The first thought that came to the mind of Tirapan Vanarat upon learning he had been named a national artist in the field of fashion design was: “What will I wear?”
A master of elegance, Tirapan has crafted an instantly recognisable style at the forefront of the capricious fashion business. The graceful form of his design and intricate craftsmanship are such that he was given a chance to prepare dresses for Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother for more than two decades.
Tirapan is also the artiste behind exquisite traditional Thai-style costumes that Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya wore during the Royal Coronation Ceremony last year.
The prestige and accolades, including his latest status as a national artist, are all appreciated and enjoyed. At the end of the day, however, Tirapan defines himself as a couturier, first and last.
“I have been doing this for 40 years, so the recognition does lift up my spirit. I have never expected to win any awards, though. To me this is work. I put my heart into my work so that I can do it well,” Tirapan said.
At 70, the couturier is a sprightly character. His mannerisms, gentle and courteous, are a reflection of old-world charm — the sophisticated 60s that he is so in love with.
Tirapan cited Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy as his muses but it’s his mother Chao Chomchaba who was a descendant of Chiang Mai royalties who cast the most influence on his finesse.
“As a northerner, my mother often wore a lace or cotton blouse with pha sin at home. She was so elegant. As a child, I was so proud of my mother that I wouldn’t go out of the classroom to meet her when she picked me up at school. I wanted to show my friends how beautiful my mother was,” Tirapan said.
The dressmaker recalled fondly how he would follow his mother to beauty salons and boutiques that used to line Ratchadamnoen Avenue. He would be perching on a counter adorned with a model of the Eiffel Tower and hand-shaped sculpture draped with pearl necklaces as he waited for her to finish the grooming.
When Tirapan was 12, his father Lieutenant General Juan was assigned to serve as a military attaché in South Korea. The five years of living along embassy row and witnessing one dress ball after another, complete with international diplomats in their best costumes, cemented his love affair with clothing.
Tirapan continued his studies at Assumption College in Thailand, then went on to attend high school in Maine, the United States.
At the high school, Tirapan said he was asked to do an aptitude test, whose results showed that he would be suited to become a dressmaker.
Tirapan Vanarat. Photo Courtesy of Elle Magazine
“It must have been a rather unusual result back then,” Tirapan said with a chuckle. He added that he sent the results to his parents, who unfortunately did not approve of the choice.
“My father was a military man. At that time, dressmaking was not a well-recognised profession. It was not considered honourable,” Tirapan said.
Although his parents would not allow him to study fashion, they had no objection if he would pursue a degree in arts. So Tirapan chose interior design as his major while taking fashion design as his minor.
When he came back to Thailand, he thought of being a lecturer. It’s serendipity, and devotion to his true calling, that led Tirapan back to the world of glamour where he belongs.
One day, his father had to attend a major function in Chiang Mai. At that time, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej had just granted the “royal pattern” design for men’s shirts. Tirapan volunteered to make one for his father. To compliment his father’s tan, he chose Thai silk in the colour of a lotus petal.
That royal pattern shirt became the talk of the event. It also changed Tirapan’s life.
“So many people asked my father about his outfit. That was when he could proudly say it was made for him by his son,” Tirapan said.
The good impression gave the new graduate the courage to ask for permission to further his studies in fashion design at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Tours and later on at the Geoffrin Byrs D’eshmod Guerrelavigne in Paris, France.
When he finally returned to Thailand at the age of 27, Tirapan started his first shop at his parents’ house with one sewing machine, one table and one helper. His first clientele were his mother and sisters.
His first break came when his outfits were featured in the then-popular fashion magazine Lalana. After that, he started to see more clients; many of them have remained with him through the decades.
The first House of Tirapan opened at the Oriental Plaza 40 years ago with a ready-to-wear line on offer.
“I have a consistently well-defined style — classy, elegant and well-fitted. I make sure that the outfit suits the wearer’s personality. I check which function is the dress for. If it’s a royal banquet, I want the hemline to spread out and look great during a curtsy,” Tirapan said.
A chance to redo costumes for the royal ballet Manorah marks a highlight in Tirapan’s career. The East-meets-West show is based on the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 1961 music composition. French designer Pierre Balmain designed the extravagant costumes for the main characters. The ballet was first staged in 1962 and has since been restaged on special occasions. Courtesy of Tirapan Vannarat
Contrary to many people’s impressions, Tirapan insisted that his clothes are not that prim or dainty.
“If my designs were a woman, it would be a modern female who knows how to carry herself on different occasions. It would be versatile, appropriate for day and night. Essentially, the 60s is my style. It’s in my head all the time,” Tirapan said.
His fondness of traditional Thai and ethnic textiles is evident from his many collections featuring sequinned handwoven mudmee or khit fabrics.
When he was first assigned to prepare an outfit for Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother, Tirapan chose northern tribe fabric as his material.
“I saw the Queen Mother with my outfit on the royal news. I felt so proud,” Tirapan said.
Having been in the business for more than four decades, the legendary designer is aware of lifestyle changes that affect how people dress.
“People don’t have much time these days. Everything is rushed. What’s with all the social media and chats.
“Ready-made clothes may be an answer for this age and time. But in my case, there is still a group of people who enjoy the tailor-made experience, who love going on a hunt for the right fabric and want their clothes to be one of a kind,” Tirapan said.
There is a healthy demand for his design from people who wish to wear Thai fabric without appearing so outdated. Also, Tirapan’s bridal gowns are the dream choice for many women.
Asked what’s his trade secret, surprisingly Tirapan said it’s punctuality.
“I have never failed my clients. If they are promised a fitting at 10am, they will get it even if it means we had to work all night to ensure that the dress is ready,” he said.
It’s a demanding job, but he credits his skilful and hard-working team for making it possible.
“People said I should retire now that I am 70. They said I should stop working and start enjoying myself. But I am enjoying myself now. I am happy,” Tirapan said.
He added that the national artist recognition and renewed attention it has brought means he probably will have to carry on in the job a little longer.
“It is normal for me. Life goes on. I am delighted by the recognition, but for me to do what I am doing is the greatest pleasure in my life,” Tirapan said.
Courtesy of Tirapan Vannarat