Making ‘Made in Thailand’ Fashionable

April 17, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

NEW YORK—Think of fashion manufacturing in Asia and Made-in-China cheap inevitably comes to mind, along with all the ethical misgivings that come with it. Thailand is hoping to challenge such perceptions by becoming a manufacturing base known for quality, design, and reliability. What’s more, it’s aiming to do so in an environmentally friendly way.

Actually, the tropical nation has come a long way already in this aspiration. Its most notable breakthrough thus far is in eco-fashion, ingeniously using recycled natural materials.

At the Bangkok International Fashion Fair and Bangkok International Leather Fair last month in Bangkok, hundreds of exhibitors from Thailand showed off a wide variety of goods from textiles, womenswear, sportswear, footwear, luggage, jewelry, accessories, to machinery and chemicals.

Quality and Design

The fairs (abbreviated as BIFF&BIL), are an annual event by Thailand’s Department of International Trade Promotion Ministry of Commerce (DITP). They are a place for suppliers and buyers, traders and designers to meet. The DITP was on hand to play matchmaker between businesses.

Somdet Susomboon is executive director of the Thai Trade Center New York, which, along with its affiliates in Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago, serve as the DITP’s American presence.

His office’s chief tasks are matching buyers outside Thailand with exporters inside Thailand, looking for trade and investments opportunities for business people on both sides, and promoting the country’s image as supplier of high quality, reliable products at reasonable prices. The BIFF&BIL fairs are a culmination of those efforts.

“Thailand cannot compete with labor cost advantage. So we need to emphasize quality, design, uniqueness.” Susomboon said. “Thai people’s craftsmanship is delicate. This our strength.”

Historically, because of low labor costs, Thailand catered to the fashion industry by providing the parts of garments—fabric, trims, closures—but not the finished garment.

As wages and quality of life rose, so Thailand became a not-so-attractive option for Western fashion companies looking for cheap labor. In the ’80s, when China’s cadres opened up doors to the West, designers flocked to its factories to have their goods produced. The DITP saw orders to Thai manufacturers drop.

Since then, the Thai government, working with local designers and makers, have developed the industry to be able to handle a variety of manufacturing , from upstream to downstream.

As the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is expected to be fully integrated by the end of 2015, Thailand’s fashion industry will see new opportunities and challenges. Covering 16 countries, the AEC will be the world’s largest free-trade cooperative, according to the Asia Foundation. In exchange for having better access to the regional markets, Thailand’s small- to mid-scale enterprises will face the challenges of increasing their productivity, skill levels, and language proficiency (English will be the AEC’s dominant language) in order to compete. 

The Potential of Green

Fashion is still too small a part of Thailand’s exports to register a blip on the economic data available online

According to Susomboon, garment exports from Thailand accounts 1–2 percent of total exports, which is $3 billion a year. Exports to the U.S. market are valued at $1 billion annually, of which 30–35 percent are garments. He said it’s been steady at these rates for a few years now.

“[We] Would like to move to higher value added to the products by design or new innovative materials,” he said.

Bandid Pongsarojanavit, managing director at TNC Textile, helms of one of the companies developing these innovative materials. Turning to Thailand’s local plants, TNC works with researchers to discover uses for fibers that would normally have gone to waste in the food processing industry.

“We bring the leftovers from the agricultural products which are edible, take the inedible parts to optimum utilization,” he wrote via email. Examples include pineapple leaves and roots, lotus stems, galangal stems, banana stems, lemongrass, betel nuts, and sugar palm. His goal is “to get the fiber by applying green processes so we can utilize all of it, to zero waste.”

Most of these fibers have the naturally wick moisture away feature, are anti-bacterial, insect-repellent, UV-blocking, and nonallergenic, Pongsarojanavit said. This makes them ideal for sportswear and home goods.

“Thailand is in a tropical area, and has plenty of plants which can give not only fibers,” Pongsarojanavit wrote. “Resources are still abundant; [it’s] just a matter of optimum utilization.” Pongsarojanavit estimates that Thailand produces over 6 million tons annually in pineapple leaves, and another 6 million tons of roots.

The challenge is to “industrialize and commercialize these fibers to be competitive and marketable,” he said. While fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp have been developed as industries, Thailand’s local fibers are only now coming into their own.

“It needs collaboration [in every step] from farmers to customers. This is the biggest challenge for all of us,” Pongsarojanavit wrote.

The Challenge of Marketing

The other big challenge is global recognition. So far, in the minds of most Western consumers, “Thailand” and “fashion” are not closely related concepts.

A 2000 New York Times article noted the burgeoning of Thailand’s brand-name fashion manufacturing. At that time, while more than 95 percent of Thai-produced garments sold domestically carried a Thai brand name, just 5 percent of exports carried one.

The challenge continues to be one of marketing. Young Thai designers with improved access to fashion education are increasingly rising in the ranks of design houses at home and abroad. The talent and potential is there, Susomboon said, but people just don’t know about it yet.

“We try to encourage young talented designers to go overseas to the international market, participate in competitions and trade fairs. Sometimes they create their own brand names, but people don’t know that the brand is Thai because they name their brands something Italian or French,” Susomboon said. But he understands the impetus. “Thai names are complicated.”

It’s true. Just take a look at The Culture Trip’s list of top 10 Thai fashion designers to watch. Disaya Sorakraikitikul. Monrissa Leenutaphong. Tipayaphong Poosanaphong. Most of the names are total tongue twisters.

But then again, that’s the beauty of branding and marketing—with it, one can turn the most obscure name and make it part of the vernacular. The effort will take the whole Thai industry—as Pongsarojanavit put it, “from farmer to customer”—to brand their products, and put “Made in Thailand” on them with pride. And for Western consumers to take notice.