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Interview With Thai-American Fashion Designer Thakoon Panichgul

Aired December 16, 2011 - 05:30   ET



ALINA CHO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): In the cutthroat world of fashion, it's not easy to remain in vogue. But for almost a decade, Thakoon Panichgul has managed to stay ahead of the game by bringing his own twist to the classic with his well-crafted creations.

Born in Thailand, he moved to the United States at age 11, not knowing a word of English. Now, he's at home in his New York studio, creating eight collections a year. And winning the adoration of influential figures and a host of celebrity fans.

He graduated from business school, but Thakoon Panichgul turned his back on finance for a future in fashion.


CHO: First working as a writer for "Harper's Bazaar" before taking classes at the Parsons School of Design. And launching "Thakoon" the label.

Since then, his designs have been a fixture on the runways of New York. Not just reserved for the fashion elite, some of his designs have trickled down to mainstream retailers, like Target and The Gap.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're in New York with fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul as he celebrates a successful spring 2012 Fashion Week. Plus, we follow him to Tokyo where he's embracing his latest fashion passion.


CHO: Thakoon Panichgul, welcome to "Talk Asia".

PANICHGUL: Thank you for having me.

CHO: Thanks for joining us.

PANICHGUL: Thank you.

CHO: Let's talk a little bit about when you launched your collection. You launched your collection in 2004, having not really apprenticed for any other designer.

PANICHGUL: Only because I didn't get a job with any designer because I didn't have the experience.

CHO: Oh, see, now I was going to say that was maybe a path that perhaps helped you.

PANICHGUL: I think so. I think that I had the gumption to sort of make a decision early on that, you know, if I can't get a job as a designer with any other company, then I might as well just do it myself. Because I think that I had something in me that I needed. Maybe to prove that I could do this, you know?

CHO: some people might look at that and say, "I can't get a job with another designer. I must not be any good at this". And yet, you went the other way and said, "I'm good enough to launch my own label". That took a lot of guts.

PANICHGUL: You know, it does take a lot - looking back, it certainly takes a lot of guts. But at the time, I was only focused on the next day. I wasn't even thinking long term. You know? For me, it was just the job right in front of me. So, you know, I woke up and I said, "OK, I need to order fabric now". And then I woke up the next day and I said, "OK, I need to find somebody to make these things for me". So it was just really looking at the day ahead.

CHO: Did you have any idea how to run a business?

PANICHGUL: No. I mean, not at all. I mean, you know, I barely studied it in college. But, you know, business to me is common-sensical, I think. You know, and if you have it, you know you have it. I think it's, you know, you sell at a certain price to make money to sell again. It's a very common sense thing, I think.

CHO: So when you did this, you very quickly became the darling of the fashion world and you have had tremendous industry support. You know, people like - listen, there are a few kingmakers in the world of fashion. Anna Wintour is one.

PANICHGUL: Incredible, Incredible. I presented in the fall of 2004, a 10- look collection. And it was really tiny. I didn't know who was going to go, but in the end, the entire "Vogue" staff went and immediately afterwards said to me, "Can you bring the collection to Anna, we'd like to show Anna". And so that was how it sort of all began. And the next day I took it up to her and really, you know - so nervous to see her.

And just to walk in there and see her sitting there, you know, she didn't really utter a word - you know, maybe one or two, "Hi" and "Bye". But the fact that she gave me attention for 15 minutes for me to go through the collection - so, you know, I think that I was passionate enough at the time, even, that I was super focused on telling her basically what I was about in 15 minutes. And after that, I think that it was all good after that.

CHO: And then the relationship blossomed. But tell me, she gave you a critical piece of advice. She told you to take it slow.

PANICHGUL: Yes. I will never forget that. I mean, it was one of - it was in that meeting, you know. And she said, you know, "It looks fantastic. Just make sure you keep it really slow. Take it slow. You don't need to try to grow up too fast". You know, because she knows that in this industry, you know, growing up too fast means burning out as well.


PANICHGUL: I have eight sketches. I don't know how you want me to lay them out for you.

ANNA WINTOUR, EDITOR IN CHIEF, AMERICAN VOGUE: Right here. I think we ought to do one with a little sleeve.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love the little sleeve.

WINTOUR: And then, maybe one that's a dress.


CHO: You were also featured in the documentary about "Vogue" - "The September Issue". What was that like?

