The Cloud x British Council
The introduction of new textiles or fashion brands generally begins with the story of a Bangkok owner or a person from a rural area coming to the city to learn how to start a business.
It seems like the capital city has its own standard of beauty, and all designers must pass through this stage to prepare their brand for the target market.
However, the “Phaeo Phafai” story is different.
Phaeo Kumpanuch was working for a sports shoe factory in Bangkok when faced with the loss of her husband in tragic circumstances; she returned to her hometown to take up a textile career.
Although many successful entrepreneurs have started their journeys to success from zero, Phaeo began hers at minus.
The day we met, her products were on the shelves and being sold nationwide and Phaeo Phafai Tai Lue style clothes are advertised on numerous channels. Some of the country’s main banks have even asked her to design uniforms for their staff.
Recently, Phaeo Phafai began working with the British Council and young designers from KRAM-HUG to produce a new collection of clothes for the Chiang Mai Design Week 2018.
Tai Lue women from Nan Province have taken a great leap of faith, playing an important role in driving the rural textile industry forward, and assisting locals with job opportunities.
This successful tale started from a simple 43 baht bed sheet.
A Weaving Marketer
The bed sheet in Tai Lue style has since created its own identity in white, red, and black.
Phaeo’s mother was a productive weaver of Tai Lue textiles and taught Phaeo how to weave too. The only textile Phaeo could make at the time was a Tai Lue style bed sheet.
Weaving bed sheets was the career chosen by Phaeo when she decided to return to her hometown. Despite her best weaving efforts, as she had to use a middleman to sell them, her bed sheets were only sold for 43 baht.
Things started looking up for Phaeo when a shop in town bought some of her many accessories and she was commissioned to weave for them. She earned 130 baht in total for each sheet, and after deducting the cost of raw materials, actually made a profit of around 80 baht. Phaeo carried on her weaving career with the locals for more than 10 years, before forming a community weaving group together.
Despite her lack of commercial experience, Phaeo knew about marketing and took on the role of selling the handmade textiles to a hotel in town. When the weaving community ran into financial difficulties, Phaeo was nominated as leader and successfully eradicated all debt in just five years.
“I used to be a tailor, and unlike others, didn’t have the chance to study because of my circumstances. I learnt tailoring when my mother bought me a sewing machine. I started to use my own textiles to make curtains, and people kept asking to buy them. I then realised I should sell the woven curtains instead and took every opportunity to attend fairs to market my products.”
Phaeo became responsible for both designing new products and expanding the market. When the home decorating products became sufficiently stable, Phaeo decided to take another step towards making clothes from the popular textiles and began wearing the items herself to gain feedback.
Speaking from her attractive contemporary Tai Lue clothes shop, Phaeo Phafai’s owner said:
“When I attended training sessions and meetings, I wore my own designs to seek feedback. I was also given some important advice — to know myself first and then the market. At that time, I was trying to sell everything I thought looked attractive, and it turned out that the items had nothing of myself in them. Then, one day, I suddenly asked myself the question, why don’t we use the traditional textiles from our hometown?”
Phaeo Phafai and her Community Support
Phaeo soon began to realise the business potential and hoped someone would take it seriously because it could actually generate income for the community rather than just providing part-time jobs.
She decided to invest in the business herself, and apart from her responsibility as leader of her hometown community, Phaeo managed to use local raw materials in her business and pay everyone monthly as well as annually.
The guaranteed income provided stability for everyone in the community, and the 40 weavers and 100 members became confident in Phaeo Phafai’s ability. Girls no longer had to go into town for work, and older women could generate additional income to enhance their lives. Phaeo Phafai’s intention was not only to earn as much money as possible but also to make life better for everyone in the community. Teenagers no longer need to leave their hometown to be successful, and learning how to turn products into popular fashion items can also help to preserve the Thai cultural heritage.
Tai Lue Designer
From being just an ordinary weaver and tailor, Phaeo has dedicated herself to learning as much as she can about new design and fashion concepts. Her mindset has changed and she now crafts her designs before uniquely weaving new textiles. Phaeo always uses Tai Lue textiles as her inspiration in every collection and adapts the best aspects of her existing work to create something completely new and original.
