The Shape Shifter
Mixing things up keeps Thakoon from getting stuck in set ways
Story by Tim Yap / Photography by Justin Hollar
On the heels of his newest collaboration with Tasaki, the fine jewelry house out of Japan, designer of the moment Thakoon Panichgul continues to captivate us with his star turns as a designer and to carve out an enigmatic figure for himself, by eschewing conventions and re-setting the expectations of young American designers alike.
“I knew that I was always interested in fashion. I knew from a very early age. I just didn’t know that starting a collection was something I was going to do. I thought I was going to work for a company, thought the idea of having my own name on a label was intimidating,” the Thai-born, Omaha-raised designer, most recognized for his ebullient prints and lively color palette, says. Asked if the term “surfer samurai” aptly describes his spring 2010 collection, he declares: “I never have those kind of quick words, where I sum up a collection as simple as that. I always feel it’s such a mixture of different ideas.”
And yet after building Thakoon the collection over the past five years; collaborating with companies such as Nine West, the Gap, Target, and Hogan; launching a second clothing line, eyewear and footwear; one Vogue/CFDA award; the statement dresses for the first lady; and a memorable turn in last year’s The September Issue, Panichgul may be finally buckling down.
“I’ve always believed in an organic kind of growth. I’ve never been one to say out the gate that I wanted to do shoes and bags,” the one-time writer and editor at Harper’s Bazaar explains from his studio in SoHo. “What I’m interested in now is cultivating and growing and to solidify the brand and the image of Thakoon, and I think the best way to do that is to have a store.” The word “breadth” also comes up again and again, when Panichgul explains the idea of Thakoon Addition, a year-old capsule collection that extends his price range from $5-6,000 down to $295, so customers can “get really easy, wearable things.”
Yet Panichgul insists, “I never have a set way of working. For me, I get bored really quickly. If I say, ‘Okay, this season, let’s do the print process this way,’ it’s just not that exciting. In the past I’ve painted my prints; other seasons, I’ve fucked it up by pixelating it. We are just trying to twist things around a bit in terms of prints, based on the mood of the season.”
No matter the process, Panichgul’s results continue to be as irresistible as they are purposeful. As Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, explains, “Thakoon delivers a collection of poise and polish with a sexy, urban edge that speaks to a true fashion enthusiast who desires instant cool in her wardrobe season after season.”
“The thing is,” explains Ilaria Urbinati, co-founder of the West Coast boutique Confederacy, “a lot of the cool, young designers these days are making such edgy and tough clothes, like Alexander Wang, PHI, Proenza [Schouler], as well as very tomboy clothes like Boy by Band of Outsiders and A.P.C. Thakoon is making sort of dreamy, very pretty, very feminine clothes that still absolutely work for the cool downtown girl because they feel very effortless. I would wear one of his floral resort dresses to run errands in the daytime with some flats and then change into some heels for a cocktail party and still feel appropriately dressed and insanely chic.”
Subsequently, if Panichgul’s approach can be summed up, it is about fusing womenswear with intelligence and muscle, injecting substance into off-the-rack separates, and bringing fashion back down to earth. As his brief cameo in The September Issue makes clear, Panichgul is likeable not just for his talent, but also his ability to be vulnerable and to relate to the masses. There are no real lofty goals or pretensions to rule American fashion for Panichgul, who has, since the movie, declined an offer to star in Project Runway. “I remember when I first started, people didn’t really come to New York,” he says. “Now people are looking to New York for direction and a lot more people are paying attention to New York. I think, and I hope, that that’s the kind of mark I’m leaving — that as part of a bigger pool of designers of this generation, what we’re all doing is different, but interesting enough and not boring.”
A few projects that Panichgul is now entertaining lie in the digital and furniture design realms. “There are artists I’d love to collaborate with,” he notes. “I think that the idea of collaborating with a fashion designer is kind of interesting.” Menswear, Panichgul adds, will have to wait (sorry, guys). He admits that as a young designer he is tasked, like his peers, with reinventing high fashion in post-recession America. “Prices are dropping, customer expectations of quality, of what is luxury are being redefined,” he sighs.
Longtime supporter Ikram Goldman, a Chicago retailer, isn’t concerned, however. “How that brand should evolve — would I like to see more dresses, sweaters, pants? — I think he’s going at the pace that he feels most comfortable and that’s what we have to honor,” says Goldman, who picked up Panichgul’s first ever produced pieces, and is widely credited with introducing the line to Michelle Obama. “I think there’s a fault in the industry that we push these young designers to take it to that level that they would otherwise never would go but would take away from what they’re capable of doing. Not that he’s not already there.”