In Conversation with Fashion Designer Ek Thongprasert
We speak with the Thai designer about his architectural approach and in-depth creative process
Design Anthology: Why did you decide to launch your own fashion and jewellery label?
Ek Thongprasert: I think deep down, all fashion students dream of having their own brand at some point. In 2007, after I won the ITS - International Talent Support award, I began to receive media attention in publications like i-D magazine, and so I decided to launch my brand immediately after I graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, with the support of Flanders Fashion Institute, which helps young Belgium brands establish their businesses in Europe.
You studied architecture from 2000 to 2004 before going into fashion design. How does this background influence your designs?
Architecture is about logical thinking. In order to design and create a piece of architecture you need to interview, analyse, and make various systematic connections within the architecture itself and between its surroundings (at least that’s how I was taught), while fashion design is more about your personal approach — it’s very fluid, free and dreamy, which is totally opposite from my previous design approach.
When I started studying fashion (in 2005), I realised how different I was compared to other students, because I focus on creating a question about something that fascinates me and finding the answer is more of a logical process to arrive at the best solution. My work is full of meaning and symbolism that I cultivate through deep research into the subject.
When you step into a building, the first thing that you experience, apart from the people who are there, is the spatial quality. Good architecture should give you an instant message of what it stands for and what purpose it serves. In fashion design, the space that’s created around the human body actually tells the same story. When you dress in very tight clothing it might send a different message than if you were wearing a piece that elevated and exaggerated your shoulders, for example.
The concept of space in fashion design can be complex, and it can change over time because of communication that’s conceived through marketing strategies to capitalise profits. On the other hand, the messages of spatial concepts in architecture change their message more gradually.
Who is the customer you design for?
My brand’s DNA is ‘Modern Heroine’. My beloved mother inspired the brand characteristics; she is wise, confident but humble and strong but kind. I make clothes and jewellery for women who’re confident and know what they want in their lives. The Unity collection was one of the first collections I created with this vision, and I basically took a piece of jewellery that I believed all women owned and created a 3D sculptural shape by connecting each unit in various angles.
What do you enjoy most about the design process?
The research and development process. I start by trying to understand the original meaning and history of each new project and then I decide on the questions whose answers will become the final work.
For example, I’m currently working on a batik project with the Ministry of Culture in Thailand to develop and design a collection using batik one of the country’s regions. First, I studied the original culture of batik, and I discovered that batik not only travelled to south Thailand via Singapore and Malaysia, but it also inspired African wax print fabric via the Dutch colonial trade in the 19th century. I travelled to Holland to visit four different museums in order to learn more about the Indonesian and African cultures under Dutch colonialism. Then I created my Reversed Colonialism project, which asks what would happen to Thai batik if the whole history and process of batik culture was reversed. I will present the answer, the final collection, in August this year.
My newest project, called Collector, offers very limited products from places I’ve visited such as small remote villages, flea markets or even second-hand e-commerce stores. I normally work with very interesting materials, like handwoven Thai silk, Turkish ikat silk, Japanese printed linen and vintage Afghan wall hangings. It’s a fresh and interesting way to work in a rapidly changing fashion industry.
What’s your experience working as a designer in Thailand?
Sourcing materials is my biggest challenge. Most of the important fashion markets are in countries that have different climates between summer and winter, but Thailand is a tropical country and so we don’t have textiles for proper winter clothes. The fabric quality is also very limited, since we don’t produce the raw material, unlike Italy or Korea, for example. Importing fabric is expensive, so the brand becomes less competitive. The only fabric we have is Thai silk, but it has very distinct designs and due to the fabric quality, it requires very delicate care that doesn’t necessarily suit modern lifestyles, which are more easy-going and dynamic.
Lastly, do you have any advice for designers or architects who might be considering branching out into fashion?
The fashion industry has changed so much from when I started. Without generalising too much, consumers don’t really care about the huge creative effort we designers make any more, and they’re more willing to pay for what they see on social media. This is because brands throw huge amounts of money into the system in order to be acknowledged by so-called ‘influencers’.
The whole selling system might not support young designers working outside of the main fashion cities, which already have their own systems to support local designers. If you’re from another country and need to operate in the international market, you need to hire different people to take care of your sales and communication, which in the end is a huge financial investment that young designers need to make, even if they don’t yet know if it’ll prove to be worth it.
But on the other hand, social media, online stores and e-commerce definitely all help designers reach more customers wherever they are, and help young designers reduce their investment costs.
As told to / Babette Radclyffe-Thomas
Images / Courtesy of Ek Thongprasert