PANICHGUL: Honestly, it was a blur, because I knew that they were filming, but I was so busy growing the business and, you know, we were at such a different point in time, basically how it unfolded was that I had a meeting with Anna in her office and they were filming Anna. And after that, they approached me and said, you know, "We really like your story, can we film your fitting?" And I said, "Absolutely". "Oh, can we come back and film you do, you know, an interview"?


PANICHGUL: It was "Vogue" that called and said that, you know, we are working a Gap this coming-up year and we, you know, we want to launch the partnership with this concept of reworking the white shirt idea.

WINTOUR: So, I told you I'd get you the guy.

PANICHGUL: I know, I know, you got me a huge thing. Which is great. Thank you so much.


CHO: How did you feel when you saw the movie?

PANICHGUL: I was, you know, I sunk into my chair. I saw it for the first time, you know, among fashion people. You know, these people that I looked up to, you know. And so, it was really - I was embarrassed.

CHO: You were?

PANICHGUL: I was - yes. I mean, to see yourself that big. You know, I kind of sunk into my chair and I kind of - I mean, I haven't really watched it since.

CHO: Someone else who helped raise your profile tremendously is Michelle Obama. I mean, there's no question, when she puts on a dress, people pay attention.

PANICHGUL: No question.

CHO: So, on the night of the Democratic National Convention, you were at home. You had no idea she was going to walk out wearing your floral print dress, did you?

PANICHGUL: She's been a customer, you know? And she shops at this special boutique store in Chicago. And so I know that, you know, maybe there's a chance. But I, you know, she had been wearing solid colors all week and I kept thinking, "There's no way that she's going to wear a - you know, there's no way that she's going to wear something from me because all I had at the store were prints".

So I had the television on, I was cooking. And then, you know, I saw, out of the corner of my eyes, a print. And she was sitting down. And I think one of her daughters was on her lap just, sort of resting her head on her lap. And I saw the print from the neck up and I said, "There's no way, there's no way". And I looked and, sure enough, it was the dress. And, for me, that was just a huge moment. It was incredible. I mean, I was so happy. I was elated. You know, and there was just a - definitely one of the milestones in my career.


CHO: Coming up, we get a special behind the scenes look at what it takes to put on a show at New York Fashion Week.




PANICHGUL: We're about a week and a half before the show. At this point, a lot of the clothes are coming in. A lot of the actual samples are starting to come in now. We just got a big shipment in from Italy today. So, what we're doing is basically looking at the samples to see if things look the way that we want it to look. If things come in wrong, we kind of try to fix it. That's where we go into the casting or the looks process.

Can we get it on the model before we actually - we cut it?

What we do here is different - there's a whimsy quality to it. I think that there's a femininity and there's a refinement, but there's also a sense of humor that's different from, I think the other collections that are in New York. I think, you know, a lot of people do great sort of - I think that's the thing about New York. It's just there are so many individual sort of style. You know, there's cool people, there's edgy people, there's downtown, there's uptown. You know, what we do here is a bit sort of - it's a whimsical sort of feminine approach to fashion.

This looks great.

For me, inspiration for the collections come from all over the place. What is constant, though, is sort of looking on the street and seeing the way that people wear clothes - like, the clothing habits of people and the way things sort of shift from season to season.

Love it. I love it. It's so much work that goes into something and, you know, you have to do it - we do it twice a year, but we also do it - pre- collections, which is two more times. So it's four times a year that you always have to put something new, you know, out there. And so, once you see it, you're really happy that it's out there and you see it come to life and it's really an amazing feeling.

But, at the same time, it's a bit - it's a big let-down, too. Because you put so much energy into it. And so, when the show happens in like 10-12 minutes, you know, and then people leave and they go to the next show, you sort of, like, are the last person there. And then you see the space empty - it's a bit depressing. But, you know, it's all worth it. I mean, that's why we get up and do it again every season.


CHO: Congratulations on a beautiful spring 2012 collection. Let's talk a little bit about just how you started - how you got here. You moved from Bangkok to Omaha, Nebraska at the age of 11. How did you get there?

PANICHGUL: So, you know, I was born and raised in Thailand. Lived in Bangkok for most of my young years. And moved to America - to Omaha - because I had family members in the military - in the Air Force. And so, you know, at the time my aunt was living there with my Uncle who is American. My grandmother was in Omaha as well. So, it sort of naturally made sense for us to move to Omaha.

CHO: But what a shocker, culturally.

PANICHGUL: Absolutely.

CHO: You didn't - you say that you didn't know a lick of English?

