Fieldnotes from the Bangkok Fashion Scene

In 2010 the EduFashion team, a research project funded by the Eu, went to bangkok to look at the vibrant fashion scene there. Is the bangkok fashion system a possible model for a coming “maker culture”? read our fieldnotes (from the OpenWear blog):

Lately the notion of ‘creative industries’ have had a certain salience in Thailand. In 2005, the  Thaksin government launched the first in a series of Thai fashion weeks and founded TCDC a government organization with the aim to further ‘creativity’ across various industries. In part this move was inspired by the contemporary Western craze about creativity. In part it was a reduction towards a tangible loss of productivity within the garment industry (threat china Vietnam, stats Thai garment industry). It was held that the promotion of creativity and in general, and of fashion in particular would help Thailand move up the textile value chain. The model of creative industry promoted by TCDC was more or less directly inspired by the prevailing (at the time) Western discourse on creative industries However, in 2005, Thailand already had a fashion industry, but it unfolded elsewhere, in chiefly on Bangkok’s endless street markets.

Thai Fashion- the preconditions

The garment industry has been a cornerstone of the Thai industrialization process. In the 1990s Thai garment production began to face serious competition for Cina and Vietnam.  As a consequence, overcapacity increased  lay-offs ensued. Export oriented garment producers resorted to putting out systems, de-localizing production to small sweatshops and domestic units, where wages could be pressed further down. This situation was further exacerbated by the Asian financial crisis of 1997 that hit Thailand particularly hard (the devaluation of the bath was, after all what triggered the crisis). In the wake of the garment industries, like most other industries faced massive lay-offs. And many of the skilled workers now laid off set up their own sewing shop at home. This means that there is a constant overcapacity within the garment industry and that consumers, and above all fashion designer can find ready and easy access to flexible material production capable of quickly producing short series of garments. This easy access to material production and its flexibility is, as we shall see a fundamental element behind the Thai fashion industry.

In addition the modernization of Thai society has seen a massive value shift in recent decades. Fostered by higher levels of material prosperity, longer education and easier access to university enrollment, the children of the middle classes increasingly opt out of the salariman career of their parents to seek self realization in more creative pursuits.  Like in the West this has resulted in a wave of symbolic experimentation, resulting in new aesthetics and lifestyles. Unlike in the west however this symbolic experimentation has been virtually de-linked from any  experimentation with alternative social models or political visions. Rather the wish to autonomy and self- expression is mainly channeled into entrepreneurship. To put it a bit stereotypically: while Western middle class youth might express their wish for creativity and self-expression by engaging in activities that maintain a high counter cultural orientation, even if this is a matter something as technical and mundane as producing computer code in Free Software networks, Thai middle class youth set up a business, alone or with their friends. This is no doubt facilitated by the ease with which this can be done. Bangkok is full of markets and other kinds of commercial space, access to material production is relatively simple and regulation is low or non-existent. (In our  survey of small fashion designers selling their wares on the enormous Chatuchak market, ‘creativity’ and ‘business success’ were roughly equally popular as motivations to set up shop, 60 and 40 per cent respectively).   In addition, most middle class families probably have some experience with selling on markets and with entrepreneurship in general (65 per cent of the respondents to our survey replied that their parents were merchants or sellers of some sort, indeed Thailand has the highest level of self-employment in the world). It seems that to set up a business of one’s own is a frequent answer to a difficult labor market (50 per cent of the graduates from Ranghsit University’s fashion program set up their own business) or a compliment to an ordinary job (43 per cent of the designers that we asked had ordinary jobs as well), whether because of economic reasons or because that other job did not offer sufficient venues for creative self expression (56 per cent of those who did have another job worked in advertising, design, fashion- in the creative industries.) In short there seems to be very little in terms of the classic contradiction between business and creativity that is a cornerstone of Western creative ‘scenes’.

And a large share of such entrepreneurial self expression is channeled into fashion. Like music in the West, fashion is the ‘natural choice’ for a young person embarking on a creative careers. (as one of our interviewees stated: ‘Everybody wants to be a designer’) In the last couple of years newly opened fashion schools have seen a boom in applications. The reasons for this are several and highly interlinked. Fist of all, Thai middle class culture has traditionally been marked by a strong emphasis on the visual and on appearance, and to be well dressed has been understood as an important social grace. This emphasis on visual self-presentation has arguably been exacerbated by the status confusion resulting from the Thai modernization process . Pre-modern Thai society was structured in four neatly separated social classes, with strictly defined ways of dress or behavior. In the process of modernization these classes has been dissolved. The result is a constant ‘status anxiety’ experienced in particular by young members of the Thai middle class.