The impressive feedback from her creations has resulted in more awards for Phaeo Phafai, and she is now a regular participant at popular events.
“When I first attended an event at Mueng Thong Thani, no one was interested in our products. So, I decided to stay around and see how others designed, and then went back to improve ours, and my efforts were rewarded by being able to sell the products when I returned for another event. I also visited Osaka and was impressed by the care people took to keep the city clean. The Japanese always look neat and attractive, especially their shoes. They even used pieces of fabric in the design of their products, which was a brilliant idea. I thought about doing something similar and tried attaching pieces of fabric to clothes. The positive feedback was greater than I expected, and some of the items are still being sold today!”
Phaeo Phafai has continued to grow dramatically, and Phaeo Kumpanuch is currently President of both a Community Enterprise and the Nan Textile Cluster. From a girl who dedicated herself to learning everything there is to know about textiles, she is now Nan Textile’s fashion show owner, providing designs for stars and models to wear.
Mixing Tai Lue style textiles into modern clothing has attracted the attention of many Thai banks due to their need for staff to wear uniforms that are both traditional and modern. Banks situated in Bangkok, Lum Pang, and Suphan Buri are among those interested in ordering uniforms from Phaeo Phafai.
“The clothes we design nowadays seem to align with the preferences of office workers, although this has not always been the case. Teenagers and movie stars are turning towards this type of clothing more than ever, which makes me so proud.”
Phaeo said with a smile that nowadays Phaeo Phafai sells a variety of products such as sarongs, traditional handmade skirts, loincloths, shawls, and raw fabric. Household items are also available, such as curtains, bed sheets, cushions, mats, etc. Moreover, Phaeo Phafai also offers a tailor-made service, producing individual items for males and females as well as uniforms and traditional student outfits.
Back to Nature
Phaeo Phafai is now expanding to join with the British Council team and Alison Welsh. Alison is a British designer involved in thread development, natural dyes, and a process for using the least amount of left-over fabric as well as the development of new products such as mats, pillows, and bags. This collaboration includes designing and decorating the stores to attract customers. Most importantly, the objective is to help weavers become free thinking and able to create new designs without limitation.
For its high-end products, Phaeo Phafai currently operates a natural dying process using local raw materials. Traditional materials used in times gone by include padauk, mango, mulberry, and annatto leaves. Banana and galangal fibres are also used during the dying stage, and can now be produced in larger quantities. In addition, Phaeo Phafai also supports unemployed people by sending bags to be sewn to workers in Chiang Mai, and shoes to shoemakers in Nakorn Pathom for cutting. Phaeo Phafai is also in the process of creating bags using a combination of genuine silver and textiles.
“I am now trying to delve into a high demand, niche market. There is no need to create a large number of products because we don’t have enough manpower — we must produce something extra special which will always be in demand. How does that sound?”
Phaeo turns to ask designer KRAM-HUG.
Re(new)Lue, the special Phaeo Phafai collection represents a collaboration with Panisara Maneerat and Naphat Tansuwan, the owners of KRAM-HUG, merging the Lanna culture with fashionable outfits in a display for Chiang Mai Design Week.
“We have been on the ground to seek more information, and obviously spotted that Khun Phaeo has decided to use more natural fibres. It is interesting that each item has a different texture, and combined with the new technique, the dress becomes more valuable.” The two young designers said proudly.
“The design of our clothes has been influenced by mural paintings. One scene of a walking Tai Lue model also shows Portuguese and English guys wearing European outfits. So, we have combined traditional Tai Lue with modernism to create new products. We also ask elders about pictures they like, and then carefully select one of the traditional preferences to create a modern outcome. A contemporary mindset allows them to become part of the design.”
Anyone who thinks that Tai Lue heritage has no place in the latest fashion need only look at the success of Phaeo Phafai to see the possibilities.
Chiang Mai Design Week is not a finale to the success of Phaeo Phafai, because the brand from a small village will continue to move forward.
The strong influence of Phaeo and her team can be felt in every part of the textiles.
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Translated by Sanhanat Assawaniwest
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