Hand-made goes haute couture – bold new fashion out of Chiang Rai

While Chiang Rai is home to a host of creative-types, fashion shows are a rare occurrence.

By | Tue 1 May 2012

“We’re excited.” says Jittanart Pichaiya (Phai), almost breathless with exhilaration. Her large feather earrings flicker around her smiling face. Naishanan Maneerat (Nae), clad in a bright pink ethnic-inspired dress and large belt, rushes up to discuss last minute details.

These two childhood friends-turned-business partners, along with Nae’s brother Nutnatee Maneerat (Nut), are about to present their fashion line, the Chezmoi Haute Couture 2012 collection – “Tribal Wars”, in an outdoor fashion show at Le Meridian hotel in Chaing Rai.

While Chiang Rai is home to a host of creative-types, fashion shows are a rare occurrence. Friends, supporters, and Chiang Rai socialites file into the hotel’s courtyard and take a seat as they wait expectantly for a first peak at the brand’s second collection. As Nae and Phai welcome guests and Nut snaps photos, the excitement in the air is palpable. The show begins.

One after another, boldly-dressed models, representing five ethnic groups of Thailand’s northern region, stride down the catwalk. The designs are dominated, but not solely defined, by visual cues taken from Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Mien and Karen cultures. Traditional elements such as ethnic weavings are paired with asymmetrical jewellry, layers of modern fabrics and voluminous silhouettes for a truly unique styling. Each model represents either an ethnic queen, predominately portrayed in white and gold with a regal, stately flair, or a woman warrior, whose dress illustrates the female’s fighting spirit and darker power.

Feathers flutter, brass bangles jingle, and silver adornments glimmer under the bright lights. As the proud Mien warrior mounts the stage, a gust of wind blasts the model, enlivening her dark black cape and sweeping back the blood-red tassels on her headdress. Up against the elements, her beauty is even more formidable. The braches of a large tree shake in the oncoming storm and seedlings spin down from the sky, creating a truly magical effect.

“The designs alone were stunning,” commented audience member Hannah Marenka Cann, “But once the wind picked up and flowers from the tree filled the air, it was as if Mother Nature was offering her approval, adding an inimitable layer of drama to the show.”

With its pulsating colour scheme, enthusiastic use of accessories and brazen pairings of traditional textures and patterns, the Chezmoi collection is certainly dramatic. Yet the designers make a conscious effort to let everyone enjoy their bold, playful designs. “Chezmoi clothes are for anyone who has a love of ethnic style in their heart,” explains Nai, who is the accessories designer and also the manager for the brand’s boutique, “Our products range from small accessories to clothes to home decoration, so that everyone has a way to express their style.”

For the Chezmoi team, their style inspiration, as well as the brand’s French name, comes from the notion of “home”.

“Chiang Rai is our hometown,” says Phai, the Chezmoi costume designer and shop keeper who studied fashion design in Bangkok, “We’re interested in our town’s diverse cultures. We found that each tribe had a unique culture, character and costume, but no one brought out their uniqueness in modern, everyday style.”

With this in mind, the three founders envisioned a fashion line that not only showcased the beauty of these cultures, but also provided a way for these communities to improve their quality of life.

Chezmoi takes great pride in sourcing hand-made, natural and fair-trade materials from local suppliers. One of their main suppliers is the eBannok – Handicrafts Project, a fair-trade business initiative of the Mirror Foundation, a Thai NGO working in the region. The project supplies hand-made clay bird whistles, amongst other products, to Chezmoi who then transforms these pieces into earrings and necklaces.

With customers requesting orders from as far afield as Japan and the United States, Chezmoi has already caught the eye of the international market. The brand’s deep roots in the local community have emerged as a strong selling point.

“I love unique pieces and colourful clothing that makes me happy,” comments Zoe Davidson, a Chezmoi customer and model (as well as staff of the eBannok project), “Chezmoi is all that and more for me. Nae, Phai and Nut are very beautiful and inspiring people. It is amazing that they are taking inspirations from the hill tribes of Chiang Rai and trying to create more awareness.”

In addition to their fashion line, the Chezmoi team has also started a home stay and local magazine. “We want to show the hospitality of our town and share about the beautiful cultures of Chiang Rai through media,” says Nut, the man behind the marketing, IT design and photography of Chezmoi.

As strong advocates for their home town, these designers exemplify the warmth, beauty and creativity of the region. Through the rosy view of Chezmoi, Chiang Rai has never looked so good.

Chezmoi designs are available at the Chezmoi Handicraft and Homestay in Chiang Rai and from the company’s website:¬†www.chezmoimyhome.com. A limited selection of Chezmoi products is available in Chiang Mai at the ‘so-co’ shop at Jin Jai Market.