By  on August 18, 2009

BANGKOK — With its high-spirited atmosphere, bargain-conscious shoppers and a sprawling hodgepodge of merchandise, this month’s Bangkok International Fashion Fair had many of the characteristics of a typical Thai street fair, save one: Sales. Orders were slow to nonexistent during the 24th edition of the trade event, reflecting the wait-and-see condition of the world economy and the evolving character of Southeast Asia’s largest garment-industry event. The show was open to buyers on Thursday and Friday and to the general public on Saturday and Sunday. Attendance was up 40 percent over last year, but the 5,000-plus trade visitors from Asia, the U.S., Western Europe and the Middle East were more inclined toward networking than buying. There were nearly 700 exhibitors from two dozen countries. “I thought there would be more orders — well, any orders,” said Ursula Kaminska-Jawoszek, who runs a 10-year-old underwear brand from Poland and China called La Marru. She expected something more in line with her experience at trade shows in Paris, Hong Kong and Las Vegas, but still classified the show as a “good experience.” Venisse Laurel-Hermano, who runs Philippines-based fashion label House of Laurel, said her intricately beaded eveningwear drew admirers, but no customers. “It’s OK, we have a chance to meet our competition, see what we’re up against,” said Laurel-Hermano, who sells in Western Europe and has her eye on the North American market. At $650, her garments proved too expensive for buyers, she said, adding, “I think everyone is here for price.” She wasn’t the only vendor facing that problem. As Thailand’s $18 billion textile and garment industry evolves, it’s being pulled in two directions. Government officials are keen for Thailand to shed its cheap, copycat-producing reputation and offer higher-quality goods. Yet buyers, especially in the current climate, are hunting for bargains to protect their margins. “We cannot compete with [China] in terms of volume or price, nor do we want to,” said Piramol Charoenpao, deputy director general of Thailand’s Department of Export Promotion, organizer of the Fashion Fair. “We want to be known as a niche producer of quality goods — yarn to finished garments.” But that’s not necessarily what buyers are after. “Basically, I’m looking for a $6 dress,” said Thomas Johnson, owner of Lotus Designs in Missoula, Mont., one of 40 U.S. buyers present. “Something, with shipping and duties, I can sell for $40. So far, that’s not what I’m seeing.”

Prices aren’t the only challenge for buyers sourcing in Thailand. Johnson, who spent 30 years as an importer of Thai jewelry before going into the fashion business with Lotus Designs, noted communication is a serious problem. “A lot of Thai sources simply don’t speak English well enough to do business and they have to learn how to be more frank,” he said. “The tendency in Thailand is to tell you what you want to hear and that’s not what you want in a business partner.” Australian Rowan Ross, who produces a line of patchwork fabrics called A Day in the Country, has found a Thai manufacturing partner willing to adjust to Western standards. “I’ve got a guy here now who, after four years of prodding him, is turning out some very satisfactory goods,” said Ross, who attended the show as a buyer. “There is still room for improvement, but I am certainly encouraged by the willingness to listen and to learn.” Ross was among a sparse handful of fair attendees reporting robust sales. “We’re up 35 percent this year,” he said. “My kind of feel-good, stay-at-home goods always do well in a recession.” Elsewhere at the show, the mood was more downbeat. Although the Thai textile and garment industry had a 3 percent revenue increase last year, largely a result of new free trade initiatives with Japan, some of the country’s traditional mainstays are suffering profoundly, especially silk and textile manufacturers. Hard-hit by a downturn in orders from Western markets and intensifying competition from China, Thai silk producers are seeing their sales drop 50 percent or more. Shinano Kenshi, which markets under the Shinawatra brand, is having the worst year since its founding in 1929. It’s responding to the crisis by diversifying into areas like silk and wool blend yarns for carpeting and draperies, and more eco-friendly products. Despite these challenges on the manufacturing front, a crop of young Thai designers is eyeing its prospects in the U.S. market, which imported $850 million worth of textiles and garments from Thailand last year. It’s safe to say Thai-born Thakoon Panichgul, whose name has risen to prominence for dressing First Lady Michelle Obama, has helped attract attention to the country’s creative resources. Selling her products in the U.S. “is my dream,” said Pornpan Nikrotanon, a Thai designer with a brand called Doris Posy. Her flowing cotton ready-to-wear pieces have had some success in Paris and Milan, but haven’t found a retail home in the U.S. Many of the young designers featured at this year’s Bangkok show projected strongly Western marketing sensibilities, abandoning the traditionally Asian hot colors and tight-to-the-body cuts in favor of Big City blacks and grays and taupes. “On all levels, design and manufacture, the industry in Thailand has improved dramatically,” said Vincent Quan, a marketing professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology who advises the Thai Garment Manufacturers Association. “In this terrible economy, the question now is, ‘Is that what the world wants of them?’” With its heightening emphasis on quality and originality in design, the Thai garment industry is “a whole different world,” said Polpat Asavaprapha, a Parsons The New School for Design graduate who worked with Marc Jacobs and other New York designers before returning to his native Thailand two years ago. Last year, in collaboration with head designer Maruwut Buranasilpin, Asavaprapha launched the Asava line of high-end women’s wear that now sells beside European luxury labels at Bangkok’s Siam Paragon upscale mall. Even though Asava is aiming to show in New York within the next two years, it has moved away from its initial palette of neutral hues in favor of elegantly draped silks in bold colors. Asavaprapha said the brand wants to “stand out in that market by being more Asian, not less.”

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