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Thakoon rises - New York’s new fashion star

From Thailand to America’s First Lady, via Anna Wintour: Alexander Fury charts the rise of Thakoon

The fashion designer known simply as Thakoon is very, very polite.

It’s the first thing that strikes you about him. He’s soft-spoken, courteous to a fault, but thankfully not obsequiously so, even when fresh off a long-haul red-eye from  New York. You sense that even the act of cleaving his surname, Panichgul, from his label has less to do with the urge to establish a mono-moniker (Cher, Madonna, Jesus – many fashion designers believe they’re a magical combination of all three) than to just make it a bit easier for people to say.

Thakoon may be polite, but his clothes aren’t. They’re brave, and daring. He’s often lumped into that “new New York” bracket of designers because his clothes are still directional and challenging, even a decade into his career. His first collection offered a deconstructed take on Cecil Beaton’s photographs of Charles James-clad debutantes. Since then, he’s given us a Maasai Marie Antoinette, Bollywood-hued Spaghetti Westerns, and collaborated with artist Laurie Simmons on a rose-print with shapely pin-up legs dancing in place of the corolla.

That’s one of the Thakoon signatures – eye-popping print, the sort sported by Michelle Obama, an avowed Thakoon devotee. For autumn/winter 2013, Thakoon embroidered dragonflies on neoprene and scrambled print with lace, mixing floral with floral in panelled mini-dresses that ended up looking like pixelated computer-images half-loaded. They leap out from the screen – and from shop rails, too. “People ask ‘How do you get inspiration?’ But I don’t know,” says Thakoon when I raise just that with him. “You live and you get inspired. How do you get inspired every day with what you do? You have to let it bubble up, you connect the dots, you say: ‘Why am I interested in this?’”

Why are we interested in Thakoon? Because, besides being one of the stars of New York’s younger generation of designers, his story is as complex and multicultural as his clothes. Born in Thailand, he moved to Nebraska with his family (including an older brother, now a photographer, who Thakoon refers to as his “Irish twin”) aged 11. “I think it opened me up to be more creative,” reasons Thakoon of that culture shock. “I think I had to go into my head dream a bit more because there was really nothing culturally in Nebraska at the time.” In fact, the only thing there was, was fashion. “The only way for us to enjoy anything was going to the newsstand discovering books and magazines, and that’s how I got into fashion magazines,” he states. “I was collecting Vogues: British Vogue, Italian Vogue all kinds of fashion magazines… I loved the industry. I loved delving into Bruce Weber photographs and all of these fashion stories that at the time were revolutionary.”

Ironically, despite the magazines, Thakoon didn’t see fashion as something glamorous. “After we moved to the States my mum was doing seamstress work,” he says. “It was more a way for her to put food on the table. She was sewing coats for Pendleton. So for me, I associated fashion with that – you couldn’t make money, it was a  blue-collar thing.”

Thakoon went on to study business, not fashion, but still wound up in the industry, working first for J. Crew and then at American Harper’s Bazaar under the editorship of Kate Betts. “He’s a gentle soul,” says author and journalist Camilla Morton, who worked alongside Thakoon during his four years at Harper’s Bazaar and recognised his talent from the start.

How did the shift come from writing about frocks to actually making them? “Two years into Harper’s, I decided I was not a writer,” says Thakoon today. “I was just pretending.” There was also something of the back-seat driver, or rather back-seat designer, to his endeavours. “I’d see the clothes and be like, ‘Why would they do it like that? They should finish it this way’, or see that it should have been shorter, with organza on the bottom, or something. At the same time, we were profiling new designers and their ideas, and, as I was talking to them, I would think: ‘Wow, these are ideas I have in my head, these are things I’ve been jotting down anyways!’ There was something that was parallel to me, in their thinking and my thinking.”

Thakoon took classes at New York’s Parsons design school, but after that, rather than setting up his own label, the first impetus was to work in-house. “I went to try and to apply for jobs as a designer and I was not successful,” recalls Thakoon today. “So the only way was to do it on my own.”

He created his first selection of looks while still working at Harper’s Bazaar. Morton remembers her reaction when she saw those clothes, samples sewn together during Thakoon’s spare time: “Even I knew this was a big deal!”

The “big deal” was a debut collection that still looks contemporary today, shards of lace set into plastic trench-coats or edging-cropped tweed blazers. That collection was impressive enough to net Thakoon financial backing, and a star, as they say, was born. And as for the singular epithet on that hangtag? “The only reason I named it Thakoon was because… if it’s your name, you don’t have to copyright it!”

For the record, “Thakoon” is pronounced “Tack-oon”, but if you watched The September Issue you probably figured that out. After all, he was arguably the major designer presence in director R J Cutler’s documentary charting the development of American Vogue’s bumper September 2007 issue. And Anna Wintour, the all-powerful Vogue editor-in-chief, seemed to love Thakoon.

It’s a love that’s mutual: “Obviously, we can talk about Anna Wintour being the one person that I could safely say single-handedly championed young designers in a way that was really effective,” says Thakoon today. “You’re building a designer brand from scratch – you have no money first of all. You have no assistance, you don’t have a lot. The fact that she stuck around with people and made sure that they were placed and made sure that their clothes sold to stores… she understands that new blood needs to happen.”

Back then, Thakoon – the label – was certainly new blood, barely three years old. Next year, it hits a decade in business, with a sister line, Thakoon Addition, offering his designs at a slightly more accessible price-point, and collaborations with the likes of Mango and The Gap under his belt. Thakoon is now a label many people know – even if the designer himself is somewhat out of the limelight.

He’s happy for it to stay that way. Ask Thakoon about The September Issue and he blushes. “I haven’t even watched that movie,” he confesses, although when I ask if he sold more dresses because of it, he honestly answers: “My business did see that impact in many ways… I got a lot of different opportunities from that movie. I think Michelle Obama came out of that as well.”

And do people recognise him in the street? “Yes! A lot of kids do, too; all of these fashion kids that aspire. For me, it’s nice to be able to give back.”