Silkworms and catwalks
inspire Kiwi designers on Thailand visit

The Foundation recently took a group of five fashion-focussed Kiwis on a week-long trip to Thailand to delve into the thriving Thai fashion scene and build connections with their local counterparts. Yu Mei CEO Jessie Wong talks about what the group got up to in Thailand and what she learnt from taking part in the trip

Yu Mei CEO Jessie Wong talks about what the group got up to in Thailand and what she learnt from taking part in the trip

It’s a slice of the world that often appears in the supply chain of many New Zealand brands, but the Foundation’s Adam McConnochie, who led the trip, reckons that sort of thinking is so last season.

“I wanted to convince a group of top Kiwi entrepreneurs that it was also a worthwhile place to potentially sell their creations and where collaboration with local entrepreneurs was a possibility.”

The five designers were Yu Mei founder and CEO Jessie Wong, Pania Greenaway Ltd founder and creative designer Pania Tucker, Little Yellow Bird founder and CEO Samantha Jones, Offcut founder Adrien Taylor, and Jason Lingard, founder and director of the fashion label of the same name.

Adam says Asia is currently the most prosperous and most exciting region in the world and New Zealand fashion labels would be remiss not to take notice of what's happening in the region.

“We want them to take advantage of the opportunities that are available there. We don’t want them to miss out.”

At Bangkok International Fashion Week, the New Zealanders sat down and chatted with top Thai designers. Names like: Tawn Chatchavalvong from label Tawn C, Patsy Tapasanan from Folkcharm, and Orn Teankaprasith from Painkiller.

“It’s early days business-wise, but some brand collaborations and pop-up opportunities are in the pipeline.”

They learnt the Thai runway aesthetic is increasingly Asia-centric, with Japan and Korea trendsetters.

“Increasingly, what’s cool in Tokyo is more relevant than what’s cool in London.”

That’s good news because Kiwi fashion brands have had some success in Japan, so there’s potential for them to convert this success to other parts of Southeast Asia, Adam says.

For Wellington-based clothing designer Pania Tucker the opportunity to meet with local designers was a trip highlight.

“Listening to their stories about their brands, what their challenges are, how they design, what inspires them and their views on the Thai fashion industry.”

Through her label, Pania Greenaway, she shows a passion for natural and recycled fibres, sustainability, and indigenous culture.

So, a trip north from Bangkok’s hustle to a silk-producing area in Isaan provided Pania another opportunity to connect with like-minded fashion folk.

“We visited several village communities that had a strong entrepreneurial culture and definitely saw potential for us to work with local rural communities of silk weavers and artists.”

A link to Thailand in the brand’s supply chain could be the catalyst needed to put Pania Greenaway designs in front of Thai consumers, she says.

“Exporting to Thailand would definitely be possible in the mid to long term.”

The Thai fashion scene is large and varied with everything from luxury, high-end designs to ready-to-wear. International brands are highly visible, with local brands also well represented, she says.

“There was a lot of support at local and government levels for smaller co-ops and rural craft communities, with aims to preserve cultural and traditional textile practice and develop and promote Thai craft and culture which is very exciting.”

Learning about the highly intricate process of silk creation and meeting the local producers was also a trip highlight for Little Yellow Bird founder and CEO Samantha Jones.

Little Yellow Bird supplies more than 100 organisations in New Zealand, Australia and the USA with uniforms made with natural and sustainable fabrics that can be traced right back to the farming level.

The brand has strong links with Asia having used India as their primary manufacturing hub for the past three years.

“I particularly enjoyed visiting Thai garment manufacturers and comparing these to the factories we work with in India,” Samantha says.

While there’s no immediate plans to shift production from India, the insights she gained in Thailand could help future-proof their brand, she says.

“It was valuable to see how manufacturing is done in Thailand and to have already explored several options should we ever expand into this market.”

Building strong relationships with the other Kiwi designers was another huge benefit of the programme, Samantha says.

The Foundation's Janryll Fernandez chats with Yu Mei CEO Jessie Wong and Offcut Founder Adrian Taylor about their experiences in Thailand

Adam says the group was chosen because they are “influencers” in the industry and can increase the knowledge and understanding of the fashion scene in Thailand back home.

“This is crucial for New Zealand long-term.”

The Thai visit for fashion entrepreneurs was part of the Foundation’s ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, which aims to build networks between business people in Southeast Asia and New Zealand.