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Manufacturing in South East Asia can become a resource for the region (like embroidery for India) provided it is possible to separate the expertise from the traditions that preserved it in the first place. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t really: tradition may well facilitate the passing down of techniques and ensure continuity of teaching, but it also risks anchoring production to a recurring form of expression, without pushing workers to do research and embrace innovation. Public agencies and private businesses in Bangkok alike want to facilitate contact with Western experimentation, based on a strategy to transform handicrafts that may appear limited by their merchandising aimed at the tourist market, into an industrial asset that can be exported to a European customer base.

Antonio Marras presented three dresses made using Thai silk in Bangkok on August 20th: garments with drapes and folds whose fabric was sewn using multiple seams in order to generate volume, width, and abstract shapes. Contemporary style whose speculation lies in the transience of movement, like Robbie Spencer’s styling hinting at Comme des Garcons. Efisio Marras, Creative Director at Isola Marras, the contemporary line by Marras, explains how it went.

The Marras dresses opened L’Elegante Thai exhibition held at ICONSIAM and attended by the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Jurin Laksanawisit, and Mrs. Chadatip Chutrakul, CEO of ICONSIAM. The exhibition included a selection of articles from the Marras archives, a fashion show by local designer Sorapol Chawaphatanakul, exploring the potential of the expertise on tap in South East Asia and its application to European design. The Elegant Thai is a project created and managed by Mrs. Viwan Karnasut, Director of Maximage production house. The Italian Ambassador to Thailand, Lorenzo Galanti, gave an introductory speech. One of the Marras dresses realised for the occasion in local silk was sold at auction – the proceeds were donated to a project supporting small local manufacturers.

As you approach by boat, on the river, ICONSIAM looks like a macro Versailles of the Orient, like the palaces in India: on the waterfront, as you disembark, you are can’t help but consider the commercial aspects: you can’t think of ICONSIAM as simply a department store any more, as far as its scope is concerned. Fashion houses underscore their turnover by adhering to an aristocratic ranking – Hermès and Louis Vuitton are assigned the main windows like towers granting access to the fortress, accompanied by Cartier and Gucci. Apple has bagged the terrace on the second floor.

In Thailand, the monarchy is a deep-seated institution in the public’s mind. Sikrit the Queen Mother, in particular, is a benchmark figure for the textile industry. The Queen Mother has now retired from public duty (she was 87 years on August 12th and a national holiday was declared to celebrate her birthday), with the exception of a few messages aired on TV – the last one just a few weeks ago. She is the daughter of the Ambassador of Thailand to Paris and met the King in Europe, who would subsequently become her husband and crown her as his Queen in 1950. For official occasions, Queen Sirikit wore bespoke Balmain designs: the Parisian tailor applied his couture approach to Asian styles, anticipating the ideas above. The Power of Love exhibition is now open at the Museum of Textiles – a building constructed in 1870 for the Ministry of Finance, which became an institution supporting Thai craftsmen.

The exhibition is an opportunity to see some of the items worn by Queen Sirikit: gala dresses, Hermès handbags, and the Queen’s military uniforms. The exhibition offers us an insight into the history of customs that belong to us all and are not just something with exotic allure. The items on display include a green dress made of wool broadcloth whose cuffs are embroidered with the iridescent wings of scarab beetles: they may look like enamel shards but are actually animal keratin that can only be collected after the insect has died a natural death (it has a short lifecycle of about two weeks). If the beetle is not dead, the iridescent green will degenerate. The exhibition focuses on the life of the Queen, told in pictures and photographs, a person much admired and who was referred to as the mother of the nation in rural Thailand. She was a woman who fought to ensure her people had access to education, free healthcare and employment. Journalists around the world considered Sirikit as a sort of Jackie Kennedy of Asia – and the interviews and video footage on display at the Museum of Textiles include a calm, female voice referring to the novel by Jules Vernes.

One room is dedicated to the collection of batik fabrics collected by King Rama V at the end of the 19th century during his trips to the island of Java, a Dutch colony at the time. Textile art is an important part of the Thai coronation ceremony, conducted by the Chief Brahmin and similar to religious functions in India for some aspects of Buddhism, whereby the king is considered a divine spirit who has descended to earth to alleviate hardship and promote prosperity. The river baptism ceremony is held on a platform made of fig wood. Mother-of-pearl inlay came to Thailand from China and is a technique that is also found in Japan and Vietnam. In Thailand it evolved to the highest standards, as it was very popular in the Royal household and in demand for religious functions.

Inlay is no longer used today in the production of large pieces of furniture because of the difficulty in manufacturing them, but you can find examples of it on larger items: doors, furniture. Mother of pearl has a natural curvature once the muddy rock has been removed, and it can only be inserted into the inlay as small pieces. Another traditional technique of Ancient Siam is niello inlay – a raised design is carved into metal (gold or silver), and the background is filled with a metal alloy called niello made of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead that is black or dark grey. Niello inlay was used in ancient Egypt and was perfected in the Middle Ages. In Italy, it was used by Benvenuto Cellini. It became popular in the East and this led to its development, so much so that it has become a common technique nowadays. There are panels and furniture in gold and silver with a design carved in black – it feels compact and smooth and looks very shiny. Damascening is a variation of niello inlay, but the recessed areas of the carved design are not filled with a liquid alloy, but a fragment of metal is beaten into it instead.

L’Elegante Thai – Thai Italian Craftsmaship Collaboration

Icon Siam until September 1st 2019

The Power of Love

Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

The Grand Palace, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok

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