Secondly, the hegemonic role of consumer culture in the Thai modernization process has meant that creativity and self expression almost inevitably becomes consumerist self expression. At a first level this stems form the fact that there is very little place for such self expression outside of consumer culture. Thai society remains strongly segregated along class lines, and the middle class public sphere is almost exclusively made up of shopping malls, markets and similar commercial spaces.  And where there are non-consumerist subcultures, like for example the biker culture, these are generally associated with working class status and, as such, marginal to or even actively shunned by middle class youth.  Consequently, in Bangkok the shopping mall or the market is the natural place for middle class sociality and for the exhibition and circulation of stylistic innovation. Even those subcultures that in the West are frequently associated with anti-consumerist orientations, like punks, are here, as in for example Japan, easily integrated within mainstream consumer culture and translated in to a fashion statement. This way the stylistic creativity of sub-cultural resistance directly becomes expressions of diverse fashion styles, without the need for any appropriation or commodification on the part of the culture industries, and young people see no contradiction in the consumerist channeling of sub-cultural statements. Indeed the recent indie wave that has hit Bangkok, to a large extent as a result of the city becoming a hub for Asian indie music, mainly resulted in an invasion of university campuses with a multitude of market sellers, peddling indie fashion garments, t-shirts as well as boot leg CDs.  (inteview). The result is a highly mobile young consumer demand for fashion garments. The students and office workers that frequent Siam square regularly buy new garments weekly, and many take on high levels of dept to sustain such varied consumer styles.

However, this intensive consumer activity is not simply ‘co-opted’ by large  multinational companies. It is true that elite Western consumer brands, and in particular fashion brands like Gucci, Prada and Hermes exercise a deep fascination on Thai consumers. However, most of their purchases come from a different  market segment. Our interviews report that while Thai middle class consumers, and in particular women will invest massive amounts in the purchase of one or two expensive branded accessories (like a Chanel bag or  a pair of Hermes shoes- many of which will subsequently be exchanged in the second hand brand exchanges that proliferate around Siam square). Mostly consumers will purchase cheap and relatively low quality fashion garments from small stores  around Siam Square or on the JJ weekend market. Such garment will subsequently be used one or two times, and then thrown away (or recycled on the massive market for second hand garments that exists at a lower segment). To satisfy this demand for ‘fast fashion’ there is a virtual army of small independent fashion designers, many operating in operation so three or less, and selling mainly out of the cities many markets.

Innovation, Imitation and the Hierarchy of Markets

The Thai fashion system is strongly spatially segregated. At the very top en are the Western brand stores that populate exclusive shopping malls like Siam Paragon or the Emporium. These stores are usually empty (because of their restricted clientele) and their  emptiness set them off from the bustle of the street outside and contribute to enhance the brands that they represent with an aura of exclusivity and aloofness. At the second level there are a number of self consciously ‘creative’ sectors, like K Village on Sukhumvit Soi 26 or Soi Thonglor. Once again these areas are high class ( or Hi-So to use the Thai expression), part of exclusive condominium developments and showcased by TCDC and other official agencies as examples of Thai creativity. The designers that exhibit there   have often studied design in Europe (and hence generally come from an upper class background), and nurture a conception of fashion design as the expression of inner creativity. This individualistic outlook make them look down on the next level, the small design shops that make up the participatory fast fashion that we have studied.

The upper level of the fast fashion system is structured around Siam Square and JJ market. Siam square, the youthful part of the Siam commercial complex hosts a couple of hundred small fashion stores run by mostly young designers. Often these designers will have market stalls at the JJ weekend market as well. This enormous markets comprises some 10.000 stalls, about a tenth of which are garment stalls. Out of the garment stores we identified some 400 that satisfied our criteria of ‘designer-operated’. By this we meant that the products sold were also designed by the person operating the stall, and not simply re-sold or imported in bulk from China, and that there would be an element of self-conscious identity, such as mostly a brand. Generally designers will start out on JJ market, where the rents for a market stall are significantly, to then move up, if successful to Siam Square.  The designers are generally young (in their twenties) and middle class, culturally and socially they belong more or less to the same social group as their consumers. These designers seem also to be heavy consumers of the garments produced by other designers on the market. Indeed a significant proportion of the designers that we surveyed indicated claimed that they had chosen to start designing clothes because they had a ‘passion for fashion’ (40 per cent) , or even because they could not find clothes that suited them on the market (17 per cent). The stories told by the people we interviewed indicate that a common start is to begin to design clothes for oneself- a practice that is rendered simple by easy access to tailors (until recently it was common for middle class families to tailor make their clothes, the older generation still do this. Tailors are cheap and cloth is easily available on the city’s many garment markets.) In short the designers belong to the same age group, social class and cultural universe as the consumers, and the two categories are interacting closely to the point of overlapping.

