Bangkok is more than the sum of its knockoffs

CentralWorldAll cities are built for somebody.  Hong Kong for bankers.  Paris for lovers.  New York for hustlers. And Bangkok for shoppers.  Not everybody, though, is built for all cities.  Which is why, I imagine I’d be about as successful as a shopping hound in Bangkok as a godly bhodromohila in a bawdy, burlesque bar.  With weekly grocery runs accounting for my only real (and regular) retail experience, even the prospect of swapping long hours at my desk in Delhi to window shop at some of Southeast Asia’s (and the world’s) best malls feels like an exercise in unfair trade practices.  But the boss begs to differ.  So off I go to the Thai capital, to discover, in air-conditioned comfort, Bangkok’s many consumerist charms.  Charms that belie the city’s notoriety for Birkin knockoffs and ersatz Omegas.  Charms that also include fantastic homegrown brands, designed to give international high-street and luxury chains a good run for their tropical baht.

Half-expecting to be accosted by bootleg LV hucksters at the airport’s arrival hall, waiting to be whisked away to Patpong or the Chatuchak street market with honeymooning, makemytripping couples,  I find myself front centre, instead, at a giant maze of megamalls.  A beehive of laminated glass, where worlds like find, bespoke and handcrafted have wider currency that cut-price and bargain.  Where talk of thread count and complications (in a timepiece) elicit knowing, entitled nods.  And where no one steels that blue diamond ring because they’d rather buy it!

Now, when I said Bangkok is built for whoppers, I meant it quite literally.  A tracery of roads, BTS skytrains, skywalks, sidewalks and subways conspire-especially in the downtown Siam and Sukhumvit areas-to lead tourists and locals to the mouth of yet another sprawling mall.  Those that fall between two stools-say, a clutch of standalone handicraft or home decor shops are also a daredevil motorcycle taxi ride away.

Armed with a BTS day-pass (THB 130) and American expat Nancy Chandler’s colourful, illustrated shopping map and guide – a legendary piece of paper that has contributed as much to Thailand’s forex reserves since the mid-1970s as Tony and Maureen wheeler – I head straight to Siam.  Cruising past low-rise suburbia, the skytrain eventually coasts into the heart of the skyscraping shopping district, slicing it neatly into two halves.  On one side lies the teen hub of Siam Square, where pocket-friendly flea is a socio-cultural expression for Bangkok’s trendy youth or dek naew, and on the other rises a grand canyon of high-end malls, beginning with Siam Paragon, Siam Centre (look for The Selected, an electric boutique of arty odds and ends here) and Siam Discovery Centre (with beauty potions made of Khao Shong beans at Coffee Tree for Skin).

siam paragonOf the Siamese triplets, with umbilical corridors running between them, Paragon is the one with the flashy cars and the twenty four carat assets.  Whether you want to compare Gucci to Emilio Pucci or Cartier to Chopard, Paragon’s curiously named MF or Main Floor (not mezzanine), tucked between GF and IF, is an isle of riches.  With no dearth of patrons at the Armanis and the Patek Philippes, Mikimotos and Marc Jacobs’, business is almost as brisk here as at the food hall and food court.  Not a whiff of recession in its affluent air.  But after mall-crawling through nine levels of handsome storefronts, an in-house oceanarium, an IMAX theatre and Thailand’s largest bookstore, Kinokuniya, I was beginning to see, perhaps, why Paragon’s most popular luxury offering is not the quilted Chanel Classic Flap, but a fittingly posh limo service.

If I could, I’d have certainly stretched my daily allowance for a spin in the caaaaar, and would have been richer for the experience.  But since I couldn’t bring myself to let my budget (like the rupee) freefall into a fiscal gorge, I choose to do what thrifty window shoppers do instead – walk a few paces to the next glitzy mall, which in this case, is Central World.  Part of another rival umbrella company which owns shopping centres across Thailand and the globe, including Central Childlom (down the road).  Besieged and set on fire by the Red Shirts, CentralWorld bears no visible scars from the anti-government protests in 2010.  But it’s not the obvious affluence of the place or the heavyweight global high-street brands I’m struck by.  I’m taken instead by the parallel retail universe that is Thai fashion.

My first taste of this burgeoning community of local designers and fashion brands – many of them sitting check by jowl on the second floor of both CentralWorld and The Emporium in Sukhumvit  – is a revelation of biblical proportions.  Clearly, I’ve been living under a rock – a giant, unfashionable rock.  For the modish lot – from Katy Perry to beyonce, Tyra Banks to Rihana – has long been raiding Bangkok’s closets for feminine, eclectic (often retro) finds.  Unlike the Zaras and H&Ms, with their echoic neons and brights this season, the Thai labels play up their quirks and individual styles.  The pastel racks at Sretsis, or sisters spelt backwards – started by sisters Pim, Kly and Matina Sukahuta – for instance, have romance written all over them.  Yet signature prints of animals – including a very feisty firefox-combat onochrome dullness with a distinctive beauty-and-the-beast edge.  Kloset and Isse each cut a fine figure too, weaving in tradiitional embroidery and tribal patterns, while Disaya sticks to flounce and frills, lace and peplums – with jewellery to match their ready to wear collections.  Minimalist Vickteerut and Asava, girly Pisit and Kai and urbane Jaspal and Senada *Theory are some of the others primed to seperate you and your baht.  Also unless you’re a scion of a Fortune 500 company –  watch out for the discount racks, often tucked away in low-lit, nondescript corners on the shop floor (Central Childloom has quite a few).

