Princess Diary: Back To Paris

After a hiatus, the Thai label Sirivannavari returned to the French capital during fashion week to reveal its royal creator’s lastest collection. Charmed?

One week after Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya of Thailand returned to Paris during PFW to show the autumn/winter 2023 collection of her eponymous label, she received a military appointment back home. According to the latest royal gazette (and reported in the news locally and throughout the region), the princess is now an “Army Specialist” in the royal Thai Army and accorded the rank of “Major General”. What she specialises in is not immediately known, nor, if she were to be a general, would she command her own troops. Neither was there elaboration of her military career, assuming she had one. The youngest daughter of the king is part of the current round of military promotions, announced by the monarch yesterday. Around the time of her Paris show, the Thai interior ministry launched a book in her honour—36th Anniversary of Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, to mark not only the anniversary of her birth, but also “her contributions to the local weaving industry”, as reported by the Thai press.

That contribution was, as far as we could tell, not immediately reflected in what she showed in Paris, a static display in a small chandeliered ballroom at the 125-year-old Hôtel Ritz that overlooks Place Vendome. The 20-look collection was placed on and around a short aluminum runway, set up to, presumably, benefit buyers wishing to examine the clothes closely. This was the princess’s third Paris showing. The first was in 2007, when she was “invited” by the house of Balmain, pre-Olivier Rousteing (her grandmother, queen mother Sirikit, was an important customer in the ’60s when she embarked on a royal tour aboard with her husband, the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej). In the following year, the princess returned to the city on her own accord for a follow-up show, which was later brought to Moscow for the Russian Fashion Week of that year. No reports emerged back then on how well her collections fared or if the brand attracted international buyers. Observers felt that the label was too young and lacked a distinctive voice. The interest in Sirivannavari then was thought to be modest and mostly within Thailand.

The princess is a driven fashion designer. Throughout the pandemic of the last three years, she did not let up, continuing to produce collections for an unidentified market. In 2020, when Bangkok was in the thick of protests that were mainly lead by students and when the capital was seeing how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic could be, she staged a full fashion show at the city’s historic Oriental Hotel. While the presentation was well attended, it also concurrently generated streets protests—and parodies of fashion shows—that charged her unheeding display as untimely and tone deaf. At a time when Bangkok was heady with re-energised nationalism, she showed a collection called French Flair. Despite the rumblings, media response to her show was largely positive. She was lauded for her “signature creativity”. As far as we are aware, there were no other shows following the French Flair affair. Society folks have said that there were private parties, but not runway presentations.

This time, for the designs exhibited in Paris, there was “a Thai aesthetics touch”, as her brand states. The princess told an enthusiastic Suzy Menkes, who shared a brief chat with the former on Instagram, “I have a little bit of Thai touch, with a small detail is the collar… a little bit of Thai touch, not screaming at all.” Is a mere touch, some wondered, enough to distinguish her Thainess? It is true that the pieces were not shrill in their vestiary expression, but these were not entirely quiet clothes either. There has always been a discernible ‘hi-so’ (short for high society in Thailand) sensibility in her work. This could be due to the customers or supporters she attracts, primarily, we have been told by fashion insiders, staunch royalists and a small circle of friends. Many Thai fashionistas, especially the young, are not enthusiastic of her brand mainly due to this circumscribed state; they consider her clothes unrelatable. Many also do not consider Sirivannavari “a real business, it’s her hobby“, as we were often told.

Even with a “Thai touch”, there is no escaping the pull of French fashion or forms a la française. We saw a little Balmain here, a little Celine there, and snatches of Saint Laurent. To all that, some Cavalli—Italian sexiness for good measure. Some followers of her career think what her clothes lack is an edge or high-street appeal. For a relatively young designer, a Thai buyer told us, “she seems to design for an older clientele.” Still, skin-bearing is typical of her collections, so is the pronounced shoulder, which is rather persistent—or consistent with her personal style. It has to be said that this was her most mature and pulled-together collection to date, but despite what Ms Menkes diplomatically called “lovely workmanship”, it has yet to reveal the variables—Thai or not—meeting and functioning in a way that look to come from her, and just her alone. The collection will still not shake any ground on her home turf, in Paris, nor anywhere else in the world.

When Ms Menkes visited her show space, she asked the veteran journalist, “have you seen all the collections (she was referring to her own)?”. Accompanied by her coterie of friends, including the ever present Vogue Thailand’s EIC, Kullawit ‘Ford’ Laosuksri, she seemed thrilled by Ms Menkes’s presence, even a little nervous, we thought (she asked the near-octogenarian how the later was, twice!). When asked what she loved most of the looks showed, she said (we quote verbatim), “Well, I love the most is something like me. I love everything about the smoking or the suit. I love the thing with the mascular, femmina, like altogether.” The École de la Chambre Syndicale de la couture Parisienne alum continued, “I want to show that, first of all, I really come back very strong. I really miss very much to show my collection in Paris. I want to show like this is like, growing up girl, with a very strong collection, erm, inside me. I not stop learning; I not stop working; I look forward for working and I want to show at this place, again.” Spoken like a true princess.

Photos: Sirivannavari