A lot of people make a living weaving their childhood dreams, but the same cannot be said for heiress of pakhaoma (traditional checkered loincloth) business Nattawan Kamolkittipong, who confessed she grew up disliking the old-fashioned cloth because it was not fashionable.
Taking a journey back to her childhood, she said that her mother would turn the fabric into almost anything, from shorts and pillow cases to curtains. "Honestly, I didn't like it because it just looked old and boring. Admittedly it was very soft and comfortable, but at that age I cared more about style, so I didn't give pakhaoma time of the day," said Nattawan.
After graduation, she spent 5 years working in an advertising agency until she felt that she wanted to do something of her own. With suggestion by her boyfriend (Krittin Taweepoljaroon), she took another look at her family business and had an idea - giving pakhaoma a new look.
The reason for venturing into this unusual business was pretty simple - it is a good thing that is slipping away with time. "I wanted to bring it back to life, since traditionally pakhaoma was so important in Thai people's daily life. Now it has no place in the urban lifestyle because the patterns and the colours are not appealing. We gave it a face lift and redesigned it our own way," said the brain behind the brand Pakamian.
She saw potential in the trend for home decor, so one of the first ranges of product was pillows, and she later expanded her product line to answer to other aspects of lifestyle. It was quite a rare sight, colourful checkered fabric in various forms - teddy bears, scarves, skirts, cushions and bags, displayed against the calm and subdued grey walls. Her first shop at Festival Walk (on Kaset-Nawamin Road) was an instant hit, attracting a lot of interest from both Thais and foreigners.
Her products draw attention from Thais because it still looks like pakhaoma, but with a different mood and tone. "Most traditional pakhaoma patterns only have plain, primary colours, so I added more colours and adapted the patterns, using Illustrator to find which colours would best complement each other, and in which pattern."
As with any work of art, computer can only help to a certain extent. She has to rely on her experienced weavers' skills and consult with them whether this combination is a good idea, and whether it is possible.
When she said "whether it is possible" she also added that sometimes it is impossible. Different types of threads mean sometimes the longitudinal threads and the lateral threads, or the warp and the weft, don't go well together. Thankfully, this is where her father's expertise comes in handy. He taught her all about the trade and the threads, equipping her with enough know-how to run her business today.
The result of her hard work is eye-catching products that are both reminisce of pakhaoma and a modern design. Her style is so unique that if she sees someone using her product, she would recognise it right away. "And sometimes I run after them just to make sure it's really mine. I am just so proud of it," said the owner with a laugh.
Initially she had expected that her customers would be female first-jobbers, because she felt that a person who would use pakhaoma pattern would have to be quite confident and not very mainstream. Surprisingly, in reality, her products are greeted with equal enthusiasm from teenagers as well.
Her first shop opened in October 2010, and the success prompted her to open another branch at Asiatique. By the end of the year, there will be another Pakamian en route to Hua Hin, offering unique, usable souvenirs. At present her products are also exported to Spain, Italy, France and Japan, and she has developed quite a loyal fan base in those countries. About 35% of her business revenue comes from sales overseas.
There is actually higher demand from other countries, but since it is just Nattawan and her boyfriend, two people not experienced in export, they have to take it slow and not bend over backward just to make money. "We are learning it bit by bit from our experience. We are growing slowly but surely," said the smiling entrepreneur.
Formerly, she had made-to-order services for clients who wanted specific things such as extra large cushion, but now that her business is booming, she has to put that service on hold for now. "Unfortunately I don't have time for special requests, but I am hoping to offer that again once everything is up and running."
She believes that there is room for growth, as the idea is quite new, and she has not run out of inspiration yet. On the contrary, the more she does it, the more ideas come to her. "First, people might not be familiar with seeing pakhaoma pattern on other products, but once they see that it does not look old-fashioned, they are more willing to try. I guarantee that our 100% cotton pakhaoma is very comfortable, and our scarves are selling very well because they are soft and breathable. Speaking of comfort and being ideal for Thailand's climate, I think pakhaoma is second to none. I'm glad I'm bringing it back to popularity among Thai urbanites," she said.
Although she is aware that her patterns are not difficult to copy, she is confident that the quality is not easy to emulate. She also has the upper hand in experience and cost, since she is using her father's factory for production, so there is no factory set-up cost.
She is hoping that her attempt that reviving pakhaoma will change some people's perception. "A lot of people do not value pakhaoma, thinking it is cheap and old-fashioned. It is actually a very versatile fabric, and is something that is very Thai. Take another look at it, feel it, use it, and I am sure you will find it just as appealing as I do."
About the author
- Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Outlook Writer