This fashion culture is kept together by magazines and online resources that distribute Western and Asian brand and consumer fashions. Japan used to be the main source of inspiration here, but in recent years Korea ha risen to prominence, in particular in relation to fashion. Korean and Japanese fashions are subsequently embraced by movie stars and other celebrities, to which a number of widely circulating publications are dedicated. And it is first when a particular garment or style is embraced by such a celebrity that it begins to acquire widespread diffusion. (Indeed many of the more successful designers in Siam square will actively woe celebrities to wear their collections, to subsequently exhibit pictures of their successes in this endeavor in their shops). Once a garment is embraced by a celebrity it is copied (or interpreted) by a designer. If successful, such an imitation/innovation spreads fast among the designers in the market (79 per cent of our survey claimed to be ‘copied often’ by other designers). Once such a design element achieves sufficient popularity it moves one step down in the fashion chain, to be imitated by the mass producers who sell whole sale at the Pratunam and Bo-Bai markets. These garment markets serve as sources for street market vendors that operate throughout the city of Bangkok, and the provinces, as well as in India, Africa and the Middle east (where ‘Bangkok fashions’ has a certain reputation for style and quality). For the middle class designers and consumers at JJ market and Siam Square, the fact that an innovation has been adopted by the whole sale vendors at Pratunam, who, via the street market vendors cater to a working class public, signifies two things. For the original innovator (or the original imitator, to use a term inspired by the Asian concept of the ‘original copy’) this might mean an increase in fame and status. The density of interaction on the markets means that everybody knows from where a particular innovation has originated.  Usually however, it triggers stylistic innovation.  And the velocity of innovation is very high. Most of the designers that we surveyed (60 per cent) claimed to ‘add new items to their collection’ once a week, and that their consumer and a distinct stylistic innovation can travel from JJ market to the whole sellers at Pratunam in a month or even in weeks.

At a first look the Thai fashion system seems to be hierarchically structured, along the lines of those theorized by European 19th century observers like Veblen or Simmel. Innovation happens at the top, by an elite of made up of celebrities and movie stars and is diffused throughout the system, from the designers at JJ market and Siam Square down onto the wholesale markets at Pratunam and Bo Bai. In reality however the situation is more complex. And even though there are a number of magazines dedicated to street fashion, the designers that we interviewed denied being inspired by ‘the street’. However, the explanation for this statement might be that in a certain sense they are ‘the street’. The celebrities that show case new fashions are comparatively close to the consumers, minor starlets that rise from the local music and fashion scenes to a brief period of fame on television, or even on the cover of a magazine. Consumers do their part in demanding continuous innovation on the part of designers, and in diffusion new ideas throughout the market though the very density of social interaction. Even the working class consumers that purchase imitations of fashion items that have trickled down to the Pratunam market can be said to do their part by pushing status conscious middle class consumers to crave something radically different. The story of hip hop is be illustrative in this respect. Above all, a simple distinction between imitation and innovation does not describe the Thai fashion system very well. (nor perhaps the Western system). In Thai culture this can be said to be particularly pronounced. On the one hand this is because of a tendency to mixing and sampling that is obvious in a range of other cultural expressions  where diverse ingredients are mixed up in innovative and diverse ways by individual actors. This means that even at the bottom, wholesale end, it is common to see knock offs and copied where a small detail has been added or changed. On the fashion markets most designers entertain a strong ethos of self-expression and will make some minimal addition to a garment that is copied. If nothing else this is necessary to maintain a distinct identity in the face of massive competition. In a situation where 400 designers with their own distinct brand identity operate in intense spatial proximity, to straightforwardly copy is simply not a viable business strategy, designers need to innovate, while imitating the general trend, if nothing else in order to set themselves off from the garment sellers who share the market with them, but who’s garments retail for half the price. Rather, the density of social interaction that characterizes the fast fashion system and the social proximity between designers, consumers and even producers  means that the fast fashion system is best viewed as a system of collective innovation, where rapid stylistic innovation results from intensified flows of objects, symbols and discourses among participants.

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