PANICHGUL: I didn't know a lick of English. And, you know, and I'd never seen snow before. I'd never seen corn - that much corn in my life. And so, it was definitely a shock. But, you know, I think that it was one of those things where it kind of forced me to kind of, you know, grow really quickly and learn really quickly.

CHO: Well, I mean, listen, you say you moved from Bangkok to a place that had a population of 20,000. There wasn't much to do. You turned to fashion magazines.

PANICHGUL: Absolutely. I mean, basically, I didn't have a lot of friends, you know? I was trying to kind of learn the language, learn the culture, you know. But it was really difficult. And then I became shy because of that. And so, the only thing that I was interested in at the time was just looking at going to the bookstore, going to the newsstand. And so I would make my mom take me to the newsstand every weekend. We'd drive 40 minutes, you know, to the mall. And there was this great newsstand that had all kinds of books that I was really interested in. And then I sort of navigated towards the magazine section. And then I discovered fashion magazines. And that was when -

CHO: What was it about fashion?

PANICHGUL: I think it was just a different place, you know? At the time in Omaha, there was really nothing to do. There was just - I mean, I hate to say it now, but there was really no culture. And so, I think that the magazine gave me a sense of fantasy, a sense of going into a different place.

CHO: I want to dig deep right now and go back a little bit into your childhood and talk about your mother and your grandmother. Both seamstresses.

PANICHGUL: My mom was a seamstress. She, you know, she worked as a seamstress for, gosh, like 20 years, I think. You know, she held two jobs. You know, she had a night job as well. But basically, you know, it was just for her to go in - it was a factory job and she went in and she, you know, she sewed. And she sewed coats. And so, you know, it wasn't glamorous. It wasn't exciting. It was actually mundane and boring for her but, you know, it was - you know, I have an older brother and, you know, it was a way for her to essentially make a living.

CHO: So for her to see your success now?

PANICHGUL: It's incredible. I mean, she didn't - she always wanted me to be a - in business. I am, pretty much in business.

CHO: You are?

PANICHGUL: I'm controlling the business. So that's exciting. I mean, she comes to the show every season. She sits front row and she loves it and, you know, she really enjoys it now.

CHO: Well, I mean, listen, being of Asian descent myself, I know very well that sometimes parents can be very strict. Parents can be very influential.

PANICHGUL: Absolutely.

CHO: They didn't want you to go into fashion.

PANICHGUL: You know, it wasn't what they said as much as - as more of what they didn't say. You know, my mother was not discouraging me from going into the arts, but she certainly didn't voice her opinion that I shouldn't - that I should not do business. You know? So I was sort of - I got a scholarship to go to business school. And that was something that, you know, that I wasn't going to take lightly. And my mother didn't, sort of , let me take it lightly either. And she said, you know, "Just do it and after you're done, you can do your fashion stuff later". And so, that was what sort of led me to business school.

CHO: Let's talk a little bit about how you moved, then, from business to fashion. You decided after college you wanted to move to New York because that's where your friends were.

PANICHGUL: Exactly. You know, even in between the years at Boston University, I would come to New York during the summer and I would intern. You know, I interned once for a showroom - a fashion showroom. And I got a taste of that. I interned once for another designer and got a taste of that. And so, you know, it was in the cards for me. It wasn't - I didn't have a choice, almost. Like, I convinced myself that after college I would be in New York. Just because, you know, a given.

CHO: Where were you working at the time?

PANICHGUL: I was working at "Harper's Bazaar" Magazine.

CHO: That's right, that's right.

PANICHGUL: You know, it's one of those things where I kind of fell into the job. I started off as an assistant in the fashion features department. And in the writing department. I never wanted to write. In fact, I felt insecure about writing because it's my second language. I mean, now it's - you know, I speak it much better than I do Thai, but at the time I just - I felt like this insecurity. But it gave me a lot of opportunities to really learn about fashion and to really have an editor's point of view. You know, how to edit. I think it's a talent that everyone should sort of have. And it's something that everyone should do.


CHO: Coming up, we head to Tokyo as Thakoon checks out his latest fashion line.




PANICHGUL: I that jewelry is always something that people, you know, that designers are always interested in. I think it is part of clothing the woman. You know, I think that when you start to talk about fashion design, you can't help but think about the complete look, which, you know, are shoes, bags, eyewear, scents, and jewelry is certainly a part of that. I think that it's a natural thing to want to be, you know, designing everything around the woman.

