A homage to style at its grandest
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A homage to style at its grandest

'It's not just about how you dress," says Patsri Bunnag when asked what it meant to have style. "Style comes from all that you've seen in life ... all that surrounds you."

A new exhibition, Mon Art du Style (my art of style), which is a pun in Thai meaning "look at art, see style", at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, will attempt to convey Patsri's definition of "style" by showing her clothes and accessories together with works of art from the museum's collection.

Mit Jai In, Untitled, 2010. Pleats Please Issey Miyake top. Monies necklace. Lik Sriprasert

A few months before her passing in 2015, Patsri complained that she had "too many old clothes" and did not know what to do with them. She wanted to give some of them away when someone casually suggested that she should show them in a museum. Patsri laughed off the thought, saying "who would want to see some old clothes?"

A year later, when the exhibition organisers discovered what these "old clothes" really were, "our jaws dropped".

The organisers explained that they had expected to see black Yohji jackets and pleated Issey Miyake pieces and the perfectly draped Amin Kader trousers (these staples of her later wardrobe are the equivalent of a worn T-shirt and jeans for the rest of us). And they were there, rack after rack of the very best ones. Not your usual "ladies who lunch" "Isseys" but collector items.

Niti Wattuya, Man in gold #6(detail), 1998. Lanvin twinse, circa 1970-1980. PP Eyewear by Ron Arad glasses. Lotus Arts de Vivre necklace, 2000. Lik Sriprasert

But there were also piles of veritable vintage gems from the likes of Dior, Tirapan, Gianfranco Ferré, Hermès and Comme des Garçons.

Jakkai Siributr, BpB, 2017. Issey Miyake Fete jacket. Traditional Thai ‘mor hom’ top and trousers. Photo by Lik Sriprasert (Exhibits from the private collection of Pa tsri Bunnag)

While most were from commercial, ready-to-wear lines rather than custom-made "couture" creations, none were "ordinary".

There was an amazing gold and dark red Lanvin knit twin-set, a Saint Laurent Rive Gauche dress with sparkly rhinestone buttons, a fabulous Christian Lacroix pantsuit with gold appliqués, Nagara silk robes featuring prints by Thawan Duchanee -- the list goes on.

It became obvious that a lot of people would be thrilled to see some of her "old clothes".

And then there are the accessories -- a ravishing array of veritable art objects -- from architectural statement pieces by Jamjaras Suchiva to exquisite creations by Dinakara and Lotus Arts de Vivre, not to mention hundreds of pairs of glasses, all uniquely striking.

But the exhibition organisers said they didn't just want to show "clothes" or "fashion". "We wanted to show 'style'," they said.

The organisers said they wanted to show that having style -- the kind of unique, no-nonsense style that Patsri had -- is indeed an art form.

More profoundly, the show is intended to show how "style" and "art" fit into a larger context or world view.

Patsri, like her husband Jean Michel Beurdeley and son Eric Booth, was an avid art lover and collector whose passion for art led to the founding of their private museum in Chiang Mai.

Patsri Bunnag was among the first generation of Thai fashion models. photo courtesy of MAIIAM

Unlike most of today's contemporary art collections, especially those of a museum, which must follow a certain conceptual logic or theoretical "protocol" in acquiring pieces to "complete" the larger collection -- rather than for their own individual appeal or merit -- MAIIAM's collection is basically one family's private art collection.

It is an art collection with a deeply personal point of view, and a strong visual, emotional and conceptual coherence, not unlike Patsri's fashion collection.

In this respect the exhibition is meant to be experienced as an intimate journey into a particular aesthetic vision, especially how art simultaneously inspires and becomes an integral part of a personal sense of style and way of thought.

Mon Art du Style aims to demonstrate how the expression of style is not just about "fashion" or "clothes", but reflects a more profound belief system and way of life.

Through the juxtaposition of garment and artwork, this unique exhibition shows the visual, emotional and often poetic dialogue of "art" and "style" and how together they express a larger aesthetic vision.

The clothes and artworks are presented together thematically -- largely based on their visual or cultural resonance rather than any historical or chronological order, according to the show organisers.

Artworks shown here, like the garments and accessories, are visually strong, and speak to the viewer more viscerally or emotionally than conceptually.

Rather than subtracting or distracting from the meaning of the art, the presence of the clothes adds a sense of fleeting poignancy. If artworks are immortalised emblems of human ideas, the garments and silhouettes imply the presence of its mortal admirer.

Artworks, including those by such notable figures of Thai contemporary art as Montien Boonma, Pinaree Sanpitak, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Chatchai Puipia, Niti Wattuya and Navin Rawanchaikul, were chosen for their colours, forms, textures, the emotions that they express, as well as their possibility of creating a "dialogue" with the clothes.

Through this "dialogue" a certain aesthetic vision -- or "style" -- emerges.

MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum’s gleaming exterior is the latest art nerve centre in Chiang Mai. photo courtesy of MAIIAM

As the exhibition title states, the viewers can expect to "look at art, see style", according to the team putting together the show.

One work of art created especially for this exhibition pushes even further the boundaries between garment and artwork. Jakkai Siributr created BpB out of traditional Thai mor hom and Pleats Please Issey Miyake tops and trousers worn by Patsri. These staples of her everyday wardrobe were cut up and re-stitched by hand into a richly textured quilt.

At once an intimate portrait of its fabrics' former wearer and an abstract composition, the piece represents a metamorphosis of garment into art, a transfiguration of the private and personal into a universal and immortal object.

The title is a "monogram" of "Patsri Bunnag", a tongue-in-cheek reference to luxury label logos as well as a poignant homage to her legacy.

Patsri Bunnag was a style icon, not only because she owned a remarkable collection of designer pieces but because she knew how to make those pieces uniquely "hers".

Whether in one of her signature Issey Miyake ensembles, a deconstructed Yohji Yamamoto jacket paired with an over-sized sculpture of a necklace, or a traditional indigo dyed mor hom top, Patsri's personality always shone brighter than what she wore.

The slicked back hair pulled tight into her signature chignon, the geometric glasses -- like artful objects framed by her angular face, and the unmistakable way she wore her clothes -- one could spot her instantly among an A-list crowd.

Her wardrobe was a covetable list of influential designer labels, yet Patsri's style was never about brands. She had an inimitable look; a unique vision which daringly yet effortlessly matched what seemed at first glance to be from opposite ends of the fashion spectrum. Not just anyone can elegantly pair an Hermès Birkin with traditional Thai fisherman pants; or a high street brand scarf with a sculptural leather jacket.

Fashion ran deep within Patsri. A grand niece of Chao Chom Iam, one of King Chulalongkorn's favourite royal consorts, who raised her father Terd Bunnag, Patsri studied in Switzerland before spending most of her life between Paris and Bangkok. Admired for her unique beauty and natural elegance, Patsri was a famous model and fashion journalist. Her boutique "Something Different" was one of Bangkok's first to import the latest European designs.

Patsri not only had the unique ability to mix different designers, volumes, textures and cultural references, she also knew exactly what she liked and what suited her.

She exuded the total confidence in her own innate vision reserved for those rare "icons" of style.

Her singular sense of style reflected her keen eye; a vision finely honed through years in Paris and decades of appreciating and living with art.

As she said, style isn't just about what you wear, but how you live, and what you love.

As she elegantly summed up, "style is a way of thinking".

Mon Art du Style, at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, from Feb 26-June 15.

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