Not that discounts count for much.  Nobody seems to want them here.  Least of all, the young, moneyed hipsters.  In fact, so important is their customs, they have spawned a bunch of sub-brands catering only to those under thirty, born with plastic money in their mouths.  Stores like playhound-an offspring of the under-stated Greyhound-or Flynow III from the house of colour-blocking experts, Flynow, are a case in point.  But the one address that spells cool with a K at the moment is It’s Happened to be a closet (sic). Boho and vintage central, their dimly lit store at The Emporium in Sikhumvit is a cave of velvets and busy prints, feathers and trinkets.  So cobwebby is the general air here, one begins to hallucinate.  Did I just run into Ms Havisham of the Orient? or was that a Mad Hatter fly on the baroque wall (paper)?

The last thing I expect to find, however, is cheese cake.  Or a pedicure.  But at the store’s in house cafe and barber’s nook, there are plenty of un-sartorial reasons to linger awhile.  With my feet swimming in sea salts and my mind on tiramisu, shopping (read conscious consumption) seems infintely more platable.

greyhound cafeWhat bothers me, however, is the token presence of cotton.  In muggy, tropical Bangkok cotton fights an absured, losing battle against the swishing rails of nylons and polysters.  (What better way to trap you in the subarctic malls than to swaddle you in thermoplastic, aye>) A wrong that is righted-at least on the accessory front-by the printed cotton handbags of NaRaYa, from the Hindu god Phra Narai or Vishnu.  Founded by Khun Wasna Lathouras-from a local Chinese family of grocers-together with her Greek businessman husband who first met her as a tour guide at Samut Prakan, NaRaYa has several outlets across the city.  The brand’s signature bows and dainty prints are a tad too Barbie for my taste.  But for a shop that has been a chart-topping, greatest hit number for twenty odd years, one indifferent customers is water off its 100 percent cotton back.  Even on a mid-week afternoon.  I find it teeming with local shoppers, stuffing their discreet, top-end bottegas with soft, comforting NaRaYa.

Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of the region’s textile history, however, will remind you that cotton is not the Hily Grail of Thai handlook.  Silk is.  And Jim Thompson, its greatest champion.  Like Fabindia’s John Bissell, Thompson was among the Americans who went ‘native’ in Asia in the last century and decided to bring the local handlooms out of the closet and into the wide Western world.  Oddly, Thompson’s background-he worked for the OSS, predecessor of the CIA-had little to do with the silk-weaving industry.  An industry that had, by the 1940s, shrunk due to mechanisation and industrialization, with only a handful of families weaving for personal needs.  That silk was worn on special occasions alone, made it dearer still.

When I walk out of the National Stadium BTS Station (one stop fromSiam), and find my way to the museum complex at Jim Thompson House, it’s hard to imagine that the future of Thai silk had once been hanging by a thread.  Tourists of all ages and nationalities stream in for the guided tours (in English and Thai; THB 100), making their way around the six traditional Thai teak houses by the waters of the Chao Phraya that Thompson had transplanted and lived in till his unexplained disappearance in 1967.  He was sixty-one and on holiday at the Malaysian Cameron Islands when he vanished into thin air.  Conspiracy theories still abound, of course-ranging from unfinished espionage business to the misfortune of being born in the year of the horse.  But his death is but one skein of the legent that is Jim Thompson.

red sky barOver the years, the only other name that has been spoken of almost in the same reverential breath as Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company is Almeta, now a standalone shop near the Asoke BTS station.  Crouching in a grove, insulated from the din of Soi 23’s street-food vendors and Thai massage parlours, it’s not easy to spot the shop at first-look out for the Millennium Hotel, It’s on the opposite side of the road.  (Also, if you can, make time for Nandakwang nearby-left from the first crossing when you’re facing the skywalk.  It’s a charming menagerie of handspun cotton toy animals, bags and traditional triangular cushions or mornkwans).

A leafy bungalow with colourful yarn piled into baskets and bolts of rich, vibrant silks everywhere you look, just walking in through the doors of Almeta is like being swathed in opulence.  The product that spun the brand’s story of success, the machine-washable Lazy Silk, is still flying of the shelves.  But their original silk-a-la carte pick-from-a-thousand-colours strategy has now been swapped for a more modest, seasonal selection of fifty.  Jitra, the immaculately dressed Thai store manager with an American twang, which puts her foreign passport-bearing clientele immediately at ease, confirms that change is afoot.  Working with young, fresh-out-of-college designers, Almeta plans to make Thai silk more accessible.  Access is still limited, of course.  For some it might mean a mortgage on the car to get a scarf; for others, a skipped meal or three for a dress made to measure.  But surely, by now you know, you’re worth it!

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