Fashion and Market

July 2021

Conversation with Thai Designer Shone Puipia

Creating his own universe at SOI SA:M
By Ian Tee

Shone Puipia presents an uncompromising vision of beauty premised on sophisticated silhouettes, distinct colour combinations and unique materials. Born and raised in Bangkok, the 28-year-old Thai designer launched his eponymous label in 2017, a year after graduating from the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp.

In this conversation, Shone talks about his formal training in Europe, the made-to-order business model and presenting his total vision at SOI SA:M.

You completed your Masters in Fashion Design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium in 2016. Could you talk about your experience at the academy? How has it prepared you in your career after graduation?

The academy was my training ground in the arts and fashion. It was where I learned and honed my craft and started to build up my voice. I had graduated from a Thai high school in Bangkok where curriculum in the arts was not considered a priority. As such, enrolling at the academy was my first time participating in a proper arts education, whereas many of the other European students may have had some prior foundational studies before. There was a lot I had to adapt to in the first year, but at the same time, I think I also brought to the school a different point of view in my work.

The academy offered hands-on curriculum and I learnt all the different facets of fashion, from designing, pattern-cutting, garment-making, to producing photoshoots, and presentations. It was not a large school with a lot of proper facilities available, so that encouraged us to become more creative and resourceful in order to execute our designs. The teachers were there to guide us along the process of making our collections, but they did not tell us step by step what we have to do. We learnt to do our own research, question our own work, and push it even further.

In addition to training in fashion design, you also enrolled in a course in Footwear Pattern-making and Prototyping at Arsutoria School in Milan. What prompted this decision? Does your approach to footwear design differ from creating garments?

Honestly, I have an obsession with shoes! I was already designing shoes for my second-year collection in school. This was not an obligatory assignment. Some peers had shoes made, while others used existing shoes and played around them. But I have always viewed footwear as a foundation to create a look. By changing the footwear style, you can completely change the story you are telling. One’s attitude and the way one walks changes with the shoes they’re wearing. That is a fascinating aspect to me.

I am very lucky to have found this small shoe manufacturer based in Bangkok during my studies and I am still working with them today. They do not work with minimum order quantities, which is a blessing for a young independent designer like myself. They are also very open to experiment on elaborate designs or working with new materials. I picked up some knowledge about shoemaking as I was working with them.

However, after graduating, I thought why not delve deeper into this craft that I am very passionate about. I wanted to learn more about the technical side of shoe-making, so that I can better understand my own design and liaise with the manufacturer. The craft of shoe-making is so much different from garment making. When working on such a smaller scale, changes in millimeters greatly impact the fit of the shoe. There is a fine balance that you have to juggle with between ideas and practicality, even more so than in clothing.

“I have always viewed footwear as a foundation to creating a look. By changing the footwear style, you can completely change the story you are telling.”

After returning to Bangkok, you launched SOI SA:M in 2018, a multidisciplinary space which houses your studio and archive, as well as an exhibition space and design shop. What is your vision for this space?

I wanted to create a space that brought together fashion and art, both of which inform my practice. There was not such a space here in Bangkok where you could discover a designer’s universe in person. Thus, I wanted to offer the Thai community a new way to appreciate and shop fashion. At first, two other seamstresses and I were working from a small studio space at home, which is a two-minute walk from SOI SA:M. But since the start of 2020, we just finished renovating a new studio space here, so now all our operations are integrated in this property.

At SOI SA:M, we have a main exhibition space on the second floor, which now serves as the showroom for our latest collection. The setup for this space changes with each new collection depending on the theme that year. We also collaborate with other artists and creatives to create a total installation alongside the garments. For ‘Cloudbusting’ (2020), we invited three young artists to create works that responded to the collection: IWANNABANGKOK©, Montis Songsombat, and Naraphat Sakarthornsap. Their sensibilities and chosen mediums were so different, working with video, photography and flower installation respectively. But they all explored the idea of a search for beauty as a common thread.

It was also very important to me that we have an archive space where all our past collections are kept. Our pieces are produced made-to-order and we do not work with seasons, so our clients can always request designs from the archive, perhaps in another colour or fabric which makes it very unique. I think this is a new way of buying fashion for Thai people which they are not used to yet. However, we try to encourage potential clients to come visit us directly at the showroom because this is where conversations, ideas and possibilities to create unique pieces can happen.

Who are the designers/creatives from the Thai/regional fashion industry you admire or work with?

