora, presently the most renowned among the four from that year, set up his label in London in 1997 and had been showing in the English capital for two years prior to Paris. By then he was operating five stores in India and sold through 75 doors internationally. His compatriot Ms Khanna, at first a bridal-wear designer, started the Ana Mika label in 2004. A year later, she, too, showed in London, and was selling at 300 points of sale globally. Both of them were experienced designers when they appeared in Paris, so was Ms Feu, who was working for her father Yohji Yamamoto at the pre-Yohji sub-brand Y’s since 1996, before hitting the road on her own four years later and showing in Tokyo from 2000. In comparison, the princess was a fledgling, and, as one fashion stylist said then, “quite lightweight.”

However, the Bangkok press—probably out of words and as a result of habit, or fear, or all three—is wont to talk of her “signature creativity”, even in the Noughties. Back in the early days, the rumour in the city was that she didn’t actually design the clothes. Apparently, each season at that time, the princess would identify the Bangkok brand that she liked best and would have this name and its attendant team and facility “produce” the collection for her. Arrowed labels in the past included the Bangkok mega-brand Fly Now, but virtually none of these producers would talk about their collaboration with the designing royal or how involved she was. When coaxed, the common answer was, “Do you know who her father is?” As she tried to expand her brand in Bangkok, it was known that no store or mall would dare turn her down, even when it was not established if her clothes would sell. One department store buyer who “had to” consider one collection in the late 2000s, told us that it was the most “difficult” buying exercise of her career and that it took a “couple of days” to complete.

Party frock at Sirivannavari autumn/winter 2020

To be sure, Sirivannavari offers well-made clothes or what merchandising specialists would call ‘garmental’. She has a preference for tailored looks and offers competent, if not innovative, cuts. She has a love for intricate details too, which, to her, is a way to show off “Thai crafts”—her couture flourishes. But however superbly produced the clothes are, they don’t necessarily stand out in the area of design. Or, what might be considered contemporary. In fact, through the years, she seems to be designing for herself: compact royal gracefulness in constant need of statement clothes. Or, for attending charity events and hi-so (Thai shorthand for high society) parties, or for the countless ladies-in-waiting of the royal court and the women who are aligned with them—also with the same charity balls, birthday parties, and society weddings to attend. These are clothes to signify wealth and social standing, not to affirm the wearer’s keen eye for fineness and refinement and uniqueness. These days, women want to look like they dressed themselves effortlessly, but these clothes appear to require a lot of effort to get into! They are, on that note, rather retro, bringing to mind the contrived glam of yesteryear designers such as Tirapan Vanarat and Pichita Boonyarataphan. Up till now, no one is able—or willing—to tell us who actually buys Sirivannavari.

Or, if her collections are still produced by a seasonal brand of her choice, as they were in the past. With personal pursuits (she has a love for horses and is reported by Bangkok Post to own 7 of them) and royal duties, she has aroused the inquisitiveness of those who find running a fashion label tough: How does she do it? The compliant Thai media often note that she is “hardworking” and that her “love of fashion” keeps her going. Lest her detractors still think she isn’t the main woman behind her label, a month before her current show, she posted on Facebook, a video selfie of her behind a sewing machine, her fingers, with immaculately manicured nails, easing fabric of an incomplete garment under the presser foot. The princess and manual work, for courtiers and ordinary folks alike, mismatched.

A parallel runway on Silom Road

Even with the sleek catwalk and chandeliers above at the Mandarin Oriental at eight last night, the more compelling show of the evening was elsewhere. A few hours before the Sirivannavari presentation, a parallel event took place a kilometre away from the hotel, outside the oldest Hindu temple in Thailand, the Sri Maha Mariamman (also known to the locals as Wat Khaek), right down Silom Road, and towards the BTS station of the same name. Dubbed the People’s Runway, this event—apparently organised on the fly to thwart the police from anticipating their moves—was another protest activity, this time aimed to mock the royal family. Organised like a street fair, with protest art on sidewalks, the event, to our Bangkok companion “felt like a festive season event”, which was consistent with what has been described as “hybrid protest-festivals”, a uniquely Thai demonstration that can be traced to the Red Shirt sit-ins of 2010. Soundtracked with a cheeky remixed of the tune that typically precede TV announcements of royal news, the “fashion show” had student “democratic models” wear “rubbish” clothes—as one attendee on this muggy Bangkok evening told us—down the street-level runway. This is not a real show, she elaborated cheerily, “This is a protest!”

By the end of the evening, when the energised event-goers cleared out before the police could break their mockery-making with water canons, a short clip of the show was making the rounds on social media. To non-Thais, the two models’ appearances were innocuous enough: the first, a guy in a black singlet, worn cropped to just below the chest. But to Thais, this was to cheer-jeer to; they knew who the reference was. The other, a sweet damsel in pink traditional Thai dress walked down the red-carpeted runway and at a point, fawning well-wishers wai at her sandaled feet. The crowd went wild again. Who this pointed to was obvious as well. Just months ago, no one could have imagined such a flagrant disregard of monarchical respect for the world’s richest king and his queen. Fuelling the day’s tension was an earlier report published in the local media that allegedly listed the Thai national budget for 2020: one of the items, a sum of 29 billion baht (USD929 million) allocated to the monarchy, with 13 million baht for the Department of International Trade Promotion to boost the visibility of the Sirivannavari brand overseas. Did the princess even imagine, when she pressed ahead with the runway at the Mandarin Oriental, that the satirising of her show down in Silom was not out of cheekiness, but disdain and resentment?

The young princess (centre, front) with her whole family during happier times. Photo: source

The princess was born in Bangkok in January 1987. She was the only daughter among four brothers. Her mother was the father’s second wife (he’s into his fourth) and was expelled from the palace in 1996 when the princess was nine. According to what was allegedly transmitted out of the royal walls at that time, her mother had an “affair” with the father’s aide-de-camp, who was his long-time flying partner. This was revealed during preparations of the (former) king’s golden jubilee celebration, to the shock and disbelief of the mostly monarchy-loving Thai people. The mother took her children and fled to the UK, unable to handle the public scrutiny. Not long later, following suspicions wafting throughout the capital that the daughter was abused in England, the prince flew over there and “grabbed” her (some Western reports used a stronger word: “abducted”) and brought her home. It still isn’t clear why he took her instead of any of his sons, as royal watchers noted that he did not really care much about her then.

But returning to Bangkok had been good for the princess, who was since then thrice renamed, reportedly for “auspicious” reasons. By most accounts, she had a relatively easy and happy childhood. She is a sporty girl; she plays badminton and even represented Thailand in the SEA Games. Like Zara Phillips, she is an equestrian, and continues to train and compete to this day. She was admitted to the kingdom’s best university and graduated with a BA after her Paris debut. And, early this month, received an honorary degree from her alma mater that reportedly announced, as she received the award from her aunt—her father’s sister, the princess “is a genius in fine and applied arts and has especially improved the quality of life of the citizens.”

Like her father, she keeps her own residence outside Thailand, specifically France, in the picturesque commune of Bougival, 15-odd kilometres away from central Paris. The village is known for attracting French Masters, such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, when they wanted to paint scenes of the countryside. Hers is clearly a royal life, even when in 2011, it was reported that at an Elie Saab show in Paris, the Thai princess was snubbed by her UK counterpart, Princess Eugenie. This surely can’t be worse then being shunned by a city’s young population or be challenged with a fashion runway in a frankly unremarkable street, with no chandeliers.

Screen grabs: Sirivannavari Bangkok/YouTube. Photos, excepted indicated: Free Youth, Thailand

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