Having been a nomad of sorts all her life, Sabina Fay Braxton has, after nearly forty years, come home to Chiang Mai…well, one of her many homes.
As we settled in for a chat over a coffee in the lounge of the spanking new 137 Pillars House Hotel in Wat Gate, Sabina assesses her old home. “That was my bedroom,” she points to the hotel’s meeting room, “and my parents’ bedroom was where the bar is now. We loved this house. In fact, we spent more time here than we did anywhere else in my youth, being here from 1972-1975 with a year in India in between.”
Sabina’s father was a writer, avid collector and passionate student of all things ethnic ranging from ancient court music to tribal artifacts and decorative items, while her mother was a painter. Sabina was homeschooled all her life, though had two brief stints in an English boarding school, her parents finding tutors or experts in a variety of fields to educate her as they moved around the world. “When we arrived somewhere new, we would immediately find a house; we were always looking for interesting, unique homes with a history. Mum didn’t like to travel much, so we would dump her and go and travel, dad and I,” said Sabina whose childhood was as diverse and unorthodox as her creativity and imagination. While living in the Kangra Valley in Rajasthan when she was twelve, she immersed herself in the comparative study of the schools of Mogul and Indian miniatures; at thirteen, she studied Balinese dance in Denpasar; at thirteen she learnt of the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations in northern Iraq. But before all that, from the age of seven, she lived in Chiang Mai, the base of her and her father’s explorations of northern Thailand’s hill tribes. “In those days, the Museum of Mankind in London didn’t even know about the tribes, their origins, decorative items or languages.”
Sabina, a vivacious English woman, who periodically bursts into unrestrained laughter as though sharing some wicked secret with life, has been back in Chiang Mai, with her fourteen year old son, for three months. “When I was twelve, I made a vow that life would be perfect if I could do six months a year in Europe and six months in Thailand. My son had heard me saying this all his life, and because he always felt at home here when visiting my father, he said to me last year to just do it. I’ve only been waiting for over thirty years to do this, so I said, let’s go!”
Sabina cherishes her memories of Chiang Mai. “We first lived on Soi 1 Nimmanhaemin, in the Amari apartments, then we moved to the Wood compound in Nong Hoi before ending up here, the old Bain compound, or Borneo Six, there were six houses here you see. This house was actually moved from its old location just on the other side of the compound, and reassembled. I remember loving living here, we had a cat called Tiptoe, and Ann Bain would visit us in her wheelchair, bringing four red apples on a white plate, such jewels, such a treat in those days! I also remember mum mentioning to Ann that every night she would shut the door to her bedroom and every morning the door would be open and the calendar we had hung on the door would be on the ground, sometimes her paintings were also face down on the floor. We never quite understood this until Ann told us that her father, William Bain, [who had been an employee of the Borneo Company, builders and original owners of the compound, who then bought it off them in the 1930s before renting it back to the company until the it folded in the 1950s, reverting the land back to his family] was detained by the Japanese during the war and our calendar happened to have been from Japan Airline. We removed the calendar and that was the end of that!”
“Oddly a couple of months ago, I went to visit Narissa, owner of Hinlay Curry, a descendent of William Bain, who lives just next door to here. We were sitting there talking about old ghosts and this cat walks up to me, it was very friendly and had all the exact markings of my Tiptoe from all those years ago.”
Sabina talks about her memories of old Chiang Mai: the ice cold bus rides from Bangkok with bus hostesses and inedible sandwiches; wandering through Warorot Market with her mother, soaking it all in; being given treats by the white haired lady at Kasem’s Store; and being so terribly impressed by the handsome owner of Neramit, with his tight bell bottoms.
The nomadic Braxtons eventually moved on, though they often returned to Chiang Mai, where her father, Vincent Braxton, eventually spent many of his latter years. Sabina’s deeply imbued sense of history and fascination with culture has continued through her life, and has led her to become one of the most celebrated textile designers in the world. She studied scenography at the École des Arts Decoratifs in Nice, France and had an opportunity, upon graduation, to refurbish an old castle in France. At that time there were not many companies creating fabrics appropriate for such a medieval castle, most fabrics at the time were recreations of 18th-19th century designs, so she had to design and make them herself, inventing new textiles and imbuing each piece with a patina which, while being faithful to the time period, had its modern relevancy. Over the years, she developed her own collection of textiles and eventually began to work in fashion. “We do not replicate, we design in the spirit of a period,” expanded Sabina. “It is a bit like coming back to Chiang Mai; I don’t like to live in nostalgia. I have nostalgia, but I like to take things from the past but look at how we can represent it in the now. When I was working in couture, I was working with some of the world’s greatest designers. I made a yellow jacket out of one of my fabrics in 1991 for Christian Lacroix which he proceeded to sell two of, each for 200,000 French francs (about 1.2 million baht). We were not allowed to sell more than one item to each continent; but remarkably twelve years later, I saw a woman in a theatre wearing one of the jackets. She told me she owned two of my couture jackets! Because of the economy, people aren’t spending like that anymore.”