The young Thai creative community today is as vibrant as ever. Our close collaborators range from artists, designers, photographers, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs. Kanrapee Chokpaiboon and Montis Songsombat are two young photographers whose work I really admire for their distinct point of view. Patcharavipa Bodiratnangkura is a jewelry designer and friend who creates beautifully elegant and delicate fine jewelry pieces. We both appreciate the values of handwork and craftsmanship that is evident in our works. Philip Huang is another brand which merges traditional know-how with contemporary design, working closely with artisans in the Northeast of Thailand to create their unique indigo-dyed pieces.

“Our pieces are produced made-to-order and we don’t work with seasons, so our clients can always request designs from the archive, perhaps in another colour or fabric which makes it very unique. I think this is a new way of buying fashion for Thai people which they are not used to yet.”

Unexpected combinations of fabrics are used in your pieces. Among them is mawata silk, which has become a signature material. Could you talk about the materials and techniques you enjoy using most? What drew you to them and do you work with other experts to produce these textiles?

I actually discovered mawata silk through my mom, Pinaree Sanpitak’s work ‘The Roof’. It was a site-specific hanging installation she showed at Brookfield Place, New York, in 2017. I was there to help her install the piece and became fascinated by the material’s texture. It is very light but is able to hold a shape at the same time. However, the material itself with its loose fibers did not feel nice on the skin so I had to look for a way to make it work in garments. To keep the mawata’s texture visible, I enclosed it between layers of translucent silk organza, creating a mesmerizing effect on the material. All the layers have to be hand-basted together for each pattern piece before they are assembled together with the sewing machine.

I work with a lot of materials and fabrics in my collections. Each has its own beauty and requires different handling and applications. What I enjoy most is to create my own fabrics and materials. I have been very lucky to have had the chance to work with Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company on several occasions. For my Masters collection, they kindly offered me the opportunity to create an original warp-printed hand-woven silk fabric at their Pak Thong Chai factory. Later on, I designed two capsule collections for them that were produced and sold at their stores. The best part of the collaboration was getting to work closely with their textile team to develop new fabrics, learning from their know-how, and also pushing them to experiment with new techniques.

Your collections are seasonless, with pieces being produced made-to-order. Is this a business model you conceived of from the beginning? How does it affect the way you approach building the label?

For me, one of the most important things is to keep the integrity of the work and to be able to create truly special and quality pieces. It is a way to break the pattern of how fashion is typically produced and to put the emphasis back on craft and time-honoured values. In the beginning, I needed an excellent in-house team that can professionally execute designs the way that I want them to look. This process took time and a lot of asking around before we became this small family that we are today.

“For me, one of the most important things is to keep the integrity of the work and to be able to create truly special and quality pieces. It is a way to break the pattern of how fashion is typically produced and to put the emphasis back on craft and time-honoured values.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of daily life. How have you navigated the past year as both a business owner and creative?

2020, and even into 2021 still, has been about adapting to the daily uncertainties brought on by COVID-19. We had just moved into the new studio at SOI SA:M when the country went into the first lockdown. At the time, we were sampling new pieces for ‘Cloudbusting’ (2020) so we had to find new ways to work and keep to our schedule even when everybody was encouraged to stay home. The seamstresses took back pieces to work from home and we met up once a week to check on the progress. We remain a small team so it was quite manageable to work around this.

Our business relies on a lot of physical appointments with clients so this was definitely affected during the peak COVID surges here in Bangkok. But in those quiet periods, it also gave me time to reflect on the new collection and experiment with new things. Beauty came out of it as well. We were able to get help creating the finale hand-knotted silk fringe dresses, because one of our friends who is an event organiser, was free for many months and could lend us a hand with these pieces.

Congratulations on launching your 2021 collection ‘Fever’! At the heart of this collection is a collaboration with One More Thing, a Bangkok-based material-driven brand with an emphasis on textile and graphic woven surface. How did this collaboration come about? What message do you wish to convey with this collection?

One More Thing was first launched during Bangkok Design Week in early 2020 and that was where we discovered their work. We didn't get to meet up with them again until May 2020 when the first wave of COVID subsided. Actually, our initial plan was just to create 1 or 2 new jacquard fabrics with them. For One More Thing, their business model was not to be purely a textile manufacturer for other brands. Instead, they plan to work through collaborations with artists and designers, acting as an open platform for like-minded creatives to create textiles and products together. That was how our relationship started. We supported the design of 28 textiles in the collection and they were responsible for developing and producing the fabrics.

With this collection, we wish to bring some hope and joy back to our lives during these difficult times. I think sometimes we may underestimate the power of how clothing can uplift our emotions, and improve the way we live. It is a rallying call for us not to ever forget that and look forward to brighter days.

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