When this came along, you know, I - it was something that was very exciting to me, because I'd never done jewelry before. And so, I wanted to challenge myself a little bit. The fun of making jewelry for me is when you see the end result. And you see that it - you know, your vision has come to this three dimensional thing and see how beautiful it actually becomes and it comes to life, you know?

The other fun part of my job is to kind of push, a little bit. Because, you know, they have a fantastic hand. They've been working here for so long - the technicians here - and they really know their craft. And so, for me, it's really pushing them into new ideas - into the impossible, sometimes. And that's sometimes the most exciting part for me. That's the fun part. Because I really get to just sort of see the mind at work.


CHO: I want to talk about Asian designers. Why do you think so many of you have been so successful?

PANICHGUL: For me, I think that Asians have always been in the background of fashion, you know? If you go to a lot of fashion houses in New York, in London, in Paris, in Milan, you see a lot of Asians sort of working in the back, you know? And they're pattern making and they're sewing. And, you know, it's only - you know, it would make sense for them to kind of come forward. I think that one begets the other, you know?

I think that it certainly - you know, when I was coming up, you know, Derek Lam had launched his collection and you see that, you know, you know, if one Asian designer can make it, maybe you can too. It's that mentality, I think, of, you know, "If you can do it, I can as well".

CHO: Listen, you haven't had many bad reviews, but how important are the reviews to you?

PANICHGUL: You know, they are important. You know, but the older that I get, the more that I do this, you kind of deal with them in a way that is - you're at peace with them. You know, so in the beginning I remember reading every single review. You know, and certainly now I don't. You know, I only read a handful. And then, even after a certain day, I just kind of don't even look at the press anymore.

CHO: You were 28 when you launched your collection. You're now 37. What more do you want to do? You've done a lot.

PANICHGUL: I mean, it sounds like I've been doing it for a long time, but in fact I think that, you know, I have a lot more to give. I think, you know, I have a lot more to build. Designers that I look up to have been around for many years and they continue to chip away at their vision. And, you know, they've carved a world for themselves. And that's the kind of path that I want to take.

CHO: You are just getting started in a lot of ways. There are some jobs available. For instance, the creative director of Christian Dior. What do you think about a job like that?

PANICHGUL: It would scare me.

CHO: Really?

PANICHGUL: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, certainly would be an intimidating job. You know, when I was younger, I dreamed of working in Paris. And I still, you know, wish that I had, you know. But it certainly would be an intimidating place to work, let alone to take up a couture house like Christian Dior. I think that, you know, you have to really want it. And I'm not sure that that's something that I would want.

CHO: I want to ask you about celebrities wearing your clothes. Of course, you have Michelle Obama. Who's bigger than that? But you also have Sarah Jessica Parker, you have Demi Moore, Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman - do you still get excited every time you see one of those starlets wearing your clothes?

PANICHGUL: I mean, all the time. You know, I was excited when I saw Marion Cotillard wearing a dress of mine. You know, she's, you know - she wears Dior and that's all she wears. The fact that she wore a Thakoon was really exciting. So, you know, I do. I mean, you know, I'm a product of pop culture as well. You know, I grew up, you know, loving celebrities. You're in America, how can you not?

So it's exciting, you know, when I see Charlize Theron - when I hear that, you know, she wears - she buys the clothes a lot. You know, even though she's not photographed in them, she wears them. I mean, that is also very exciting. To know that, you know, these celebs are actually buying and wearing the clothes. I mean, I would much rather hear that sometimes than to hear that, you know, somebody's wearing something to the Oscars.

CHO: Can you put it into words how gratifying it's been that you've had as much success as you've already had at the age of 37?

PANICHGUL: You know, it's enormously gratifying. But I don't sit here and reflect on it that much. Because, when I do, then you kind of - then you lose momentum or you kind of lose the drive. For me, I just kind of - I see the next day. I see the next project and I kind of hang on to that because I know that it keeps me going and keeps me excited. You know, I think to kind of reflect and to kind of - and look back - I kind of get really emotional because it's, you know - you do get excited. You do realize, you know, "Wow, you've done this, you know, in a short amount of time". And it's a business. Now you've made a successful business, but at the same time, I don't want to rest on that. You know, I want to continue to build it.

CHO: Thakoon Panichgul, thank you for joining us.

PANICHGUL: Thank you so much.

CHO: It's been a pleasure.

PANICHGUL: Thank you.