Sabina eventually moved her business towards supplying interior firms such as Peter Marino in New York, a star in today’s world of interior design. She has supplied his 150 architects and 25 interior designers with textiles, made to order in workshops all over the world, for shops such as Dior, Channel and Louis Vuitton. She also has many private clients including the King of Morocco, his 36 palaces keeping her busy and business growing.
“The king points to my fabrics and orders 200 metres of this and 200 metres of that because he can’t make up his mind; at 300 dollars a metre, it is always a nice order. I met his manager who complained to me that I was the one filling up all his warehouses!”
Sabina has also worked on many hotel interiors supplying her coveted textiles to the Aman Resorts, Park Hyatt, the Lancaster in Paris, etc.
Her design range and applications are extraordinary, and she is known for her bold and creative use of colours and textures, drawing from her deep knowledge of the history of textiles, ethnic textiles as well as being inspired by her nomadic life. “I get inspiration from my travels, from nature, it is endless. Before I had to do a lot of research on historical documents, but I have done it for so long and learnt it all so it is like the alphabet to me, it is second nature, now I get inspired by so many things.”
Her fabrics have adorned movie stars including Catherine Deneuve as well as Natalie Portman, who wore a robe with fabric designed by Sabina in Star Wars. Even Professor Dumbledore was robed in an original Sabina Braxton, his office similarly furnished.
“Many years ago I used to sell off my scraps at inexpensive prices and this woman who used to buy them, had kept one as a book mark. Ten years later, she was an assistant to the costume designer for the Harry Potter movies. One day her boss pointed to the bookmark and says, ‘that is what we want for the invisible cloak’ and that is how they found me! I was visiting my father in England at the time and had two days to find out who Harry Potter was. So I went into a bookshop and asked if they had heard of a book with someone in it called Harry Potter!” Sabina breaks out into one of her outrageous laughs, and I immediately follow suit for a good cathartic minute or two. “The man at the bookshop told me to turn round, and there I saw an entire wall on Harry Potter! Unfortunately my velvet textile was too heavy to become the invisible cloak, but I still got to dress up Dumbledore.”
Sabina has spent the past seven years working out of Venice, and before that was in France for seven years. Even though seven years by Sabina’s life standards is a virtual eternity in one place, she travels extensively. “I used to travel once a week, to visit workshops as well as my agents around the world. I am trying to slow down a bit now.”
Sabina’s father passed away two years ago, his ashes scattered over the Ping River. “I first came here to calm down; I haven’t been out much, I just needed to channel myself. I will come to it now that I am ready, but I just had to stop having inspiration for a while, I am in no rush.”
“I feel a deep connection to Chiang Mai. When we were young, living here, we used to just sit and reflect, and even in my youth, I had a sense of place and history. Until my father died I always felt nostalgic when I came back; nostalgia has a sense of sadness attached to it, reliving things which are gone and looking into the past. I could come back to visit the city, but I couldn’t go up the mountains and many of the memories were sad because my mother had passed away years before and I couldn’t seem to get over some unresolved feelings. After my father died, however, I went up the mountains and had a very spiritual moment. It was so powerful that I went back to Europe and slept for one week; I can come back and start moving forward now. It isn’t nostalgic anymore, it is revisiting roots, being revitalised, using the feeling of coming home to nurture a new beginning.”
“I had a stroke of luck and found an amazing house; the famous late Swiss artist, Theo Meier’s house by the Ping River. There is something, for me, magical here in Chiang Mai. Things just seem to fall into place, whereas other places in the world are fraught with the immense practicalities which overrule life. My dad had this idea that one should never allow practicalities to stand in one’s way, decide what you want in life, do it, and let the practicalities sort themselves out. Chiang Mai has this magic for me, I don’t know if it is a state of mind or what, I don’t need to know, some things are better left to their flow, I don’t analyse too much; analysis happens at night when I sleep anyway. Here it is like going through a looking glass where everything is the opposite, it seems to happen so easily. I remember way back when I was a girl, a Thai lady said to me that I should live here; she told me that life was easy here. I always wondered and thought about what she said, and now, after three months, every time I go out, something amazing happens and it all falls into place as though nature had planned it that way. That lady was right. I plan to go back to Venice in June, but will always come back, it is a special place with special associations.