Thai designer Tawn C. on surviving the pandemic and Project Runway

In Thailand, they dress for the occasion. But after two years of Covid-era restrictions, there haven’t been many occasions to really take pride in one’s outfit. Famed Thai designer Tawn Chatchavalvong – known as Tawn C. – is excited for that to change in the new year as his customers start “dressing up” again. He speaks exclusively to AMC about running a fashion house during the pandemic, and his exciting new challenge: mentor on Project Runway Thailand.

All photos: Supplied

Pre-Covid, a Tawn C. collection could be seen twice-yearly at fashion weeks around the world, specifically Paris, where the brand has made a name for itself. “In general, the government tries to support us to go outside Thailand, and show our soft power to the world,” says Tawn from his home in Bangkok. “As designers, it has always been important to look around, ask ourselves what our strengths and weaknesses are [in the global market], and ask how to do it better.”

Travel restrictions have put a pin in this sort of outward-facing work for Tawn; instead, his focus has gone onto his domestic market. “I have to say that it has been quite a difficult time for all of us in fashion for the past two years with Covid,” he says. “The journey for me is about 10 years as a brand to build my company. We continue the legacy the many designers who have paved the way for us to be successful. At the time of the moment, it’s not just about being successful but that you can sustain, and also, survive the pandemic.”

To preserve his cashflow for the new, open world we’re all waiting for, Tawn closed his stores – a decision he thought would be heart-breaking. Instead, it has reinvigorated him to think about what he wants for the future of his brand. “Asia is generally a very creative continent,” he says. “And we have the ability to design and manufacture here, and have enough wow factor. While we can’t travel overseas, we are focussing on the local market, and looking at how they purchase from us.”

What has Tawn C. noticed as a brand? “Business is bouncing back,” he grins, after a thorough assessment of what lines sell the most product. “People want their life back. Thai people dress for the occasion. They want a blouse or a skirt for when they can go out again. 

Fashion, Tawn says, is a business that happens to sell clothes. “I have to be careful about my creative needs versus my business needs, and I need to wear two hats,” he explains. “When I creative side speaks louder it says, ‘oh, we want to spend more, we want to create the collection with more materials – more expensive materials’.

“When the business side is talking, it says ‘oh no, you have to calculate the margins… how can you survive? There’s an atelier back at home that needs support and funding for the next two collections we are working towards’.”  

The commercial side of Tawn C. always wins over the creative. “Fashion business is a business, and we need to look at it from the standpoint that it needs to make sense,” Tawn says. “Grow organically, show what you can do, make it a really good business, so you will survive.”

With the pandemic Tawn has also been given the luxury of time. He’s using it to give back to the fashion community: next year, he will be the mentor on Project Runway Thailand, the role Tim Gunn made famous in the US.

“It’s a very popular format around the world, and we’ve waited so long for Project Runway to come to Thailand. I’m very honoured to be picked as the mentor for the show,” Tawn says. “I love giving back. One of the things I have been doing is going to universities to teach fashion. I need to help nourish the new generation of designers; that’s why I put my time in. It’s important for me to connect with what they are doing at the moment.

“Designers can be really focussed on what’s in front of us. When I widen my perspective and see what they are into, what their interests are… it helps feed the energy back to me. For Project Runway, it’s the opportunity for me to show my design ability, and my teaching ability, combined together in front of a TV show.”

Project Runway has been in the works for months, and they will begin to film next year when Thailand’s pandemic restrictions make it possible.

Tawn has experience with young designers from New Zealand, too. In 2018, in concert with the New Zealand Embassy in Thailand, he hosted a group of Kiwi fashion entrepreneurs. They also presented their work at a fashion show at the embassy in Bangkok. This was a first for New Zealand designers. 

“One thing I find the most interesting about [Kiwi designers] is their mindset about the environment, and that it’s very deep in their creative process,” Tawn says. “I think this is very critical, and modern. You’re thinking about the carbon footprint, the waste you generate, the impact you’ll make on the world with every stage… it’s very impressive. It seems to be in your DNA.”

 - Asia Media Centre